Person of Interest: “Terra Incognita” and Time in Story

Person of Interest Binge LogoWe’ve been talking about time in story so much, I thought “Terra Incognita” would be a good episode to look at to discuss time and reality disruptions, specifically the differences among flashback, memory, dream, and hallucination, and how they can break or–in this case–make a story.

For linear, cause and effect story telling, I start with the assumption that readers/viewers want the story they signed up for, the stuff that’s happening in the now. (Patterned storytelling is an entirely different matter.) That means that everything in a linear plot that’s not happening in the now of the story as part of the ongoing plot is an interruption. Any interruption weakens the flow of a linear story, and much more than that, weakens the reader/viewer’s connection to the story. Think of it as going out for a steak dinner, and being interrupted every ten minutes with the offer of sushi. It’s not that sushi is bad, you might really like sushi, it’s that you wanted a steak dinner, and there’s a steak dinner right there in front of you, and people keep shoving raw fish in your face.

My personal approach to this is No Raw Fish, but that’s not the same thing as No Back Story or No Time Disruptions. It’s not that I bar all use of flashback, memory, dream, and hallucination, it’s that there better be a really good reason it’s there, and that reason does not include “It was the only way to get that information to the reader.” No, it wasn’t. It was the easiest way and it screwed up the story. Stop doing that.

A prime example of this is the flashback. A flashback stops the story in the now and drags the reader back to tell her what really happened in the past, which is an incredibly dumb thing to do in linear storytelling because . . .

1. The stuff that actually happened in the past is irrelevant. Ask three people you had a conversation with an hour ago what happened during that conversation and you’ll get three different stories because there were three different people participating with three different worldviews and experiences to draw from to interpret it. Reality for them at that point isn’t what really happened, it’s what they remember happened. The same thing applies to the characters in a story: their memories are what’s going to inform their attitudes and drive their actions. What actually happened is lost in the past and irrelevant; what matters is what they think happened and how that makes them act now.

2. You have carefully built the tension in your plot, and the reader is really invested in OH MY GOD WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NOW???? and you say, “Hold that thought, I want to show you what really happened twenty years ago,” and you show her, and then you say, “Remember how excited and worried and enthralled you were back before the flashback? Yeah, feel that way again.” And the reader says, “Screw you,” and goes off to eat a pint of ice cream because you’ve frustrated and annoyed her.

Screenshot 2016-05-10 18.00.27

Flashbacks kill story.

So when can you mess with time and reality? When it’s part of the story in the now:

Dreams: You know, just don’t. The character may be having the dream in the now of the story, but the use of dreams is so hackneyed and often so contrived in storytelling that it’s best to never go there. There’s a reason “It was all a dream” makes readers and viewers scream.

Memories: If your character experiences a memory, that memory was evoked by something in the now of the story, so they’re part of the now. As long as the memories do not become separate scenes (at which point, they’re flashbacks), as long as they stay connected to the action/event of the main story that evoked them and are brief, they’re not disruptions of the story. Instead, they’re disruptions of the PoV characters’ experience of reality within the story. That is, they’re the place in the story where the PoV character stares into space. Memories should be brief because if they go on too long, the other characters in the scene will start asking the PoV character if she’s smelling toast.

Hallucinations: Think of hallucinations as memories of things that never happened, but your character’s mind plays them anyway. The good thing about hallucinations is that they’ve probably been caused by something that happened in the the main story: the character took drugs or was mentally incapacitated in some other way. The bad thing is that hallucinations invite you into the Dream School of Bad Writing, so unless they’re done carefully, they’re as annoying as dreams.

PoI did theirs carefully.

