Cheats and Tricks of Sci-Fi and Horror

Article by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

This article appeared in Issue 18 of Frontier, Australia's sci-fi media magazine

Frontier magazine

We see them every time we turn on the television to watch the latest episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" or "The X-Files". We see them so often in sci-fi and horror movies that we hardly notice them anymore and often take them for granted. If you look closely at your average sci-fi and horror television shows and movies, you will notice that writers, producers, and directors rely on a number of narrative 'shortcuts' when telling a story-- little cheats and tricks in plot and production design that have little bearing on reality. These conventions and contrivances arise from the need to tell a story as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible (one might also add 'with as little creativity as possible' to the list), and can be attributed to one of three reasons: economy of storytelling, production constraints, and just plain laziness.

Economy of storytelling refers to providing only the necessary details or making certain assumptions to move a story forward, instead of bogging down each scene with unnecessary action or dialogue. This is why that in movies and television shows, characters will usually find a parking space right in front of the building they are going to (unless the search for a parking spot is the point of the scene), that every apartment in Paris will have an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower, and the watches of all characters are perfectly synchronized. This is also the reason why the villains of the James Bond movies, after having captured the titular secret agent, will go to great pains to explain away their elaborate scheme so that the audience is 'reminded' just how evil they are.

Production constraints are also another reason for the odd rules you find in movies and television shows. Everything you show the audience has a price tag attached, and by removing unnecessary characters or props, a producer can tell a story with the least outlay of cash. This is the reason why artificial gravity is so prevalent in outer space adventures, since it would be too expensive to simulate weightlessness (and in certain movies, may even stretch the acting abilities of the cast). In addition, because cameras require an unobstructed view of the action, you'll notice that cars in certain movies will lack rearview mirrors, which would otherwise cover an actor's face). Similarly, the majority of the apartments seen on television and in the movies are extremely spacious (providing room for the production crew to work), even if the character has a low-paying job and could not possibly afford such a place.

Finally, there is 'just plain laziness'. As a quick look at your local megaplex theatre will tell you, Hollywood is short on original ideas, since it is often easier to recycle something. Hence, writers and directors 'borrow' bits of dialogue or concise visual statements from other films and television shows instead of finding a new means of conveying the same thought. As a result, skydivers and paratroopers always make snide remarks about 'jumping out of a perfectly good airplane', noises in dark houses or alleyways are always caused by cats, cops tend to die just a few days before retirement, and the poignancy of a plane crash is often highlighted by a child's doll (appropriately charred) amidst the wreckage.

So next time you're watching a sci-fi/horror movie or television show, see how many of the following clichés and conventions you can spot:

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