Logic 101 – Real vs Story

(I’m taking some points I’ve put in things like my SPN retrospective and expanding them to stand alone posts for later referral.)

When dealing with stories, there are two different kinds of logic.

As a storyteller, the stories you tell with hinge upon two types of logic.

The first is most obvious, let’s call it REAL logic.  This is the logic based upon real life, experience, and the logical process itself.  For example: if two scenes are supposed to be happening simultaneously in two different locations, then the audience knows one character cannot be in both scenes.  If character A says they want B alive, then A shouldn’t fire guns at B.  Etc.

You might wonder what other logic there is?  Well let’s call it STORY logic.  With this tool, you the storyteller can actually establish new rules of logic that the audience will accept.  In fact generally, story logic can override the real variant for people.

For example, there’s the fairytale about the young man sent off to find his fortune.  After some travels where he meets some characters, he comes to the king who presents challenges to win the princess’ hand in marriage.  The king might say, “find me a man who can drink dry my lake.”  So the hero goes back to find an old hobo he had earlier shared a meal with.  The hobo complains, “no matter how much I drink, I’m always thirsty.”  The hero brings him to the lake, and the hobo drinks it dry.

Now, based on real logic, this is obviously impossible – the sheer volume of the water in the lake would require a being the size of Godzilla to drink it.  But the story tells us that the man is always thirsty.  If he’s always thirsty, then it follows story logic that he could drink any amount of water.

It’s like in programming where one must declare variables before using them [int x] so then the computer knows how to handle them.  Can you normally add X and 2?  Of course not, real logic points out that letters and numbers are nothing alike.  But if you first establish that X can be a number, then you can add it to 2.

Likewise in a story declare something early enough for the audience, and they will accept later events that still follow this established convention.

This also means things can sometimes backfire.  Story logic can easily override real logic but things won’t work going in the other direction without the audience feeling very wronged and cheated.  If you’re writing a scifi story and establish that space works on story logic, the audience will be annoyed if much later in the story you have something happen because that’s the way space “really” works.

Or let’s take something fictional.  Say you put Vampires in your story.  If you tell the audience nothing else about them other than they’re called “vampires” the audience will then fill in their story logic based upon that person’s cultural background (since vampires aren’t real for any real logic to work from).  So for a Western audience, they’ll probably assume “no sunlight, no garlic, wooden stake kills.”  And they’re going to be very mad if the climax of the story is the hero killing the head vampire by playing Savage Garden’s “Two Beds and a Coffee Machine.”  Yes, Max Landis is right in that you can kill a vampire any way you want – but you have to establish that early in the story.  You need to have earlier scenes of vampires really disliking 90s pop duo Savage Garden before the reveal that the song is the only way to kill them.

One that really bugs me?  If you establish a character as fundamentally dishonest, do NOT have that character dispense story critical information UNLESS the point is that the information is uncertain.

Of course it’s not just the rules of how the plot or characters work, but much of the story.  Karmic justice is a famous examples.  Going by real logic, there’s no reason to expect a villain will suffer any kind of fate for his deeds, they might just as easily escape as well as get caught.  By story logic, a villain should not only suffer, but have a suffering that is either caused by the hero’s actions, or the villain’s.  If the hero won’t kill, the villain’s mistreated underlings or pets must.  A random car wreck killing the villain will be just as annoying to the audience as the villain escaping.

Yes you can have the hero failing and the villain winning, but that requires establishing earlier in the story such an outcome is a possibility.  Otherwise – like I mentioned before – people will bring their default assumptions to the story and assume it is one following fundamental story logic: the protagonists win, the antagonists lose.

And yes, part of this post is inspired by the increasing tendency of modern storytellers to try and switch which mode their story is operating in and justifying it as a “twist.”  That sucks as an explanation because then the story with the greatest twist ever is:

There was a man.
He died.

Sucks as a story doesn’t it?

Maintain your story’s established logic FIRST.  Then make sure your story is obeying real logic.

(If I was in charge of a creative writing course the first two weeks would be drilling the students on T/F logic puzzles so they can grasp the logical outcomes of lying.)



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