Stan Lee invented the Marvel No-Prize back in 1964, and over time it took many forms, but my favorite, by far, was when it encouraged readers’ imaginations.
As fans, many of us are quick to point out inconsistencies, even in our favorite works. Everyone likes to feel smart, and finding others’ errors is a easy way to do it (I’m no exception). While Marvel was known for great consistency, many readers wasted no time writing in when they spotted an error. And here’s but one place where Stan Lee’s brilliance shown. He awarded the no-prize to readers who not only spotted an error, but then went further to explain why it was not in fact an error, by applying some logic or elaboration beyond what was told in the story. These readers filled in the gaps.
When I catch myself poking holes at some plot, or seeing others do the same, I like to take it a step further and then say, “well, how could this thing still be true?” and imagine a solution, a bridge across the seeming inconsistency.
Here’s an example: I’m a big nerd for the Walking Dead. I’ve watched the series, I’ve read the books. In the pilot episode we see Rick in a coma. Shane goes to visit him. Rick blanks out, and then wakes up to the zombie apocalypse. According to the wiki timeline, Shane visits Rick on day 14, then leaves and blocks the door. Rick doesn’t wake up again until Day 60 and has a drink of water. So, other than the IV attached to his arm, Rick had no fluids for 46 days, or about six weeks. By the rule of threes, he’d have died after three days. “What a gross inconsistency!” my nerd brain yells.
The trick here is to come up with an explanation that fits. It can push, but not break the universe rules that they’ve created, or contradict established physics or common sense. So how about…
- Someone tended Rick despite the National Guard clearing out the hospital, but blocked the door with the gurney the same way Shane had. —Maybe, although the webisodes indicated that those left in the hospital were essentially euthanizing patients. So, if discovered by those folks, it’s more likely that Rick would have been snuffed. That doesn’t really work.
- The IV bag was a very slow drip, and actually lasted 45 days. A day after it ran out, Rick got thirsty and woke up. – That’s…lame. Depending on the drip rate, you might stretch that out to a day, but any longer and he’d dehydrate faster than he’d rehydrate.
- The timeline has much guesswork, and the 46 day stretch was more like seven days. —Maybe. There was a lot that happened in that stretch, but it’s possible that it all happened within a few days, and Rick woke a couple days after that, on the verge of death. Even so, we’re still looking five or so days without water. Rick would have woken parched, but he could be a statistical outlier that gets him another day or two.
- Rick had a genetic mutation that allows him to go much longer than most without water, like a camel! —Eh, this feels out of place, especially since it’s never been mentioned elsewhere in the show. It pushes the show’s “rules” too far.
- The zombie virus allows folks to go longer without water. —Again, if this were a thing, someone would have noticed it after five seasons and two+ years after the apocalypse. Still a stretch too far.
- Combine the factors – The timeline was about seven days, Rick had a slow IV and hoarded water like a camel (maybe his AC was cranked too…), a factor that was subtly amplified by the zombie virus. —It’s still a bit of a stretch, but it could work. The virus explanation is a minefield though; writers have to be careful with something like that, because it opens the doors for future contradictions. It becomes a point they have to remember whenever next talking about the virus. Luckily, they don’t talk about it much, so this might not be a problem.
You get the gist.
I’ve been practicing this a lot doing the prep work for novel #3. I did a lot of world building before and during, and tried to view parts of my manuscript as a nit picky critic. I saw some holes, and tried to explain things as naturally as possible, but I need to be careful with this. Too much exposition and worldbuilding, and I’ll kill the pacing. If I expand on every little point, I might frustrate readers who just want to get on with the story. So I need to weigh each of these explanations and determine how much the story needs to flow and remain consistent without overloading or boring the reader. It’s a balance.
Next time you’re in one of those discussions, give the No-Prize a try. See if you can imagine a way to weave those loose threads into a consistent tapestry.