My friend used to play tennis in high school. He had a coach. His name was Felix Kerner*. Kerner was young, making the kind of mistakes young coaches tend to make: He would promise my friend to restring his racket, then forget to bring it the next session. He’d schedule back to back lessons in two locations that were a 10-minute drive apart. And so on.
Years later, my friend went to college. One day, he was flipping through the channels on his TV. A cooking show stopped him in his tracks. Was that…? My friend called for his roommate: “Yo, you gotta see this! That guy making eggs over there? He used to be my tennis coach!”
And the roommate said: “Is that Felix Kerner?”
When my friend had picked himself up after falling off the couch, they discovered the roommate had worked in a remote city for a while, a city where he played tennis on the side – and where Felix Kerner had moved, only to join the same tennis club.
This is a series of improbable possibilities. In our everyday lives, they make for great stories. When several unlikely but highly possible events line up, we get to go, “No way!” and have a good laugh.
When you tell an actual story, improbable possibilities make you look like you forgot to bring the racket back to the next session.
How likely is it that aliens will land on earth in the next five years? Most people would give this a less-than-1% chance. Basically impossible. Basically. Yet, we watch movies where aliens land right now all the time.
Once you’ve swallowed the pill that the aliens are here, you can see all kinds of scenarios unfold. The aliens have advanced technology and can hide in plain sight. They can adapt to the environment better than we can. They learn our language quickly. Some of the aliens are friendly, others not so much. As it turns out, the aliens are fighting their own war amongst themselves – they just got stranded.
That’s the plot of every Transformers movie, all of which were commercial successes if not loved by the critics (but what is?).
“A probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility,” Aaron Sorkin says.
The word “probable” means likely, but if you take it apart, it also means “probe-able.” It’s an event we can probe. We can assess it. Critique it. Try to poke holes in it. “What would have to happen for aliens to land on earth in the first place?” We might wrestle with ourselves for a while, but, ultimately, we can argue ourselves into the logic we need to enjoy the rest of the film.
Filmmakers know this, of course. If they can get you to buy the first ten minutes, the rest will be downhill.
And if they can’t?
In Moonfall, the moon, well, falls. It’s the first of countless improbable possibilities in a 130-minute sequence of escalating, ever-less-likely events, which makes the entire experience maddeningly frustrating. Each event builds logically on the last, but since they’re all so damn unlikely, you stop buying in after the cast hits the third jackpot in a row.
Everything is explained away, which only makes it worse. There’s nothing to probe there! Sure, that’s how earth behaves if the moon comes too close. Sure, this dynamic will make up for the lack of fuel. But…really? You pulled it all off in one fluent motion? No way.
There is a saving grace for stories relying on improbable possibilities: Acknowledge them. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Do it with a smirk. Break the fourth wall. Make a self-deprecating reference. Show us you know we know.
But Moonfall? They do it all with a straight face. Only at minute 93 does one of the characters finally utter what has been on everyone’s mind all along: “This doesn’t make any sense!”
He looks a bit like Felix Kerner.
In our boring, predictable, everyday physical realm, a chain of unlikely events is satisfying. It’s karma. The exception that proves the norm. A little reminder that the universe is in order thanks to being in occasional disarray.
In a world we enter to escape from said realm, the impossible must become the norm. Anything else is dissatisfying. The point is not more of the same. The point is to show us a situation we’ll never find ourselves in – and then make us believe we could do what the hero does.
Whether it’s an anecdote you’re sharing, a screenplay you’re writing, or a last-minute face-saver for your boss: Make it believable, and do it the right way. The improbable rarely works. Choose the impossible if you can. See how far you can get.
Like my friend from high school who, even then, knew that, “Aliens are holding my textbooks for ransom” is a much better excuse than “My dog ate my homework.”