In an ideal situation, the world and plot work together to create the story. Some storytellers build the world first and then see what plots fit within it. Others craft a plot and then build a world around it. Both methods are valid, as long as all parts of the story can coexist in harmony. But sometimes, storytellers end up with a world that doesn’t fit the basic premise the plot relies on. What does that look like? I’m glad you asked!
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Travel back with me to a time when VCRs were still all the rage,* the internet was only kind of a thing, and slayers ruled the airwaves. Buffy’s premise is simple: the slayer must stand alone against the forces of darkness, and there’s only ever one slayer. This is so important that they put it in a voice-over before every intro in the first season.
This premise informs the entire show. Buffy is the chosen one, the only one who can protect people from vampires and demons. Even having friends is considered weird by slayer standards, and most of them only play a support role. The rare cases where Buffy actually has combat help are extreme exceptions. Angel is a one-of-a-kind vampire with a soul.* Faith is an unheard-of second slayer. That’s about it.
The problem here is that the Buffyverse is just stuffed to the brim with vampires, zombies, demons, ghosts, rogue androids,* and evil sorcerers. Just in Sunnydale, there are more enemies than Buffy could possibly fight even if she did nothing else. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day.
Worse, we know these threats aren’t limited to Sunnydale. Heck, Sunnydale isn’t even the only Hellmouth. What do all the people elsewhere in the world do with no slayer around? We might assume they’d find ways to defend themselves, but that seems unlikely given how impotent Buffy’s human friends are shown to be against even low-level threats. It’s like if Buffy were the world’s only doctor, and we’re supposed to believe that she can make a meaningful impact on global health.
The conflict here is that the plot relies on Buffy being the only one who can do anything about supernatural problems, but the world is designed to produce endless numbers of them. To solve this problem, the story needs to go one way or another. Supernatural threats can be rare, and it’s Buffy’s job to fight them alone, or she can be one of many people battling to keep the darkness at bay. She could still be the best in that second scenario, but she wouldn’t be alone.
2. A Darker Shade of Magic
A Darker Shade of Magic is a cool bit of portal fantasy set across multiple iterations of London. The book’s key theme is balance, specifically a balance of magic. The idea is that either too much or too little magic is bad. The ideal amount of magic gives you power but doesn’t overwhelm you.
The book uses its multiple Londons to illustrate this theme. Black London is a world where magic took over completely, and it’s so dangerous that it had to be sealed off from the other dimensions. White London isn’t quite that bad, but it’s still pretty dystopian, with sorcerous dynasties constantly overthrowing each other in devastating coups. Then there’s Red London, which is doing just fine with the proper amount of magic. Finally, Grey London has no magic at all.
So what kind of hellscape is a London completely lacking magic? Why, it’s our London of course, from the real world, late in the reign of King George III.* Hang on a minute, how does that work? Georgian London was certainly no picnic, but it’s got nothing on the constant bloodshed of White London or the complete devastation of Black London.
So at worst, we’re looking at a situation where too much magic is a death sentence, and no magic at all is somewhat bad. And that’s assuming that Red London actually is measurably better than Grey London. There’s not really much evidence that it is, other than simply having magic, which is shown over and over again to be incredibly dangerous. Maybe Red London has some kind of magic healthcare system or spells that conjure free bread for everyone, but if so, it’s entirely offscreen.
This isn’t a balance. The most generous interpretation is that magic is potentially useful, but you need to be really careful not to use too much of it. Alternatively, magic could easily be viewed as akin to an addictive narcotic: fun to use but so dangerous that you probably shouldn’t risk it. Either way, it’s clearly not the balance between no magic and too much magic that the characters keep insisting on.
If one end of the balance is total destruction, the other end has to be just as extreme. That was always going to be tricky with the real world involved, since it’s famous for having no magic at all, but that’s what needed to happen in order for this story’s plot to work.
Like many Star Trek shows before it, Enterprise is a story of exploration. Our heroes venture bravely out into the unknown, boldly going where no one has gone before. There’s just one problem:* This show isn’t exploring an uncharted frontier or a distant sector of space. Instead, it’s focused on exploring the immediate area around Earth, which is apparently super crowded with space-faring civilizations.
This is a serious contradiction to the show’s core premise. We’re supposed to be watching Starfleet’s finest discovering something new each week, but the space they’re traveling through has already been charted by Earth’s many neighbors. The Vulcans alone could have easily provided them maps, though it’s possible they did and Archer just refuses to use them because he hates Vulcans. Even in that instance, the characters should have gotten all the info they needed from one of the many warp-capable species they meet each week.
The writers try to deal with this contradiction by… completely ignoring it, as far as I can tell. Over and over again, we see the characters “explore” an area where countless other species have already been. It comes across more like a road trip than a mission of exploration, and the crew’s complete unreadiness to deal with even moderate problems only compounds that feeling. Seriously, in one episode they beam down to a new planet without doing any checks for toxins and are immediately poisoned. Amazing.
