The Physics of Storytelling

Arthur Dent once fell our of a cup suspended thirteen miles above ground level.  The cup, explained the bird who had caught him, was held in 13 miles above the ground as part of the statue Arthur Dent Throwing the Nutrimatic Cup. It was held there by art.  “It stays there because it’s artistically right. The law of gravity isn’t as indiscriminate as people often think.”

Since recording the Fusion Patrol podcast on Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol I have been thinking a lot about the air fish.  If you haven’t seen it, there were shoals of fish – and a shark – swimming in the air (supposedly in the ice clouds).  They resonated with me, pehaps partly because when I was five the only things I remember giving me nightmares were Doctor Who and Jaws, but mostly because they were really, really cool. And I realise we didn’t discuss what absolute nonsense the “explanation” for what they were doing there was. It is nonsense, but I think it doesn’t matter, we accept them there because they are artistically right.  They please us.

In storytelling, and in science fiction especially, when the bounds of everyday observable physics are stretched there will be a scientific or pseudo scientific explanation.  In fact, this is no more than the need in fiction generally to frame the fiction with reference to our everyday experiences.  Thus a political thriller (whether House of Cards or 24) will take the reality of a systems and procedures of politics to frame an alternate president or prime the world of Harry Potter, although there is a magical platform 12 3/4, it is framed within the King’s Cross we know, this part of the reality is carried over.  Although the magic, like all the events in the story, is completely made up, we expect to recognise characteristics, interaction and behaviour of those who people it. A lecturer in my undergrad days, Andrew Harrison, illustrated his concept of “fictional frames” by telling a story of a fire breathing dragon who rode an open topped bus around Clifton.  There are parts we recognise, where we fill in the details, and the made up parts need – if not to be explained – to be  well bounded.  We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty, just like Douglas Adams’ fictional Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Bodies.

Some of these explanations, or indulgences of the imagination, like the space fish in Doctor Who: Vampires of Venice serve as scaffolding for the story. In that case the story is Rory’s adventure with Amy and the Doctor, which was enjoyable because of the witty dialogue, rather than the plot or the pretext.  If the scaffolding is poor it can ruin a story, but on its own good scaffolding is not enough.  And if we spend our time pondering on these explanations, it is because the story has failed in some other way (contrast the air fish with the water man in Man From Atlantis in which I ended up focussing on how he could speak or radio underwater).  The laws of storytelling also demand the plotting, characterisation and the pacing of the story hold our attention – sometimes the momentum can carry us past some suspect piece of technobabble (‘reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’).

But this is the engineering of storytelling.  It’s about getting the nuts and bolts in the right place.  The thing about the air fish, is this: it was such a joyful leap of the imagination; so pleasurably dreamlike; so beautiful to see them swimming around a lamppost that as viewers we wanted them to be there, to be real within the fictional frame of the story, and to defy the physics of reality.  That was what made those fish buoyant, not something engineered, but a pure force of storytelling as powerful as thrust or gravity in the familiar physics of daily life.

I like air fish.  Air fish are cool.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

4 thoughts on “The Physics of Storytelling

  1. Oh, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t pose a counter-point. 🙂

    During that same podcast, I mentioned how I have always disliked Christmas specials, but I didn’t really go into the details of why I don’t like them as a rule.

    There are several reasons, but one of the reasons is that many of them suspend the reality of the show that frames them. From everything to sitcoms to crime dramas, TV Show Christmas specials “step outside” the real world that they’ve created and present us with a world where suddenly, Santa Claus is real, ghosts are real or miracles are real. The rest of the time the worlds exist more or less consistent with the world we live in (or, even not) but when Christmas rolls around reality gets tossed (sometimes just further) out the window. When the show returns to normal programming, reality returns to baseline normal, and it’s all forgotten. Can you imagine the world returning to normal if you’d actually witnessed a miracle on December 25th?

