As a science fiction and fantasy writer it might seem odd for me to pick up on the idea that storylines should be plausible. After all, in the world of science fiction we have time travel, aliens, dystopian future worlds, mind control and many other implausible features in our writings. But we persuade our readers to put to one-side their critical judgement for a moment in order to explore a fantasy world of fiction. We put forward a story premise — what if our world was invaded by aliens, or what would a post apocalyptic world look like after a nuclear war, or what if vampires lived amongst us — and then we build a new fantasy world with its own rules of behaviour. Readers are usually happy to suspend belief for a short time in order to explore these wonderful new worlds, provided we stick to the rules that we set out for that world.
But it’s not just science fiction and fantasy stories that have to obey the rules of the world. Other genres of speculative fiction need to be consistent with their initial story premise.
Recently, I watched some of my old movie terrorist action-thrillers. White House Down (2013) and Olympus has Fallen (2013) were both about extraordinary attacks on the White House and the president of the United States. Olympus Has Fallen was followed up to two subsequent movies attacking the president again — London Has Fallen (2016) and Angel Has Fallen 2019. All three films starred Gerard Butler as Mike Banning who repeatedly rescues the president from danger.
I like a good action-movie with political intrigue like anyone else, but some of the plot lines in these movies stretched one’s imagination to the limit.
The most plausible of these movie plot lines, in my view, is White House Down although the conspiracy plot line used is not entirely new. After a controversial presidential decision to remove forces from Middle East (where have you seen that), a cabal of mercenaries led by an ex Delta Force operative infiltrates the White House and overwhelms the secret service. The president is taken to the PEOC for safety only to find that the head of his presidential detail is leading the coup. Of course there has to be a hero, Cale, a Capital Police Officer who is attending a job interview that day and his daughter who is on a tour of the White House. The plot is basically Die Hard in the Whitehouse. Cale has to rescue his daughter and the president, kill mercenaries and expose the leader of the coup. No more plot spoilers. White House Down grossed over $205 million at the box office and scored 52% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The plot for Olympus Has Fallen is somewhat less believable. A North Korean terrorist group mounts and air attack (with an AC-130 gunship) and a large group of ground assault mercenaries to capture the building and kill most of the White House defence force aided by a corrupt former secret service agent. How this cabal of mercenaries got within sight of the White House is quite unbelievable. Fortunately, the hero, Banning (played by Gerard Butler), a former secret service agent working at the Treasury is on sight to rescue the president’s son, the president, and kill lots of bad guys. The movie grossed $170 million at the box office and rated 50% on Rotten Tomatoes.
However, the real shocker in wild plot lines is London Has Fallen. Following the death of the British Prime Minister, a Pakistani terrorist launches a terror attack in London on foreign dignitaries attending the funeral. The terrorist are disguised as Metropolitan Police, Queens Guardsmen, and other first responders and kill five world leaders. Our hero, Banning, rescues the president, escapes on Marine One only to be shot down by a Stinger missile and chased by terrorists through the streets of London. There is plenty of action and plenty of killing with Banning playing a Bond-like character. But to me, the whole plot just seems unbelievable. How could the Metropolitan Police not recognise there was something wrong with their AK47 carrying counterparts? The movie grossed over $205 million and scored a miserable 28% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Lastly, there is Angel has Fallen. Compared to the previous two, this has at least a believable premise. The president is on a private fishing trip in Virginia when a swarm of armed drones attack and overwhelm his protection detail, with only Banning surviving and saving the president. However, the president is left in a coma and Banning is accused by the FBI of orchestrating the attack. (Obviously, the FBI didn’t see the previous two movies or they might have thought Banning was acting out of character.) Banning escapes custody after his transport is ambushed and kills his attackers. He seeks help from his father and between them they ambush a host of mercenaries. Eventually, Banning rescues the president, kills more bad guys, is exonerated and exposes the true villain behind it all. All in all, the movie had a much more believable plot than either of it’s two predecessors. Angel Has Fallen grossed $147 million at the box office and scored 39% on Rotten Tomatoes.
So am I being a little unfair to the “Fallen” series? Gerard Butler did a reasonable job in the role of Mike Banning, the cinematics were good, and who doesn’t like to see the bad guys get their just desserts? Possibly. It’s just when I see some obvious plot holes and inconsistencies I want to shout at the screen ‘that would never happen’. If the only way of creating tension is by the good guys doing stupid things then there’s no real tension at all — it’s all fabricated.
So how can a writer turn up the tension in a story without using an obvious plot device or the stupidity of characters acting against their own interests? It’s a difficult balancing act between plausibility and excitement. I know. I often wonder how to up the stakes and increase the tension in a story without breaking the bounds of credibility. There’s no easy answer.
Can you remember those old movies were the villain explains his dastardly plans to the hero, confident the hero would soon die and then for some stupid reason leave him to his fate. Of course, the hero always manages to escape from the jaws of death and bring the villain to justice. Remember those early Bond movies where James always had a secret device to get him out of the hole he was in. At least we knew he had the device that Q had given him. But why was the villain so stupid as to leave Bond alone at all? But it didn’t stop me loving those old Bond movies.
So, if you’re a writer, do you recognise this problem? Readers want stories that are exciting. But they also want them to be believable.