The difference between science and magic

Posted on November 21st, 2010 in Culture, Science, Skepticism, storytelling | 1 Comment »

Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
– Arthur C Clarke

Harry Potter bursts back on to our screens again this week, with the final book split into two no-doubt lumberingly ponderous full-length motion picture “events”. But, we must take solace in the fact that a) it will soon all be over and b) remember that magic has been a huge part of the fabric of narrative since stories began and try not to be too grumpy about the success of this “franchise”. If the appeal of stories is their ability to take us to places and show us things which ordinary life denies us, then it’s easy to see why magic should play such a strong part in especially early stories. Most fairy stories have a magical element – in fact the word “fairy” implies magic.

As we grow up, we leave such things behind, for the most part. The broad appeal of those Harry Potter books and films (and the amusing existence of editions of Harry Potter novels with “adult” covers and a £2.00 price premium) is a notable exception, but especially among male readers, although fairy stories are left behind, fantasy and especially science fiction stories remain popular.

I have observed before that the key feature of stories, the primary quality which distinguishes story from not-a-story is cause and effect. Without cause-and-effect, all you have is a succession of images. (Ironically, if you present such a succession of images to an audience, they are apt to invent the missing cause-and-effect, justifying the action they see in terms of A causing B, such is the storytelling hard-wiring in the human brain.)

Even in stories which don’t present themselves as fantastical, we can often see cause-and-effect being applied in a very limited way. Consider the phenomenon, often noted in pulp, pop or escapist fare, of “goodat”. If characters suddenly announce some convenient talent, skill, expertise, relationship or ability hitherto unmentioned and unsuspected, the audience is likely to feel cheated. “Oh, didn’t I mention I can speak Japanese / crack safes / recite pi to 150 decimal places / fly unaided / control birds with the power of my mind?” It doesn’t matter if these powers are magical, merely require talent and/or practice or are borderline. Conversely, however, if it is set-up that the character in question is “goodat” languages / escapology / mathematics / psychokinesis / animal sympathy, then the audience will probably accept almost any manifestation of this ability, no matter how fantastic. The archetypal version of this would be – as I think Eddie Izzard noted – the ability of someone who is goodat computers to hack into any system in a matter of minutes, just by waggling their fingers lightly over the keyboard and announcing “I’m in”.

So far, so fair enough. Storytellers take short cuts but even bad ones stop short of outright cheating. But there’s a difference between someone, for example, using their total mastery of Spanish to eventually make communication possible with a person who speaks only Catalan – and on the other hand, somebody uploading a Macintosh virus to an alien computer. I suggest that the latter is magic and that the distinction lies in the cause and effect.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider three ways in which a fictional person may be made to disappear before our eyes – Star Trek transporters, Star Trek phasers and Harry Potter vanishings. In Star Trek as you may know, a device known as a transporter is able to whisk people from one location to another. In effect, this device disintegrates the body at one end, transmits only the pattern (transmitting data is much quicker and easier than moving mass I suppose) to the other end, where it is reassembled. The practical difficulties of achieving this are not to be underestimated. A human being is composed of around 10^25 atoms, the exact location and type and state of which all have to be recorded. That’s a heckuva big file. This data is then transmitted to a precise location where no specialised machinery exists, and then the original body is reconstructed out of – what exactly? The TV shows, films and books are generally vague on this point.

But you could (and I’ve no doubt others have) construct vaguely plausible theories about what is going on here. The transporter pad creates a sort of cone or column around the person to be “transported” and everything within that column is processed. 23rd century computers have to “lock on” to remote locations. Maybe something like a tractor beam (not that that exists yet either) is used to process atmospheric atoms within a similar column at the destination in order to make the mass required to reconstruct the transportee. It’s a hugely big problem, but as presented in Star Trek, a hugely big solution is required to make it all work – and sometimes it doesn’t. It can go wrong, with horrible consequences. So this is borderline, but I would say, provided one makes allowances for three hundred-odd years of technological advancement, there is cause-and-effect here, and crucially, the cause (although we can’t examine it all in detail) seems sufficient for the effect.

Now compare those instances with death-by-phaser. Here’s a YouTube video. Watch the phaser deaths that occur around the 1’05” mark.

A phaser beam hits someone and they simply disappear. On a very basic level, there’s cause-and-effect here. Pull trigger on phaser, phaser beam hits redshirt, redshirt disappears. But what do we suppose the phaser beam is doing? It’s not just a narrow pencil-thin column of heat, it doesn’t drill a neat hole through its unfortunate victim. It’s not affecting the air between the barrel and the target, so it’s not radiating out a destructive cone – that would also affect surrounding matter, or if you were too close, not get the whole target. No, the phaser, or the beam itself, just “knows” what is target and what isn’t, what is to disappear in a flash and what is to be left unaffected. Not only is there no plausible mechanism by which this information could be imparted, the presentation doesn’t even begin to hint at a possible solution. Transporters are almost certainly impossible, but at least the series waves its metaphorical hands in the direction of a proper cause. Here the given cause is far to slight for the actual effect.

