(Spoilers: Inception, Sucker Punch, The Matrix, Pan’s Labyrinth)
Back in the 80’s, the TV show Dallas decided to undo a weak season by revealing it was all one character’s dream. The audience was furious. Why? Because they had invested hours and hours over the course of eight months in storylines that didn’t matter.
Dream worlds and alternate realities contain a significant trap for writers, one I see my students fall into from time to time. The problem is one of stakes. If the events in the “other world” have no effect on the real world of the character, then why should we care about them? There’s nothing to gain or lose by success or failure in the dream.
Comparing Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) and Sucker Punch (story by Zack Snyder, screenplay by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya) illustrates this well. Sucker Punch contains several layers of dream/fantasy. When the team of young women go on the various missions that make up their escape plan, Babydoll dances to distract their overseers and the film shifts into fantasies that metaphorically mirror the real-world* missions.
Except it’s unclear what impact these fantasies have on the outcome of the actual mission. Will the results of the fantasy impact the success or failure of the real-world caper? If not, it’s just eye candy. Nothing wrong with eye candy, but if that’s all you have, then there’s no tension or audience involvement and things get tedious real quick.
Inception is similar to Sucker Punch in that most of the action takes place in dreams. Except in Inception the adventures in these dreams have a clear purpose in the real world. Success or failure in the dreams matters. And, it’s made clear that if someone dies in these dreams, they’ll die in the real world. In Sucker Punch, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Thus the dream action in Inception has stakes for the characters, whereas in Sucker Punch it’s just a bunch of pretty images.
A key here is establishing the rules of the world. Inception does a good job of laying out the rules – how you get into and out of the dreams, how time works in the dream world, what happens if you die there, etc. Sucker Punch never clearly defines these sorts of things.
Any time you introduce a world or an element into your story that isn’t a normal part of our real world, you must establish the rules. This goes for supernatural, science fiction, fantasy and superhero movies as well. The audience is fine with fantasies as long as they understand how they work. If anything can happen at any time, it feels like the filmmakers are cheating.
Computer generated virtual realities are similar to dream worlds, and pose the same challenges. In The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) the characters enter into a computer generated world. But the rules are made clear: here again, if you die in the Matrix you die in real life. And actions in the Matrix affect the real world – the biggest danger in the movie turns out to be that the Agents might be able to find the location of the real-world Zion once they capture Morpheus in the Matrix. This gives us stakes.
In other kinds of alternate reality worlds, such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (screenplay by Ann Peacock and Andrew Adamson and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) the characters physically travel from our world to another universe. This creates natural stakes in that the characters can be killed in the alternate reality, since they are physically present there. But the whole endeavor can still feel rather pointless if there isn’t some impact when the characters return to their regular lives.
The best way to do that is through the characters’ internal journey. Their experiences in the alternate reality teach them something that allows them to conquer a problem in the real world.
In Pan’s Labyrinth (written by Guillermo del Toro) the fantasy elements that Ofelia sees do appear to have some impact in the real world, such as the mandrake root healing her mother, but they mostly serve to give her the strength to stand up to Vidal and save her brother in Act Three. The various fairy tale tasks, while having no apparent real-world purpose, prepare her to take critical action in reality. That gives them significance.
If you are writing a story with a dream world, virtual reality or parallel universe, be sure to clearly establish why we care. This means making the rules and the stakes for the main character clear.
*Of course in Sucker Punch even what appears to be the real world is undermined, making the whole thing feel like a waste of time.
In other news, we got a lovely review for The Hollywood Pitching Bible.