Reese’s back story is a lot of PTSD from first his military and CID days and the loss of his first love, Jessica, and then his anguish over the loss of Carter, who died in his arms. None of that stops him from fighting the good fight, and he’s still loyal to the Machine Gang, but he never lets anyone get close, either, which is breaking him down, leading him to a crisis in this story. This episode is one of the rare stories that’s all about internal conflict, not as subtext but as text, told in Reese’s wished-for memories and hallucinations as he freezes to death. The wished-for memories and the hallucinations don’t interrupt the story because they are the story; the subplot here is the number who lost everything and is alone because of a murderer who was driven mad by rejection and loss and loneliness, all echos of Reese’s terrible detachment and loss. Reese’s antagonist isn’t the guy who shoots him, it’s his longing for connection, made flesh by his hallucination of Carter in the car with him, so he can finally say everything he needs to say to her, hear the things he needs her to say, heartbreaking as he struggles to deny that he needs them. It’s one of the most beautiful stories in this series, and it’s also an outstanding example of the way to distort time and reality in the now of the story to devastating effect.

But it’s also important to remember that this story is always grounded in the now. This is not Reese sittin’ and thinkin’, this is Reese trying to put a cold case to rest because it was Carter’s and he wants to feel close to her again. That’s a real bullet in him, and he really is bleeding and freezing, in pain because he wanted to be close. And finally, that’s really Fusco behind those headlights, coming to save him because he is not alone.

Weakest Parts
• Anything with Root and Finch, who seem to be in here just to remind people they’re still in here, although it’s always fun to see them work together.

Smart Story Moves
• Beginning in the memory, and making it clear that it’s a daydream because Fusco says, “Wake up.”
• The use of black and white to show Reese’s memories and hallucinations, a fairly subtle effect in a show with a palette of mostly neutrals to begin with.
• Making the number one of Joss’s cases, tying the emotional plot to the action plot.
• Showing Reese imagining what Joss did through her case notes as he retraces her steps, trying to get close to her again.
• The Machine flashing the “Out of Range” screen, working on two levels.
• Reese ‘remembering” the things he wished he’d said.
• Everything Carter tells him in his wished-for memory.
• That incredible ending: “You never did.”

Favorite Moments
• Carter. Everything with Carter.
• Root showing up in a wedding dress: “Congratulations?”
• Fusco’s headlights.

And now a Table of Contents:
Links to all the PoI posts.

16 thoughts on “Person of Interest: “Terra Incognita” and Time in Story

  1. I truly relish these PoI posts. I loved this episode because it was not only good…just GOOD, but oh the feels. Reese’s regret. Ow. OW.

    Thank you for teaching me so much about writing and sharing what you know. It’s really appreciated. You’re like my favorite history and math teachers when I was a kid in school. Ms. Bartels taught me the richness of history by making her students active participants through reenactments. Ms. Greggo taught me higher math by using the sport I adore: baseball. Now you have fed my soul discussing writing by Person of Interest. Thanks.

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  2. This is due to Jenny’s first point and completely unrelated to PoI.

    I’m sort of rereading a series (most of which hasn’t aged well) and the author wrote new books repeating events from other books, except in a different person’s viewpoint. When I first read and reread these books, I just accepted it. Now, 10-25 years from the first reads, I’m trying to decide how I feel about this. Mainly, I’m not liking it enough to buy them on my Kindle when I’ve got the hardcovers buried somewhere in my book bins.

    My question, if it is one, is more just confusion on why she thought this was a good idea and do other writers do it? I don’t remember reading anything else where this was done but my book exposure shrank dramatically after I stopped working for the library almost a decade ago.

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    1. That’s my plan for the Alice and Nadine books, but they’re two different stories that just overlap sometimes, not the same narrative told again.
      What you get telling the same story again is Rashomen: Everybody’s reality is different, so you get a better idea of what happened if you get two views (or more) of the story. But I think the Rashomen approach only works telling the same story in one story; that is, the story is about the different viewpoints in a patterned structure. If it’s two different books,and the story is the same, you don’t get the pattern so there’s no point to repeating things.
      Leverage did both of those things well: The story told from different PoVs in The Rashomen Job (which was a linear plot because each story moved the heist forward in time), and two different stories that had some identical scenes (Girl’s Night Out/Boy’s Night Out) because they were stories that were running in the same time frame and whose characters sometimes connected. The key to the Nights Out double header is that it was a double header: they showed those two episodes back to back so you could see how they connected.
      My plan for Alice and Nadine is that Alice goes south with Ethan to Archer House and ghosts and Nadine stays in Columbus with Carter and steals art, no supernatural elements. So there would be phone calls in each book and possibly conversations, but the vast majority of each book would be separate plots. However, I tried that in two of the stories in the WiP of Paradise Park, and I’m not sure it works. And since all of those WiPs are resting right now, I won’t know for quite awhile.