So, to me, death-by-phaser is far more like a wand being waved and a word being spoken and a Harry Potter character vanishing into thin air. No mechanism exists to define the scope of this action. No care must be taken to isolate only that which you wish to vanish. The waving of a wand and the saying of a word are in no way sufficient to account for the immensity and the complexity of the action which results – which is why Harry Potter is magic and not science-fiction. But magic gets smuggled in under our noses all the time. “I’m in” is a form of magic, as is the bus jump in Speed as is Radar’s ability to anticipate Colonel Blake and so on. The rule is – if the cause is sufficient for the effect, then what you have is science, but if the cause is insufficient for the effect, then what you have is magic.

But this applies to the real world of knowledge, science and medicine as much as it does to storytelling. Remember that humans look for cause-and-effect even where none is present. So, in earlier times, we ascribed the sudden and unpredictable shaking of the earth to the wrath of peevish gods. But since we have no idea where these gods are, what we have done to annoy them, or how they physically interact with the earth to cause such violence, this is magical thinking. Modern plate tectonics provides a much more thorough model (although not yet quite complete) with all the cause-and-effect you could wish for.

Another area where this test can be applied – one familiar to regular readers – is that of homeopathy. Both homeopathic and pharmaceutical treatments for a given condition, joint pain say, have the same superficial cause-and-effect appeal. You take pill. Pill makes pain better. But ask the chemist how their pill works and the answer will include fantastic quantities of detail, each element enhancing the cause-and-effect in the account. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories inhibit cyclooxygenases, leading to a decrease in prostaglandin production. Opioids bind to and activate opioid receptors in the body’s tissues, and so on and so on. As with plate tectonics, the account may not yet be complete, but gaps are acknowledged, and effort continues to plug them. Pharmacology is science.

With your homeopathic pill on the other hand, the explanation is far sketchier. Like cures like, you may be told. How? It just does. Dilution increase potency. How? It just does. Does that mean half a pill will be twice as powerful as a whole pill? No, you have to dilute and the succuss (shake). What does that do? We don’t know. A cursory examination of the cause-and-effect supposedly driving homeopathy is enough to tell anyone that a woefully insufficient cause exists for the claimed results. Thus, we can confidently state that homeopathy is magic.

And, of course, the other thing we know about magic is that it isn’t real.

The Hierarchy of Storytelling Ideals

Posted on March 31st, 2009 in storytelling | 1 Comment »

The first draft of this was written some years ago, in response to a perfectly idiotic book about storytelling, which I shan’t name, in which a lot of badly-researched synopses of famous stories were marshalled in support of a predetermined idea of what stories ought to be – a regrettable example of opinion presented as fact. What struck me most about this nameless book and its anonymous author is that he (yes, it was a he) seemed to be examining stories and trying to expose their workings like a Martian who had never seen a story before and didn’t quite “get” it. Humans do get stories, we communicate all the time by telling each other stories, so I thought it would be interesting to go all the way back to first principles and looking at what makes a story a story (as opposed to not-a-story) and to keep adding qualities until we reached the very best that a story can be. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and you’ll get the idea. I ended up with seven qualities, and here they are…

1.    Coherent

  • The story should be clear. We should understand its setting, its characters and its events. There should (almost) never be confusion in the mind of the reader, only curiosity.
  • The timing and construction should be such that we learn new information as we need to.
  • The choice of characters, settings and events should be purposeful.
  • Without coherence, a “story” barely even qualifies as such (although humans tend to use justification to provide coherence where it has been omitted).

2.    Consistent

  • The story should make sense. Later events should not contradict earlier events.
  • The theme of the story should be apparent throughout. This is a more stringent requirement than mere coherence.
  • Cause-and-effect drives the narrative. The characters, especially the central characters take action to achieve their goals.
  • Reincorporation should be used to strengthen and make consistent plot, character and theme (e.g. second appearance of witches in Macbeth).
  • Lack of consistency makes for episodic or confusing narratives.

3.    Convincing

  • The story should be believable on its own terms. This is a more stringent requirement than mere consistency.
  • The story should never provoke a reaction of disbelief from the audience which causes them to reject the story.
  • The story must not rely on coincidence.
  • The story must evince sufficient detail to paint a vivid picture.
  • Unconvincing stories do not engage the emotions since the failing cuts off empathy. It is possible to tell very simple stories which lack convincing detail (e.g. fairy stories) if the human drama is sufficiently accessible.

4.    Transforming

  • The characters or setting of the story must be transformed over the course of the story. Ideally the hero is transformed in a life-changing manner (and in a way which is also coherent, consistent and convincing) but even a restoration of the status quo for both heroes and setting– as in a James Bond film – may be sufficient if…
  • The hero is made to suffer.
  • Moment-to-moment transformations are as important, if not more important, than story-long “arcs”.
  • A story may even sacrifice consistency for transformation very occasionally (e.g. The Big Sleep).
  • Failure to transform, especially characters, may make a story seem inconsistent (because there is no cause-and-effect as measured by reactions to events), unconvincing (because transformation is likely given the events and setting of the story) or dull (because without transformation the story seems ‘pointless’ – and therefore incoherent).

