we can’t all be the goddamned Batman

There’s a moment in The Dark Knight Rises — don’t worry; no spoilers — where Bruce Wayne gets from one part of the world to the other, in a very short span of time, without access to his usual resources.

How does he manage that? As kniedzw said when I brought this up to him, “He’s the goddamned Batman, that’s how.”

And you know, I’m fine with that as an answer. It fits the genre, and the place that scene occupies in the story; nobody wants to pause there for an extended dissertation on the logistics of international travel. Or even a short one, really. If it isn’t an interesting and relevant part of the story, we should skip over it and get to the parts that are.

. . . I talk a good talk there, but the truth is that I have a damn hard time doing this in my own work. Skipping over routine things, sure. I don’t do a blow-by-blow of every last action my characters take. But when something less than 100% routine happens, I have a hard time saying “my character is the goddamned Batman” and moving on. If I’d been writing The Dark Knight Rises, I would have had to figure out — for my own edification, if nobody else’s — just how Bruce Wayne got from A to B under those circumstances. And, if it were a novel, probably looked for a place to toss in a line of narration or dialogue nodding in the direction of whatever explanation I worked out. Because however willing I am to grant other people’s stories the benefit of the doubt in these cases, I have a hard time believing anybody else will do the same for me.

Obviously there are places where the benefit of the doubt falls down. If the thing being glossed over is too outrageous, I can’t bridge that gap, and the stumble distracts me from the story. Or if you make too frequent a habit of doing it, I begin to feel like you’re lazy, dodging all the hard stuff because you only want to have fun (and your fun gets flimsier as a result). Or if you’re trying to be all realistic and crunchy about how things get done, and then you handwave past something major, I suspect you did that because you couldn’t find a way to get it done, and your only answer was to cheat. I also think it’s easier for movies to get away with this trick than novels. They move at their own pace, rather than the reader’s, leaving less time for spotting holes; they also aren’t expected to go into as much detail, lest their run time be nine hours. And some genres accommodate this trick better than others.

But we do it in novels, too, whether the extent is lesser or greater. Dorothy Dunnett spends all of a couple of sentences on telling us how half a dozen guys made their way across sixteenth-century Europe to Russia. Those sentences nod to them having a lot of trouble doing it, but it’s only a nod, with no explanation; we are invited to understand that they are each the goddamned Batman, and that’s how they managed it.

Sometimes it’s a benefit for me to work through those things, to answer all the logistical questions for myself, if not for the reader. Sometimes, though . . . it’s easy to get hung up on this, to stall forward progress because I have to nail down every last detail in my head. And sometimes I catch myself subsequently putting those details into the story, because if I don’t show my math I don’t trust that the reader will trust me.

It isn’t just a plot issue; sometimes it’s a worldbuilding one, too. For Isabella’s memoirs, I’m working through a myriad of details on climate, geology, and other such details of the natural world, because my hindbrain is convinced that I can’t be allowed to gloss over a single thing there. We aren’t talking Tolkien’s suspiciously rectangular mountain ranges here, either: I mean that if I don’t set up the elevation and surrounding topography of the swamps of Mouleen precisely right for the amount of rainfall they receive, everybody will notice.

And the truth is, only some readers will. The climatologists among you. If they’re paying close attention. And maybe not even then, since it isn’t like I’m providing information on the exact latitude of Mouleen, or the direction of ocean currents along its shore. (Though believe you me, my brain would try to work the ocean currents out, if I didn’t keep it on a leash.)

I have to do some of this for the series because it’s about a scientist, and that means I need to be able to talk about the science without the whole thing falling down. But it is also supposed to be an adventure. The adventure tone is not served by me anxiously showing my math on every last detail of plot and setting. And yet I still struggle to believe that I can get away with anything, even as I let other people do it all the time.

I’d be interested in examples of authors you think have done this badly or well. What factors determine how willing you are to leap over those gaps?

0 Responses to “we can’t all be the goddamned Batman”

  1. desperance

    I once got hung up for a year or more over a short story. It was science fiction, we were on another planet of Earth-type: would it have Earth-type mountains by definition, was plate tectonics a necessary condition or a likely one or likely to prove uncannily rare…? I worked myself into a mind-state where I Needed to Know The Answer before I could write the story; took me that long to decide, “oh, soddit, they’re on a sodding plateau” and move on.

    That was a few years back, and in another country. Living where I do now, I can go to SETI lectures about planetary geology; I can meet people who could answer that question; I can sit through lectures with it still trembling on my tongue before I remember that I still don’t need to know.

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. Yes, I think we seriously overestimate the extent to which we have to work stuff out for the story to work.

      Nor is it the only thing we get hung up on that readers don’t pay nearly as much attention to as we think they do. The more I write, the more hyper-aware I become of how few sentence structures there are, how often I use particular (entirely common and invisible) phrasings, etc. It’s a professional hazard.

      • desperance

        Some of my early work, I apparently only had one rhythm in my sensorium: like a man who can only waltz. Short sentence; long-sentence-with-a-semicolon. Short sentence; long-sentence-with-a-semicolon. You can almost chant it as you read along.

