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Fridge Pipe

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The beat analysis system seen in Hamlet’s Hit Points divides expositional moments into three major types. Question beats make us curious; reveals satisfy that curiosity, often in a surprising way. The third type is the pipe beat, which gives us information we’ll need later. A classic pipe beat is unobtrusive, so as not to tip the reveal in advance. If, while experiencing a story, you find yourself thinking, “This apparently tangential detail will matter later,” the pipe beat is giving itself away.

Some bits of information don’t so much set up a reveal as support the story’s logical framework. The line of dialogue that explains why the crew can’t use the transporter to beam down to the planet allows us to accept a contrivance necessary for the plot of this week’s episode.

If you find yourself writing a story, or plotting an RPG adventure, that requires a lot of this explanatory support, you may want to go back and streamline your way to a simpler, contrivance-light plot.

There’s another form of pipe beat, though, one that provides a retrospective explanation that keeps the story credible in the light of its reveals. Alfred Hitchcock famously spoke of refrigerator logic: seeming plot holes that only become apparent when you think about a movie afterwards, while assembling your post-film snack at home later that night. Hitchcock wasn’t so much worried about this stuff if it kept the in-the-moment experience compelling. In prose fiction, where the reader is free to skip back and check what you did five chapters ago, you probably want to keep your construction tighter than that. The advent of home video and Internet discussion forums mean that the screenwriter might be called to greater account for restrospective logic problems than he would be in Hitchcock’s day.

Thus, a moment placed into a story so that it makes sense in retrospect would be fridge pipe. Let’s say you have a character who suddenly betrays the hero at a crucial moment. Tight story logic requires that you look at all of the moments and make sure that all of his scenes fit his real intentions rather than his apparent ones. If his ultimate goal is to kill somebody, and he forgoes up a chance to do so when we still think he’s a good guy, the writer will likely lay in some fridge pipe. Later, you can return to that moment, ask why he didn’t kill the hero in act one, and see that he was interrupted by his grandmother, hadn’t yet collected the payment for the hit, or whatever. The beat serves the story, but only when looked in the retrospective glow of the refrigerator light.

The freeze frame era has made the hunt for refrigerator pipe part of the game. A great recent example comes from the “Cooperative Calligraphy” episode of Community. This self-aware bottle episode revolves around the hunt for a pen thief in the group. At the end (SPOILER) we discover that a monkey did it. Enterprising frame hunters discovered that the monkey steals the pen onscreen, in a moment that takes place at subliminal speed.

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