    Stories must at least try to present an internally consistent framework of reality – even if that framework is unreal.

    It’s one thing for a movie, which is self-contained must stand solely on its own merits to shape a reality that is appropriate and internally consistent. I am perfectly willing to accept flying fish in Bed Knobs and Broomsticks or Harry Potter and the Deathly Fishies because they are worlds where magic is real, and flying fish (as presented in DW-ACC) are magic.

    But it’s another thing for a TV series to present inconsistent reality from episode to episode. It is appropriate for the show as a whole to present a reasonably consistent framework of reality.

    Let’s carry it to the extreme and use a self-contained movie as an example. Can you imagine, if you’d gotten to the climactic end of Jaws, where the boat was sinking underneath them and suddenly Roy Scheider pulled a magic wand out of his pocket and flew the boat to safety?

    No, of course not. The audience would have been cheated. This is not a question of obsessive nerd fans versus general audiences. Everyone has a need for a stable, consistent framework for their own sake of reference.

    Doctor Who is not a hard science fiction program, but we could call it a “scientifical fiction” program. Even when they deal with things like ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, they are presented with completely bogus trappings of science.

    The fish were nice, fun and important to the story and I wouldn’t want them removed, but the line about the fishes using “electrical currents” wasn’t even a half-assed attempt to justify their existence.

    If they’d just made the fish a little different than their Earth-based, underwater relatives (and, how could they possibly be considered “relatives” having evolved on a whole ‘nother world?). Maybe make some concessions in the shape of their fins (eg, making them larger) to make it seem like they were in some way adapted for living in an environment that is considerably less dense than water.

    They could easily have still been made to be recognizably fish or sharks and yet be different enough to ease our fractured sense of reality.

    A long-running TV show like Doctor Who has a difficult time presenting a consistent reality, especially when so much of it is made up nonsense anyway, but it shouldn’t be argued that the needs of the story outweigh the needs of framework – if the framework is already established.

    Consistent reality is difficult, but it matters, and people do notice.

    Can we all say, “Blinovitch Limitation Effect?”

    1. A carelessly built story will sink as certainly as a carelessly built boat, so I entirely agree with your point about Jaws. But this is about story engineering, it’s the deus ex machina resolution: of course we’d feel cheated by a story constructed in this way. It needn’t be about the magic wand: the story would sink just as surely if there were some psychological inconsistency – if Schneider’s character had suddenly become suicidally depressed and thrown himself into the jaws of the shark – or a narrative inconsistency – if he had lost his nerve, avoided the confrontation altogether, and sailed off to a retirement in Fiji.

      Equally you could have a well designed story about a psychologically consistent character living within an well-constructed internally consistent alternative reality. You could have all this with a tedious character and a dull story which wouldn’t be remotely enjoyable.

      In terms of the physics of storytelling, the forces in the willing suspension of disbelief are our disbelief itself – this is a resistive force, like friction – but also our will to believe. It’s the strength of the latter that is keeping the fish in the air, and I think it would be diminished by tinkering with the genetics of the fish.

      Air fish are the product of a childish imagination, before the child had understood about the mechanics of weight and thrust and the relative density of water and air, but after they had seen how beautiful fish are and how gracefully the move.

      It’s a bit like geneticists discovering some new species with an incredible ability to live somewhere it’s poorly adapted for and without understanding why it survives, trying to engineer adaptations to help it only to find each modified specimen dying. A story engineer trying to do this with the fictional air fish (I imagine a story engineer as a bit like a kind of celestial toymaker – no, like the master of the land of fiction) would find the specimens with the enlarged fins flapping around helplessly on the pavement while the poorly adapted fish glide round the lamppost blissfully unaware of the laws of physics they’re breaking. Why? Because the less the modified fish resemble the childish dream, the weaker the force of our will to suspend disbelief. Anyway, just how much would you have to modify those fish to actually make me believe they could really fly? I’d believe in porcine elevation first.

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