Much like 45 million other people, I have recently viewed Bird Box. I also watched The Ritual and re-watched A Quiet Place. All of this got me thinking about the horror genre, yet again, but it’s too soon for another “Thoughts on Horror” post. Thankfully I also watched a Youtube video about world building in the Divergent series, which gave me an idea for a more far-reaching analysis not just of horror, but of genre and plot holes in general.
A Matter of Genre
The fact of the matter is that Bird Box, A Quiet Place, and Divergent have gaping plot holes (The Ritual doesn’t. The Ritual is great… but freaking horrifying, so watch with caution). These plot holes, however, are only a problem in one of those stories, and this is due to genre, and I will climb onto my genre-soapbox for as long as it takes for people to realize that different genres work differently, and need to be read or watched differently.
Let’s step back a minute, and I'll explain what I mean. In my senior year of high school, we read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. My class loved it, not least because it was a welcome break from all the depressing literature foisted on us throughout our high school career. I was also a student aid in another class that read the same book and got to eavesdrop on their class discussions. I sat in the back, filing papers, and heard the students say they didn't like the book because, quote, "It was so unrealistic." The Little Prince? Unrealistic? You don't say! I'm not sure I have ever heard a more idiotic critique of a book. Yes, The Little Prince is unrealistic. It's a children's-book-esque fantasy/fairytale about a prince from another (tiny) planet who's in love with a rose. It's not supposed to be realistic!
A similar phenomenon happens when people—both Christians and atheists—treat the entire Bible as one genre. It's not! It contains poetry, myth, history, genealogy, letters, biography, parables, apocalyptic visions, and law codes. If you read poetry like you would read a law code, or a letter the way you read a myth, you're probably going to miss out on most of the meaning.
Back to my point, different genres require different ways of being read or watched. There are varying amounts of belief one should be required to suspend. Fantasy requires more suspension of disbelief than sci-fi, because the audience needs to accept that magic and magical creatures exist, whereas sci-fi only needs them to accept that humans have advanced to some future scientific point. Both genres, however, need internally consistent world building, no matter what other wonders we are shown. Otherwise, the audience will be taken out of the story, and the point of these genres is to immerse the readers or viewers into a believable, if fantastic, world. If magic works a certain way, it always needs to work that way. If smaller spaceships can’t use FTL, then no little ships should be shown using FTL unless you make a point of saying they have some new type of FTL drive. There is some wiggle-room in this, since "fantasy" and "sci-fi" are big labels that cover a lot of things. Fairytales or magical-realism stories tend to be a little looser about what is and isn’t allowed. These stories still shouldn't break their own rules, but they also don't have to explain themselves as much as other fantasies. Sci-fi that bleeds into fantasy, such as that which incorporates time-travel, other dimensions, or robots with kokoro still needs internal consistency, but don't need to be as scientifically accurate as hard sci-fi.
On the other hand, genres which rely on audience reaction can get by with much less in the way of tight world building and well-thought-out backstory. The two genres to which I am referring are comedy and horror. Obviously, these can intersect with fantasy/sci-fi, but taken as their own thing, they are a different species of genre altogether. They rely not on immersing the audience into a believable world, but on eliciting a reaction from the audience. A comedy is only a comedy if it's funny and horror is only horror if it's scary. Those are the requirements. Thus, a comedy or horror doesn't need unassailable world building to be a successful comedy or horror. Comedy, in particular, often relies on pointing out or playing with plot holes in whatever genre it's in. Horror, on the other hand, often focuses on the scary situation at the expense of backstory and world building.
Plot Holes in Horror
Thus, we come to Bird Box, or A Quiet Place, or Signs, or any other horror that, frankly, doesn't hold up if you think too much about it. People critique these movies by asking things like, “Why doesn't everyone in the world just blind themselves to be immune to the phantoms?”, “Did no one else in all of society think to use sound against the creatures?”, and “Why don't the aliens wear waterproof suits?”. These are valid criticisms for sci-fi or fantasy stories, but… these stories aren’t really meant to be sci-fi or fantasy. They are meant to be horror. Specifically, survival horror. For this genre, backstory is utterly irrelevant. In survival horror, a person or group of people are put into a deadly situation and need to use their wits and whatever they can find to survive it. The end. That's it. Are Sandra Bullock, the family in The Quiet Place, and the family in Signs put into a deadly situation? Check. Do they attempt to survive it? Check. Is it scary for the audience to watch? Check. All three movies pass the survival horror test. They aren’t trying to be good sci-fi/fantasy; they’re trying to be good horror, and do a pretty good job.
