Have you been watching The Firm? It’s the TV version of the John Grisham novel set ten years after the movie version that starred Tom Cruise. It’s on NBC and it isn’t bad as TV shows go. They’re interestingly structured stories, with each episode containing a continuing through-line as well as a stand-alone story. But they dropped the ball last week.
A cardinal rule of fiction is that nothing can happen that would yank the reader/ viewer out of the story. No anachronisms, no factual errors, and certainly nothing boneheadedly stupid. Oh well…
Here’s what happened. (Don’t worry; no spoilers.) The brother of the main character, a private investigator working for his lawyer brother, finds a piece of paper that had been run through a cross-cut shredder. You know– the kind that doesn’t cut the document into long strips. Not confetti, just shorter strips. He says that he’s good at puzzles and will put it back together. Between him and his girlfriend, they reassemble the entire document and tape it together.
Guess what: They didn’t need to.
There were four names taking up four lines in the upper left corner of the printout, which probably amounted to two square inches of space. The rest of the paper was completely blank. Why the hell did they take the time to reassemble the whole thing when putting together just the names would have taken no more than two or three minutes?
From a storytelling standpoint, there was a structural need to draw out the time between when they found the shredded printout and when they found the four names. Otherwise, the clue would have arrived too early and that story arc would have ended too soon. But the writers (there were two credited for this episode) needed to find a better way to accomplish that, and, sadly, they didn’t. Bonehead move. I actually felt sorry for the actors because the writers made them look like fools. But ultimately, it was the writers who looked foolish.
If you’re watching a story on screen or reading one in a book and something happens that makes you think about the writer, said writer has broken the slender thread that suspends your disbelief. That’s like breaking a contract, and you, the reader/viewer, have every right to be upset. You’ve invested your time and (probably) money in this story, and you deserve a good return on your investment.
The relationship between writer and reader has long been described as an unspoken contract. The writer agrees to lie to the reader and the reader agrees to believe it. You see, the reader knows intellectually that what’s on the page never actually happened. It’s the writer’s job to keep that disbelief suspended by not doing something to make the characters look like idiots and pull the reader out of the story. What’s the word? Oh, yeah–