Internal Consistency in Storytelling

By Fabius Mayland / March 3, 2013


In regards to storytelling, I would like to introduce a certain concept which I will refer to as "internal consistency". It is akin to realism in many respects and it is an important aspect of any fictional story. The key difference between realism and internal consistency is this: Realism means "Could this happen in our world?" Internal consistency means "Could this happen in their world?" The difference is important when considering a fantasy or a science-fiction movie. It probably is not realistic — but it can still be internally consistent. I'll explain this using the movie The Matrix.
   When you're in the matrix, you're in a world with different rules. Neo, Morpheus and Trinity can all jump amazingly high, they have extraordinary reflexes and so on. However, when you get hurt in the matrix, you also get hurt in the real world. When you die in the matrix, you die in the real world. This is made clear multiple times. So this is the "rule set" of the matrix. It's obviously not our rule set (they perform superhuman feats), but it is a rule set nonetheless. When Neo fights Agent Smith, we, the audience, feel suspense. If we were to pause for a second, we would quickly realize that Neo won't just die — or the movie would be over prematurely. But because the movie abides by its own rules, we are willing to suspend our disbelief — the movie is not realistic, but it is internally consistent. If the movie would suddenly abandon its own rule set, our willingness to suspend our disbelief would be gone.
   With this in mind, I can very easily explain where the second and third movie went wrong. In Reloaded's Chateau fight scene, the whole movie falls apart.
   At first, the scene seems internally consistent. Neo obviously showcases superhuman abilities, but consider how he uses his agility and precognition: to evade enemies. In other words, the scene still abides by the rules of the first movie — when you get hurt, it hurts in real-life too, so Neo uses his powers to not get hit, to not get hurt.
   And then it happens. One minute, thirty-four seconds in. Neo gets hit. One of the adversaries hits him with full force. And it doesn't matter. There are a few drops of blood, and that is it. Up until this point, the audience was willing to suspend their collective disbelief. But at this very moment we see Neo get hit, and it turns out that Neo can get hit, without repercussion. The movie, in essence, broke its own set of rules, and consequently all the tension is gone. The fight is not exciting anymore, because the movie inadvertently told us that there is no way Neo would lose. Now the movie is not simply unrealistic. It is internally inconsistent.
   This also shows us why internal consistency is needed. Without it, we simply stop caring, because we are fully aware of the fact that nothing of consequence will happen. The story exposes itself as puppetry.
   Internal consistency is not only needed in movies. It is essential for any fictional story in any medium. Consider videogames. The game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim heavily features dragons. Dragons can obviously not abide by the rule set of our world (because there are no dragons), but they can abide by Skyrim's. So what is Skyrim's rule set?
   In the game, dragons are touted as incredibly powerful beasts. They are dragons, after all! Ten metres long and fire-spitting and whatnot... Everybody in the game tells us how impressed they are by dragons.
   So as I was strolling along some random path while playing the game, a dragon suddenly landed in my vicinity, and started attacking me. I had only played the game for an hour or two. There was simply no way I should have been able to beat the dragon that early in the game, barely equipped with any armor. But I did. I killed the dragon. Without losing health.
   Of course, I didn't beat it in a fistfight or something. It got sort of stuck and started relying on its slow-moving projectile attack, and I simply attacked him with magic while keeping my distance. But it was, at any rate, not very challenging. When a game is not challenging, it is boring. Challenge is one of the key aspects of a good game.
   Even worse, however: The game did not only cease to be challenging. It even ceased to give me the illusion of being challenging, because it broke its own rules. As a consequence, I stopped being immersed in the world of Skyrim — I stopped being willing to suspend my disbelief.
   At some point later in the game, some random vampiresque enemy gave me some trouble. But you know what? I had beaten a bloody dragon already! There was gonna be no way I wouldn't be able to beat that stupid-ass vampire. The game itself told me so when it allowed me to beat a dragon. The game was not only unchallenging. By failing to give me even the illusion of being challenging, it exposed itself as puppetry. I wasn't feeling like I was part of the story anymore.