        • Marie Brennan

          <lol> What I get hung up on is how sentences start. Subject, prepositional phrase, participial phrase, etc. Starts to drive me batty, trying to make sure I don’t use the same structure every time.

      • mindstalk

        A lot of readers do pay attention, but to specific things. I remember a mailing list campaign (joke, I think) to send Joss Whedon calculators because he couldn’t get the ages and timeline of Spike and Drusilla straight. The Bujold list would love a timeline, or Nexus map, and has tried to make its own. OTOH, I’ve never seen anyone wonder whether Barrayar has plate tectonics, or whether volcanoes and earthquakes should be mentioned.

        I’d posit readers notice people things: who does what when and where. “How” is probably a distant second. Science how is a fringe outside of stuff marketed as hard SF and probably a minority (but vocal) there. The mechanics of writing are probably noted by an equally tiny minority… one which stands out more if you hang out with writers, rather than staying home writing.

        As for planet stuff, I don’t think we know that much; planetary science has been a continual treadmill of surprise. Even where we do, the details are so chaotically (legitimate invocation of chaos) complicated that someone saying you’re wrong is probably speaking with unwarranted confidence. The Sahara had a wet period some thousands of years ago, which I’m told doesn’t even correlate tightly with the Ice Age. Do we know why? If we do, how many books are such that it comes up or would matter? How many readers can say why the Southwest was wet during the Ice Age?

        • Marie Brennan

          Oh, god. It’s kind of horrifying to me that, while I don’t know why the Southwest was wet during the Ice Age, I can guess what I’d need to look at to find the answer. The expanding continental polar air mass probably shifted southward and AUGGGGH MAKE MY BRAIN STOP.

          One reason not to have maps in your fantasy: then it’s harder for your readers to call you on bad geography. <g>

          I’d go one step further on your “readers notice people things” argument, and say readers most directly notice small-scale people things. Characterization, or relationship writing: we have lots of experience with those things, and are therefore the most likely to notice where they go wrong. (As a general rule. A reader with bad social skills may well cruise on by without a hitch.) Once you get to larger-scale things, like politics or social structures, you’ll still have a non-trivial subset of readers who notice, but it’ll be smaller. And then there are the specialty fields, which very few people indeed will notice.

          But, as you say, that minority is often very vocal. And even if they don’t give direct feedback to the author about holes or mistakes, such things may well kick them out of the story — which I want to avoid. At that point, my choices are: 1) show the math and hope I get it right, 2) work the math out, but don’t show it, and hope that anybody who tries to fill in the blank feels they can do so plausibly, or 3) be entertaining enough that they either don’t notice the hole or don’t particularly care.

          • mindstalk

            Or put “math” in the back, like _Finder_. 🙂

            Oh, I forgot to note: various readers wonder what dwarves and elves eat. Fewer, but still many, wonder about that particularly for pre-Sun period in the Silmarilion (especially for the trees) since the Sun rising is a historical event.

            I’m the only one I know of to wonder why Gondor and the Grey Havens didn’t keep up naval contact. Okay, so the middle lands were depopulated by plagues with the survivors being indigenes with legitimate grudges. Coastal travel, nice and easy! I guess there were Corsairs. But I’ve never seen anyone ask.

            OTOH, AIUI Mordor looks artificially rectangular because it is in fact an artificial fortress. “A god did it.” Depending on fantasy level, “bad geography” isn’t well defined short of rivers flowing uphill, and sometimes even then…

            Oh, and being able to guess the Southwest is quite cool. You just don’t need it for writing. 🙂

            (I’m amused to remember my challenging you about the isolated small island of Doppleganger, and you having a bunch of rejoinders like “how do you know it’s even a planet?”)

          • Marie Brennan

            OTOH, AIUI Mordor looks artificially rectangular because it is in fact an artificial fortress. “A god did it.” Depending on fantasy level, “bad geography” isn’t well defined short of rivers flowing uphill, and sometimes even then…

            True, and the mountains in the north of the Wheel of Time map are similarly artificial (having been created during the Breaking of the World — that and corruption by the Dark One also explain why it’s hot up there, despite the cold climate immediately to the south). But man, there’s a lot of bad geography in fantasy that owes its existence to bad understanding on the part of the author . . .

            . . . and yes, I do include the Doppelganger setting in that statement. 🙂 I did better there than I did with some of my earlier maps, to stories that have not been published, but in the end — smart-ass answers aside — I invented that setting when I was seventeen, and didn’t yet know or care about a lot of the things I do now.

        • marycatelli

          People pay attention to what they know. My father will complain about the way the soldiers fight without worrying about, or actually, running out of ammo. My mother will complain about a Regency with rhododendron hedges (introduced from Tibet in Victorian days). My older sister will complain about an early modern woman who takes to blue jeans like a duck to water instead of rejecting them as too immodest for a prostitute, or a woman just happend to not wear a corset in Victorian times. (I made her very happy once as a side-effect of tellng about the time I mentioned my heroine’s artistic dress and then had to explain that.) My younger sister and I will complain about introducing the concept of religious tolerance or democracy to a culture and having the characters fall all over themselves to adhere to it.

