Rational Fiction as Narrative Focus

Preamble (you can skip this)

/r/plotholes is one of my least favorite subreddits, mostly because there simply aren’t that many plotholes in popular films and books. What the sub gets filled with instead, as often pointed out by commenters there, are questions that seek explanation or clarification of the plot, or questions that point out things that weren’t explained within the text but don’t actually create a logical hole in the plot.

In some cases, when there are legitimate plot holes, the fixes that would be necessary are utterly trivial. All the creator would have had to have done would be to include a throwaway line to resolve the ‘plothole’, such as having a character look at their phone and say, “great, out of battery”. I’m usually pretty sympathetic to creators here, since lines like that are clunky and can interrupt the flow of a scene. They get added mostly so that people aren’t left wondering why the obvious thing hasn’t been tried, and in their absence, most people would be able to make up their own justification from a pile of possible justifications. Those lines also sometimes call attention to contrivances of the plot, ruining suspension of disbelief when the audience notes that of course the cell phone doesn’t work, because that’s just not how it happens in horror movies.

(Lest you think that I think these single clunky lines are the only way to resolve these issues, I’ll acknowledge that they’re not, and a better writer will find a way of making their explanations look naturalistic. If you need the character to be without their cell phone in the second act, then maybe part of building a sense of dread in the first act is having mysterious calls with no one on the other end, one of which causes the character to unplug their phone. Or maybe a chase scene or fight scene can end with a jacket being ripped off, taking the cell phone in the pocket with it. The purpose is still the same, answering why the character didn’t use their cell phone, but it’s at least woven into the story in a way that doesn’t make immediately obvious that this is a matter of narrative necessity.)

When approaching a story, people can only be sure of the things that are presented to them, and sometimes not even then. Explanations that take place outside the ability of a reader to see or infer them might as well not exist. For this reason, I tend to think of rational fiction as having a good deal to do with where the narrative focus is placed. Here are some examples and thought experiments.

Counter-rational 1: Technobabble

Here’s a very short story with a bunch of technobabble:

A wizard walked his way into the woods to have a picnic, and after eating his way through a delightful meal of roast beast and a drink of fizzing paldrick, his mesmerphone playing a lilting tune in the background, he got up to return back the way he came … only to find that he had somehow lost his bearings.

The sun was obscured by clouds, and while the wizard had heard that ether crystals always pointed toward the south, he wasn’t able to find any. He sat and thought for a moment, trying to figure out a way out of this predicament, until he realized that all the tools for his salvation were on hand. He took apart the mesmerphone, detaching the thaumulator, rubbed a mirkwood twig on it several times, and set it in a small dish. After a few moments, it aligned with the local ley lines, letting him know the correct direction to walk in to find the edge of the forest, and his way back home.

It’s debatable whether or not this is nonsense. As a story, it’s not terribly good, because while there are small stakes, a conflict, and a resolution, what the wizard is doing is completely opaque to the reader (there are other problems with it, but that’s the big one). Technobabble is glue that holds together a premise, and maybe there’s some giant setting/story bible behind it and it all somehow makes sense, but if there’s not enough there for the reader to grasp how or why things are working, then you lose much of the oomph.

Here’s the same story, in the real world:

An engineer walked his way into the woods to have a picnic, and after eating his way through a delightful meal of a sandwich and half a bottle of champagne, his radio playing a lilting tune in the background, he got up to return back the way he came … only to find that he had somehow lost his bearings.

The sun was obscured by the clouds, and while the engineer had heard that moss grew on the north side of trees, he wasn’t able to find any. He sat and thought for a moment, trying to figure out a way out of this predicament, until he realized that all the tools for his salvation were on hand. He took apart the radio, detaching the magnet in the speaker, and rubbed a needle on it several times before piercing the cork from the champagne and setting it in a small cup of water. After a few moments, it aligned to magnetic north, letting him know the correct direction to walk in to find the edge of the forest, and his way back home. 

This is essentially the same story, but I’ll make the bold claim that this one is close to being what we call rational fiction, and the only difference between the two is that the “technobabble” has the setting/story bible exposed to the reader. It’s not entirely clear within the story itself, but if you added a few details to the second paragraph, you could make the actual thought process of the character, revealed through what they did, explicit: radio speakers work through the use of magnets, so you can magnetize any relatively straight piece of metal, push it through (or set it on top of) something like a cork that floats, and wait until it aligns with magnetic north, because that’s how you make a crude science-fair-level compass.

From this, I think we can see one of the principle things that defines rational fiction (in the sense that people talk about it): it’s not about some nebulous background consistency, because for all you know, the first example is consistent, it’s about knowing and understanding, as the reader, what’s going on at the object level.

