We Can’t All Be the Goddamned Batman

[Originally posted on my blog.]


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 my husband 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?