          • Marie Brennan

            Yes, the research-type stuff will always run the risk of hitting red buttons for the people who know the subject. And I guess that’s in some ways true of plot stuff, too — if you know a lot about the logistics of illegal border crossing, then maybe you’ll be annoyed by Bruce Wayne managing his trick — but I feel like those generally ping on a different radar, if that makes any sense.

  2. lowellboyslash

    It’s interesting you bring up the Batman example, because when I saw it, the three of us had totally different reactions to that exact skip: I thought it was funny but dumb (did he flap his arms real hard?); one friend wasn’t bothered; and the other friend hated it and declared it a glaring flaw.

    What this says to me is that readers and viewers evaluate the fundamental logics of fantasy media very differently. For some people, a journey across the world is an obstacle in the way of the story, and they’re very pleased that Batman can Bat-wave his hands and skip to the good parts. Some people think that a jump like that is a flaw in the internal logic, but not a big one (I’m in this camp, since I think it’s possible for the viewer to fill in what happened). And some people want you to do the math. What that math is, of course, depends on how much that math has been valued in other places in the book.

    A good example of doing the math, I think, is The Matrix (which I am now about to spoil, for all two of you who have never seen it). The math I’m interested in here is the fact that in the first movie, getting out of the matrix is always hard. It never gets easier to escape, even when the narrative might like to jump back to the real world. That means that every time someone needs to leave the matrix, they show the math. It’s part of what makes the first movie so tense and real (and it falls a little by the wayside in later movies… but I digress).

    TL;DR: I think what matters is less whether you show the math, but whether you’ve already established that Batman can do his Bat-math and make it go away or not.

    • Marie Brennan

      For me, it was a momentary blip, as I thought “huh, that’s not easy to do.” But the placement in the story was such that I do not think the movie would have been improved by answering the question of how he made the trip. Had the same trip happened at a different point in the plot, I might have had a stronger desire to see how it happened.

      I think The Matrix is a useful comparison. In that movie, the logistics of getting in and out of the Matrix are a major source of tension. Also, the characters are established as being resourceful, but still in very great danger from agents. Hand-wave past their exit from the Matrix, and you not only lose tension, you screw up your characterization. Whereas in TDKR, the source of tension comes before that trip — and we do indeed see the math on how it gets resolved. What comes after is trivial by comparison, thematically and emotionally, and going into it would undercut the effect of Bruce’s arrival. Furthermore — and, as you say, this is generally the most important part — the character is firmly established as the kind of guy who can do something like that. We’d be terribly disappointed if Batman ran into trouble with a border guard.

    • wshaffer

      When I saw it, my thought was something like, “Huh. I guess he hiked to the nearest airport and bought a plane ticket to New Jersey. Wait – do I really think he had a credit card and passport with him? Wait – where did the plane land? And was there really enough time for the flight to happen?” And then I decided to just watch the movie.

      Having had time to reflect, clearly the real answer is that he caught a ride in a passing TARDIS.

      • Marie Brennan

        So, you’ll be writing that fic? 😉

        • wshaffer

          Which one? The one where he gets picked up by Two, Jamie, and Zoe, and gets advice on disarming a nuclear bomb from Zoe? The one where he gets picked up by a post-Time War Nine and they bond over their shared man-angst? Or the one where he gets picked up by Ten and Donna and gets a talking to and a good slap from Donna?

  3. marycatelli

    That’s all.

    Once in the comics, he got to JLA tower without teleporting or using a shuttle.

    The JLA tower was, at the time, on the moon.

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    August 1, 2012 Links and Plugs

    User referenced to your post from August 1, 2012 Links and Plugs saying: […] e Brennan on we can't all be the goddamned Batman […]

  5. aishabintjamil

    I’m hard pressed to think of an example off the top of my head tonight, but in general terms, I think the things that bother me when they’re glossed over or outright bogus are the ones that would be important to the character whose viewpoint we’re in. Your scientist is likely to think, at least in passing, at odd moments, about the science behind things going on around him/her. Your special forces veteran had better both pay attention to and be right about the gun the religious nut is waving wildly at him.

    I’m pretty flexible about leaping gaps, as long as I think the character I’m seeing events through wouldn’t be bothered by them. I can hand wave a lot based on the idea that there probably is a rationale, but the character doesn’t care, so it won’t be explained.

    • Marie Brennan

      This is true. And, perhaps, another reason movies can get away with leaps more easily: we’re not “in” anybody’s perspective in the same way a novel usually is.

    • vitruvian23

      This is a good point. And that’s why Fringe lost me (I’m told to my loss for good character development, but oh well) in the very first episode. It wasn’t so much that the amazing growing baby violated conservation of mass in itself, but that the mad scientist and his son who was supposed to have a good basic understanding of science didn’t even seem to *acknowledge or notice* that where the mass came from was an issue or come up with a technobabble explanation or handwave.

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