5.    Surprising

  • To the extent allowed by being coherent, consistent, convincing and transforming, the story should be surprising.
  • This can mean that the story’s structure, theme, setting or style are novel at the time (Pulp Fiction, Citizen Kane, Look Back in Anger) or that…
  • The events of the story are not easily predicted.
  • A story may be surprising but lack transformations and thus seem “flat” (The Village).
  • It may be more important to surprise the characters than the audience. (“I am your father, Luke”).
  • Without surprise, a story is dull through being overly predictable (although audiences will take a lot more ‘obviousness’ than some writers believe).

6.    Ironic

  • An additional layer of interest and meaning can be provided by dramatic irony, wherein the audience has information that the characters do not. This can be at the cost of surprise so the choice as to whether to surprise audience and characters simultaneously (“I am your father Luke” or to withhold information from the characters only for the purpose of irony (any number of mistaken-identity plots) is a matter of style.
  • Ironic resolutions or situations may seem richer than their simpler counter-parts, (the B52’s desperation to reach its target in Doctor Strangelove, compared to many similar race-against-time situations).
  • Without irony, a story is dull through being too simplistic. An ironic layer (or more than one) creates a sense of complexity more readily than multiplying elements in a story does.

7.    Subtle

  • Audiences appreciate being allowed to come to their own conclusions. Finding room for subtlety among the earlier constraints is the mark of a great writer.
  • Subtlety allows for the possibility of personal interpretation on the part of the audience, giving a story richness and enduring power.
  • Subtlety may allow a writer to create irony, surprise and transformations, without sacrificing coherence, consistency and verisimilitude.
  • Subtlety may even allow for ambiguity if there is enough of the foregoing to occupy the reader.
  • Without subtlety, a story may be entertaining, even enduring, but also crude and simplistic.
  • Unsubtle writing may also seem expositional or “clunky”.
  • Some very crude and simple stories nonetheless contain subtle imagery which elevates them – often transformational (The Ugly Duckling, Jekyll and Hyde, Cinderella’s coach and horses)

These are all things that stories need to be. Stories can of course be any number of other things as well – funny, true, political and so on, but they still need to have the qualities on this list. Sometimes, other forces conspire to promote or demote one or more of these qualities.

The ACTION story or the MUSICAL are often coherent, consistent and convincing but rarely surprising or more than moderately transforming. ACTION SEQUENCES or MUSICAL NUMBERS distract the audience from the paucity of story. (Marx Brothers films for example often function as MUSICALS, whether or not there is much music in them).

The THRILLER, compared to the ACTION story, contains more surprise, but sometimes at the cost of being convincing. PLOT TWISTS keep the audience guessing, and distract from the paucity of transformation.

The ROMANCE, compared to the THRILLER story, contains more transformation (unless it is constructed as a thriller, like Romeo and Juliet) but often less surprise.

More thoughts on some of the details herein to follow in future posts…

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Storytelling I: Cause and effect

Posted on March 1st, 2009 in storytelling | No Comments »

The fundamental quality of stories is cause and effect. A happens and so B happens. The famous quote comparing “The king died and then the queen died” to “The king died and then the queen died of a broken heart” exemplifies this perfectly.

Consider what we do NOT like about stories. We reject a story when…
– it is too episodic
– it contains too many elements
– it is confusing
– it relies on coincidence
– it “cheats” by introducing new concepts late in the day (deux ex machina)
– (more subtly) the resolution is “too easy”

These are all failures of causality.

The last one is deserving of special attention. Let’s start by looking at the beginning of the story.

Little Red Riding Hood begins with the following (trivial) cause-and-effect.

LRH’s mother asks her to take a basket of cookies to grandma -> LRH sets out on her journey.

Without this causality, the story doesn’t begin.

But there is a deeper causality too. LRH’s mother tells her “don’t stray from the path” (or “don’t stop to pick flowers on the way” or “don’t talk to strangers” or some combination, depending on which version you read). When LRH does stray/stop/talk she brings about her own brush with death, further strengthening the bonds of cause-and-effect. Without this instruction and disobeyment, the wolf feels arbitrary. With them, we understand what CAUSES the interaction with the wolf.

Hence, when a story is resolved too easily – we sometimes feel that cause-and-effect is missing. If at the end of Star Trek II, the engines are fixed in time to escape the Genesis Wave, then the audience feels they are fixed in time BECAUSE that gets the Enterprise out of danger and for no other reason. If (as actually happens) the engines are fixed at the cost of Spock’s life, then the audience knows that the Enterprise was saved BECAUSE Spock was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

The following film, despite some bright moments, effectively unpicks the previous films causality.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.