Admittedly, the more-remote explorations of previous Trek series have their own problems, namely that they invoke memories of colonialism, even when conquest is the furthest thing from the characters’ minds. But Enterprise decided it specifically wanted that kind of exploration and then created a setting that didn’t support it.
The easiest way to resolve this would be to simply make the space around Earth less populated. If meeting aliens were a rare occurrence, then the exploration vibe would have stayed intact. But for some reason the writers went with a more Star Wars–style universe, where interstellar travel is routine and a host of aliens gather at every cantina. With that type of setting, the story should have focused on diplomats, not explorers.
4. The New Star Wars Movies
Speaking of Star Wars, let’s take a trip to a galaxy far, far away and see how things are going there. The original trilogy’s setting and premise worked really well together. The world has an evil empire, and the premise is rebelling against it. So simple! But now it’s time for a new trilogy,* and the setting has really changed. The good guys won last time, so the evil empire is gone, which means the premise now is… rebelling against an evil empire again?
This puts the new movies in an awkward position. In Episode VII, the characters are rebelling against, or perhaps resisting, something called the First Order. What’s the First Order? The title crawl says it has “risen from the ashes of the Empire,” but otherwise we know basically nothing. Somehow the Republic is supporting the Resistance in fighting the First Order, but it’s not clear in what capacity.
This raises a whole bunch of questions. Why doesn’t the Republic just crush the First Order? Does the First Order hold territory, or is it just a space terrorist organization? Why is it specifically called the “First” Order? In what capacity does the Resistance fight it? Where did the First Order get the resources to construct a seemingly endless number of ships and an even bigger superweapon than the old Empire? There’s no answer to any of these questions unless you feel like reading tie-in novels, and it’ll be a cold day on Tatooine before I do homework in order to watch a Star Wars movie.
Then in Episode VIII, the Republic is completely gone and the Resistance is down to just a handful of ships. They’re also still calling themselves “rebels” even though they’re actually government loyalists. The First Order are the rebels. So now we have to ask what happened to the Republic. We saw a couple of its planets blown up last time, but surely there was more to the Republic than that? It doesn’t even seem like much time has passed, since one of the characters is still in a recovery tank from his injuries in the previous film.
Again, there’s a tie-in novel to explain all this, but the very fact that it needs such a long explanation shows the problem. The Star Wars universe has changed since the original trilogy. It no longer has an all-encompassing empire to rebel against. And yet it was apparently decided that because this is Star Wars, it has to be about rebelling against an evil empire.
5. The Last Battle
If there’s one thing you know about the Narnia books, it’s probably that Aslan is a stand-in for C. S. Lewis’s interpretation of the Christian God, or Lion-Jesus as I call him. For six books, absolute faith in Aslan is critical. Not only do you have to do anything Aslan says without question, but you have to do anything anyone tells you to do in Aslan’s name, since no one would ever lie about Aslan. This is really important to several major plot points. In fact, even hearing the word “Aslan” gives good people a sense of euphoria and bad people a sense of dread.
Then the last book rolls around, and Lewis apparently decided he wanted to do a false Aslan story. If you haven’t read it, all you need to know is that one of the villains engineers a scheme to trick the Narnians into thinking Aslan has returned so they’ll do whatever the villain wants. Based on previous books, you’d expect anyone attempting such a plot to spontaneously combust, but instead it works great. Apparently, Aslan’s supernatural good aura is just gone now.
But wait, it gets weirder. When the King of Narnia first hears about the false Aslan, an adviser opines that this can’t be the real Aslan because the stars would have foretold it. So now there’s a way to get objective proof that Aslan is who he claims to be? We don’t have to take it on faith anymore? Imagine this scenario playing out in an earlier book. Aslan appears, and one of the Pevensies tells him to hang on for a minute, they need to check the stars to see if it’s really him. Those kids would have been disemboweled on the spot.
This contradiction to the established setting rules gives The Last Battle a stilted feeling that never goes away. For the entire series, we’ve been asked to suspend our disbelief and assume that unquestioning faith in Aslan is always the best policy, and suddenly that’s not the case anymore. And yet Lewis is not ready to abandon his God metaphor, so now the truly faithful just somehow know when it’s the real Aslan and when it’s not. All the characters who think a false Aslan justifies being more skeptical are evil atheists who don’t get to go to lion-heaven. While this certainly exposes a weakness in Lewis’s theological argument, it also creates an unsatisfying story.
Conflict between world and premise can happen for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s just poor worldbuilding, something especially common in TV shows that have to create new content each week for years on end. Other times, the world worked perfectly well before, but now the storyteller wants to do something different in a sequel. Either way, the story’s believability plummets.
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