As a side note, I’m not some Bird Box apologist. Of the four horror movies I’ve mentioned in this post, it’s my least favorite. But the issues I take with it are not with the world-building (unlike some critics, I thought the rules regarding the phantoms were fairly well spelled out), but with the choices on how to induce horror. (SPOILERS INCOMING: SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU CARE) From the beginning, we know the rest of the people in the house don’t survive because only Sandra Bullock and the two kids are alive in the current time; that undercuts most of the tension in the house. Also, I thought the first phantom-acolyte they encounter, at the supermarket, was horrifying, as he appeared to be stuck forever in his place, doomed to coax unsuspecting souls to their death. One character even commented, “How is that guy still alive?”, so I wondered if he even was, or if he was sort of an undead thing controlled by the phantoms. Scary! Unfortunately, the rest of the acolytes (aside from the one in the house, who we knew John Malkovich would kill because how else would Sandra Bullock and the kids be alive in the future? The structure of the narrative seriously undercut the tension!) are pretty much your run-of-the-mill murderers in any post-apocalyptic movie. Not scary! Finally, I took issue with the last few minutes, after their boat capsized; I felt it was unnecessary for them to run around in the woods. It would have been scarier if she reached out of the water to feel a person’s foot, making the audience think it’s an acolyte, until he taps a cane on the ground and it’s revealed he’s blind. But, I digress. I don’t mind that the story has a few plot holes; I do mind that it wasn’t as scary as it could have been.
Plot Holes in Dystopia
Where, then, on this spectrum of genre does dystopia fall, and why do so many YA dystopian novels seem to fail? Could not "dystopia" be a sort of parable, requiring little explanation and thus little scrutiny, in the same way that comedy and horror and fairytales can get by on little to no explanations of what, exactly, is going on? Yes. I'll say it again, yes. I think dystopias absolutely could get a pass on world building... if they wanted to. The problem with books like Divergent or Hunger Games is not that they explain too little, but that they explain too much. If they simply set up their messed-up situations—everyone is sorted into a
House faction, innocents must fight to the death for the enjoyment of the
rich—and left it at that, I think it would be fine. The problem arises when
these authors, usually in subsequent books, attempt to hash out the reasoning
behind these horrible societies which... kind of couldn't arise for any real
reason, or if they did, wouldn’t last very long. The explanations we are given
don't make sense, or are at least are very, very
full of holes and inconsistencies.
To be fair, other dystopias also offer explanations for why the world is the way it is, but they don’t dwell on it. 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 offer lip service for how society got so bad—whether that’s due to government rule or human complacency—but then move on. We don’t need to think too hard about how Eastasia or Eurasia were formed; we need to care that the government keeps switching which one we’ve “always” been at war with. We don’t need to know who’s running the world in Fahrenheit 451, because they’re not the ones who caused Montag’s wife to O.D. or who hit Clarisse with a car or who made Beatty hate books; the society of that book is twisted because individual people are twisted. Though they contain sci-fi elements, these stories are not sci-fi books. They are much closer to horror, in that their events are supposed to provoke a sort of cautious fear in the audience. The idea is that this could happen here, and maybe it’s already happening.
Again, YA dystopia’s could do this, but that’s clearly not what they’re going for. If Hunger Games was only a nod to the dangers of media and decadence, I could get behind it. Instead, it decided to become a story about revolution, with a somewhat Chosen-One-esque figure. It went the sci-fi-fantasy route, following the epic story of a hero who attempts to save society. If Divergent only concerned itself with the idea that humans are sorted into groups based on a single personality trait… well, I would still think that was pretty silly, but I could see a skilled writer making it work. It goes beyond this, though, into this whole backstory involving genetic engineering and human experimentation. It’s a sci-fi. And because both of these stories have decided to be sci-fi, rather than only dystopias, they fail. Because sci-fi stories require a somewhat believable backstory and set-up and current world building, and the worlds of Divergent and Hunger Games could not happen, or at least would not happen like that, even if there were rebellions and mutations and human experimentation. There are too many inconsistencies and plot holes that strain belief, and sci-fi needs to be somewhat believable.
With that, I hoped I’ve converted some of you to my genre-focused cause. Before you criticize a story for having a plot hole or being unrealistic, first consider the genre. Consider what the story is trying to do, and if it does it well or not. The plot holes might not be as big of a problem as you thought.