Poetry vs. Plot

I’m not sure where I read this, but British TV producer/director Rachael Talalay quoted Dr. Who’s Steven Moffat on how to make the scenes in his script sing: “the logic is flexible, the poetry is immutable.” It’s been a while since I read Moffat’s run so I can’t really comment on that assessment, but I’m using that as the basis for his post (whether or not it’s what he meant).

Writing a story that holds together isn’t just about the plot logic. If there are holes in a mystery plot or a murderers’ motive (or anyone’s motive), I’ll forgive them if the story’s dramatically satisfying. For instance, a nursing friend of mine says the medical information in Knives Out is wrong, but the characters and the drama make it sing anyway.

If the story focuses on the minutiae of the crime and becomes pure puzzle (e.g., Dorothy Sayer’s Busman’s Honeymoon and Five Red Herrings), there’s no saving it even if the plot holds together. The poetry’s not there.

Likewise way too many magic systems, however well thought out, lack any of the poetry found in, for example, Daniel Polansky’s A City Dreaming. Or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionovar Tapestry, where the only rule of magic I remember is that wizards bond to a companion whose life force provides them with fuel for spells. Being a power source is painful so it says a lot about one wizard that he’ll use magic to light up a room rather than lighting the torches himself.

Or consider Superman. His powers don’t work based on any sort of science but they do make sense as a kind of syllogism. If I can blow out a birthday candle, Superman can blow out a forest fire. If I can kiss my wife, Superman can deliver a super-kiss. No logic, but there is poetry.

Or consider the SF movie Starman. Jeff Bridges’ alien has powers that are more magic or miracle than they are science. We get no explanation other than alien super-science indistinguishable from magic but I don’t think it needs one. What matters is the poetry — the alien resurrecting a deer shot by a hunter or sacrificing increasing amounts of his power to protect Karen Allen. Logic is less important. Not for everyone. As I wrote elsewhere, even though Superman defies all science and logic, somehow him impregnating Lois was a bridge too far for some people (John Scalzi discusses similar issues with other stories).

As Adam-Troy Castro says, scientific realism is not the important thing in zombie stories. Similarly, plenty of people have pointed out the wizarding world doesn’t make a lot of sense in Harry Potter but constructing a logical economy isn’t the point of the story.

Of course “poetry,” is a subjective thing, as is the balancing between poetry and logic. Just how poetic is a given story? How flexible does the logic has to be? I can overlook the plot flaws in Alien Nation because the bonding between Sikes and Francisco works so well. It’s more of a problem for me in Children of the Damned.

If we can get poetry and logic both — and there’s no reason we can’t — then that’s the best thing. But if not, as in so much about writing, it’s a judgment call.

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