This is not a logical topic for a blog post. It isn’t even a logical thesis statement. With that stupid joke out of the way, let’s get into it!
As the internet grew larger and nerds had more platforms to proclaim/declare/scream their opinions and insights, a popular topic to arise was this: Pointing out idiotic moments in stories.
Whether you call them plot holes, poor writing, or a means to progress the plot, there has been something of a market for fans to play backseat driver and point out when characters are being stupid, or put themselves through unnecessary trouble. These days, we’re obsessed with telling people how things should have ended or what they got wrong. The spirit in which this is done can range from a loving jape to just the most salty vitriol.
We’ve got different responses to these, of course. Some of us think they’re the BEST responses and think “Man, I’m gonna make my story HYPER logical!” Others are sick of this bandwagon and think “In that case, I’m gonna make my story EXTRA stupid to spite you!” And some might feel fear. They might wonder “Do I dare write? What if I’M the one getting torn up?”
And I, in heretical fashion, am going to defy the trend by answering all these imagined concerns with: It’s OK to be illogical. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to be inefficient.
Wait, You Said This Was A Post About Illogical Choices
First, I’ll give the art of nitpicking a fair go. There are plenty of different approaches, so instead of dealing with that, I’ll sum it up with three levels: Within the story, outside of it, and beyond it.
Nitpicks within the story can be considered the ‘starting’ level of nitpicking, simply catching contradictions within the story itself, like if someone says “This item can only be earned by the worthy” only for the villain to steal it. Whether the story is smart or dumb, you just want it to be consistent.
Nitpicks outside the story are the common ‘what if’ scenarios, where we essentially go “Why didn’t you do this instead?” to usually point out how easily problems begin or could be solved, such as the reveal of the surprise villain only succeeding because of poor background checks. We are no longer concerned with preserving the story’s consistency, but proposing something that would change it. It’s not always about thinking our idea is better (in fact, many of these people are aware their suggestions would solve everything and leave us with no plot), but more about the leaps in logic required to move the plot.
And nitpicks beyond the story are factors entirely beyond either plot consistency or plot logic. Instead, we are looking at it purely as a work of fiction, the craft rather than the art. While we may be aware of the necessary twists and conflicts needed for a plot, we also believe they must be carried out with mechanical precision and no wasted moments. In short, everything must serve a purpose and achieve something without redundancies.
Did It Occur To You My Pacing Was Deliberate
So that should give you an overview of what nitpicking is like, as well as an idea of the mindsets behind it. It’s not always about giving people a hard time, but it does tend to be about when something breaks our suspension of disbelief or whatever we’re using to look at something. But whatever the reasons, now we get to the actual point of this post: Why is it OK to be inefficient? To make mistakes?
Well, for starters, it’s progressive. This may seem like an obvious point (i.e. you need conflict to move the plot and keep things interesting), and indeed, most people are aware of it even if they nitpick. But it’s always a good reminder to both readers and writers: The plot needs to move. That’s not to say nitpickers don’t know this, but sometimes it feels like they forget the payoff at the end and fixate on the moment.
Whether it’s born from a villain’s careful calculation or a character’s honest mistake, the fundamental rule of thumb here is that these conflicts are the best way to develop events and see more of the characters we love. Like, say, that episode in Avatar: The Last Airbender when Katara steals a waterbending scroll. On its own? It’s a terrible decision that could have been dealt with in a bunch of different ways (find things to barter or trade, put on a street show, whatever). And yet, it’s the thing that moves that entire episode forward, while also giving the characters a chance to show how they respond to a crisis and grow as people. Keep an eye on the story’s payoff, though always keep in mind that you should keep unreasonable actions within a reasonable limit.
Secondly, it’s realistic. Well, on an individual level, at least. I can’t speak for situations like security checks or breaches of protocol where an organisation NEEDS to be efficient, but a lot of bad decisions characters make are often done for personal reasons or because of imperfect knowledge.