Counter-rational 2: Brain Parasites

Tropes get used for a reason, and that reason is usually that they serve some useful purpose to the story. The cliche of having a dying person deliver a monologue and then immediately perish exists because it’s a good way of delivering information to protagonists, tugging at emotional strings, and closing off narrative/character threads. It doesn’t match up terribly well with reality, and for that reason it’s a common trope to parody or subvert, but it’s probably not a trope that’s going to become passe anytime soon.

So let’s say that you want to use and abuse the tropes anyway. That’s where brain parasites come in.

You can’t use brain parasites to justify every tropey thing that happens, but you can use them for a lot of things. People having poor communication skills, poor impulse control, poor information retention, etc., all can be explained away by brain parasites, which get mentioned at the start of the story and then never again. If you don’t want to use brain parasites, then you can use some other rule, one which explains why things are the way they are, and beats the world into coherence while at the same time allowing exploitation of useful tropes. The extreme end of this, which I’ve actually seen used, is that the world is reckoned to run on tropes.

Now, for this counterfactual, it’s necessary that these explanations don’t interact with the story in any other way, and aren’t used for humor or irony (for example). People aren’t fighting against these brain parasites or these trope engines, or even aware of them, that’s just a part of how the world works, and this frame only exists to justify these tropes.

It would be my contention that putting a brain parasite or trope world frame around a story would not make it a rational story, even if it provides an explanation for how and why otherwise inexplicable things happen, and even if it does this in a way that doesn’t strain suspension of disbelief. It would be bad storytelling, yes, but it would also be missing an essential element of inner thought and/or attention to the object level of what’s happening in the story. The brain parasites are being used to resolve “plot holes” or character actions that appear inconsistent, but they don’t actually provide the story with more than what was already there. Romantic comedies do not become rational fiction by virtue of brain parasites offering an explanation for all the drama.

Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t include the trope world as part of a rational story, and I can think of a number that do, but in the cases I’m thinking of, it’s integrated.

From this, I would conclude that explanations used to patch stories are largely not what rational fiction is about, and I would extend this to lesser (and less absurd) cases like the addition of a line or two to explain why a character forgot or lost their cell phone.

Counter-rational 3: The Narrative Frame

A story is a sequence of events as presented to the reader. Typically this will include a conflict with stakes and its resolution. However, lots of stories involve many aspects to a conflict, and the lens (which angle we’re viewing things from) or focus (what we’re viewing) or frame (what structure is around events) of a story can be wildly different even with the same strict set of events. I think you see this most often in media about famous people or events, where there are intellectual processes and events, and little of that gets exposed to the reader, with the focus and lens instead being placed in the direction of stirring emotional beats or narrative sympathies. There are some good reasons for this, largely owing to audience, but also partly owing to the difficulties inherent in working within logical structures, which you have to explain to the audience before you can use them as part of the resolution.

Imagine a scene on the bridge of a starship, and a captain who is going up against a well-prepared adversary. The critical choice comes down to whether or not the captain will abide by the laws of the federation he’s a part of, or whether he will interfere and risk combat against the adversary in order to liberate a group of slaves. In some versions of this series of events, this might have the thinkiness that I would associate with rational fiction, but in others, it might just be a focus on the internal conflict that the captain is experiencing, torn between his oath of duty to the federation and the need to do something about a clear and obvious evil.

At any rate, the captain makes his choice, to save the slaves and fight. Maybe we get a view inside his head one way or another, maybe we don’t, but after that decision is made, it comes down to the fight, with all the separate systems of the ship and all the crew members having to work together to defeat the enemy, or at least escape with minimal damage.

There are lots of ways you can depict this, even if all the literal, object-level events are the same. A big portion of this, with regards to whether or not this constitutes rational fiction, is just a matter of how self-evident the thought is. Another big portion is how much we can get inside the heads of those doing the thinking, how clear their processes of thought are, and how much that can transfer to the reader. You could write two stories that were about the same events from two different viewpoints, one of which would be rational fiction, the other of which would not be, simply by virtue of where the focus is being placed.

Rational Fiction is a function of reader experience

I won’t say that rational fiction is exclusively a function of focus, lens, or frame, but I do think that’s most of it, at least as the term gets used in practice. For a given sequence of events, the actual story can be wildly shaped by what the prose chooses to highlight and what it elides. Having consistent rules and characters within a story is prerequisite, but it’s not enough, because even if you have consistent rules, you’re not necessarily putting thought into the spotlight, you’re just avoiding some of the pitfalls that come from not having the groundwork laid out.

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Rational Fiction as Narrative Focus

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