      TLDR: If the repetition is part of the story, I think it can work, but it has to be essential to the story, not just a gimmick.

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    2. I’m guessing it was done so people could get caught up in what had happened even if they hadn’t read the first set of books.

      That said, I read the first two books in the Spinster House skies by Sally MacKenzie and they overlap in time. Book 1 tells a romance of one couple from their point of view. Book 2 in the next couple’s story but started halfway through the first couples’ and we see a few of the same scenes but learn what else was happening and other characters viewpoints. I found it to be quite fun.

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  3. Weakest part: the perpetrator has an Evil Speech of Evil that eats up screentime and has nothing to do with the themes of the episode.

    Appropriate that this write-up was posted on this day, considering the S5 ep that aired.
    The flashbacks were used as a converging subplot. The flashbacks stop once they make the direct connection to the now.
    Unfortunately, it was also an episode that told us nothing new, did nothing for the character, and then took a dump on what John was supposed to have learned in Terra Incognita.

    One thing that is key for Terra Incognita to work is, perhaps unfortunately in your opinion, is that flashbacks are a part of the show’s aesthetic formula. The twist that they’re not true flashbacks, but hallucinations, or inaccurate memories, only works because we’ve been conditioned by previous episodes to treat the past as objective archival footage. If the show didn’t have any flashbacks up until now, the little things, like the lack of camera-view interstitials, and the subtly different color palette, or the deception in the stakeout scenes not getting the flashback color palette, lose their impact. This episode could only happen after seasons of established aesthetic, just so this episode could exploit those conventions beautifully.
    (Just like how the Long Goodbye Job could only happen once, after five seasons of intercutting exposition and its execution, so that we didn’t realize that the first account of the heist was a retelling, not the same “and here’s how we did it” kind of backtracking as the rest of the show often did.)

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    1. Ah, I was confused when you said the Evil Speech of Evil didn’t tie to the theme: you meant the new episode. Haven’t seen that yet.

      I think the hallucinations would have worked better without the idea of flashbacks as part of the show. The Machine always sets up the flashbacks with that sliding year scale at the bottom, so it was a big clue that these weren’t flashbacks when they didn’t start with that and when the first two finished with Reese staring into space.

      I think the big reveal isn’t that these aren’t flashbacks–you cop to them being memories pretty quickly, I think–it’s that they never happened. That’s the part that hurts.

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      1. For the Evil Speech of Evil, I was referring to Terra Incognita. After shooting John, the perp makes this grand speech about never being accepted by his father, because of classism, or something like that. Something utterly unrelated to the second-half with John and Carter.

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        1. Oh, then I do disagree. He talks about how he was all alone after his mother died, about how he tried to connect with his father and was shut out. He’s nuts, but he kills because he’s bitter about his lack of connection. It’s the other side of the Reese/Carter scenes; he’s Carter saying, “You never did.” It balances the story because otherwise the only person suffering is the person who refuses to connect; he and the victim represent those who are shut out, who need the connection but are rejected (the killer) or deprived of connection by loss (the son). Carter lost out because Reese didn’t connect, too. He’s not just the person suffering here, he is also the cause of suffering. That’s why it’s so important that he thanks Fusco in the next episode; he recognizes that he’s not connecting just for himself, that there’s another side that needs the bond, too.

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  4. Ooh, ooh, great Stay on Storyline distillate.

    I believe your original approach to Nadine and Alice works. So go ahead (makes grand sweeping gesture).

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