After all, think about it: Do any of us ever really live our lives purely by logic? And I don’t even mean in a sci-fi strawman “Emotionless robot vs. Zero impulse control monkey” situation, I mean we all have our own objectives, feelings and dispositions which not everyone will understand. We do things for pleasure, or sentimentality, with objectives that make sense to us and are nonsense to others. We act rashly and forget about the consequences of our actions. Sometimes, we just plain make mistakes. Again from Avatar, like Prince Zuko taking Aang’s mortal body hostage by FLEEING ALONE INTO THE ARCTIC TUNDRA. Sure, everyone else could see it’s a BAD idea (and his uncle just tells him he would have FROZEN TO DEATH), but for him, it made perfect sense: He was surrounded by enemies, his own countrymen tried to kill him, and he needed to consolidate his victory. Plus, you know, he’s incredibly brash and irrational, especially when it comes to hunting down the Avatar. In Zuko, you see the mix of personal goals and personality creating a decision which is terrible, but understandable.
And finally, the simplest reason of all: It’s fun. I know this might overlap with the whole idea of progressing the plot, but fun and entertainment are not to be underestimated. If anything, the FUN option often DERAILS the plot. Sometimes, you just want to take the road that’s bumpy and exciting, not the one that’s smooth and featureless. And if you have EVER run a Dungeons and Dragons campaign or played any game where you can make choices or choose your approach, you know without a doubt that this is a FUNDAMENTAL truth about the human condition.
Many of our most memorable adventures were the result of BAD IDEAS. After all, what sort of story would The Hobbit be if Bilbo had simply stayed home? He didn’t have to go, he didn’t want to go, he wanted for nothing in his life, and at that point, he was content to live in contentment. You could certainly argue “Oh, those idiots deliberately made a bad choice because it would be more amusing” which is true, and not the basis of all life choices. But hey, if you can’t enjoy entertainment, what are you doing watching fictional media?
So Is Logic Good Or Not?
Now, I’ve made a big deal about how illogical choices actually aren’t that bad. But in fairness, we shouldn’t mistake ‘imperfect responses’ as either the ONLY way to write or something you NEVER write. There can be entertainment in cunningly overcoming problems with brutal efficiency as well as getting into them with bad choices.
Any story in any medium needs to be well-crafted and purposeful. Things DO need to happen for a reason, serving to build up the story and what we see, whether it’s on a page or on a screen. This is especially relevant when adapting something to a screen, where you have limited time to show something and have precious little time to tell instead of showing.
What people don’t get, however, is that both audience and creator have to meet each other halfway. The audience tacitly agrees to ‘buy into’ the world of the story, and the story honours this trust by making sure you can understand HOW and WHY they’re making these decisions.
So how do you reconcile both of these? Simple: Write things which are entertaining yet understandable. Don’t just make a dystopian government which is evil for the sake of being evil, but build a world where it makes sense for them to be that way. And when a character acts, don’t worry about whether it’s the most exciting or most reasonable course of action; focus on what THEY would do with what they know and feel, writing it in tandem with the way you want the plot to move.
So add a surprise twist. A major reveal. A development which will only make sense later. Have your characters stumble, repeat themselves, go to a lot of trouble just because it’s something they would do. Just make sure it makes for a great ride, and one where the audience can understand why they’d go on it. Make your ‘easily solved problems’ immensely watchable, your sudden reveals shocking and intriguing, and your ‘inefficient’ characters likable and dynamic. And for any of that to work, they need to be well and clearly written.
Good writing is good writing. It’s about performance, expectation, entertainment, and emotion. And while logic may do nothing for any of these, they still need to be done WELL. The journey of your story can have all sorts of winding ways, twists, and turns…but you’ve got to keep good faith with the trust of your audience, or they’re going to want off because they can’t follow. Like an annoying kid on a roadtrip, they need to be assured there is a reason, it will make sense, and it will be worth it.