An observation made halfway through a five-hour meeting in Beijing: in the movie Groundhog Day, it is never explained why Bill Murray’s character is stuck in a time loop.
Yes, the emotional reason is clear: he’s a selfish asshole, and needs to learn to be less of one. But the actual supernatural mechanism is never part of the movie. There’s not a magic clock, or a nuclear wristwatch. Punxsutawney Phil isn’t secretly a wizard.
Rather, weatherman Phil Connors is stuck in a time loop because, well, he is. We buy it, and we don’t demand further explanation.1
Most movies would make a point of singling out some physical object or act that brought about the situation. The hero would find something, break something or do something (an accidental birthday wish, pissing off a witch) as an inciting incident. It wouldn’t just happen.
But maybe it should.
You can often get rid of magic items and explicit wishes/curses, even in stories that seem to require them.
Dorothy doesn’t do anything to summon the tornado that takes her from Kansas.
Clark Kent doesn’t wish he could fly; he can fly because the story says he can.2
The Connor family is marked for death not because of something they did or said, but because evil computers from the future worry about a threat. (Ditto for Neo in the Matrix.)
As the audience, we don’t demand proof. We accept the magic as part of the premise, and don’t require a prop to ground it.
To be clear: I’m not arguing to ban all magic props. Let Frodo have his ring. The Pevensie children can climb through a wardrobe into Narnia. And once in Oz, Dorothy should feel free to grab some dead woman’s shoes.
But when developing a story with a supernatural premise, fight the temptation to embody it in a thing. These MacGuffins3 get added with the aim of keeping things simple, but too often distract from the character’s real journey.
In your romantic comedy, Misfire, does your hero need to break up two ill-suited lovers, or get Cupid’s bow and arrow back? The former is funnier. The latter has more props and rules.
Always explore doing it the way Groundhog Day did: by letting magic questions go unasked and unanswered.
- According to Wikipedia, at least one draft of Groundhog Day did include an explicit reason for the time loop — a voodoo spell cast by a coworker. Not only did the movie not need it; I’d argue that being so specific would have hurt the premise by focusing attention on her rather than him. ↩
- Or more broadly, the universe put baby Kal-El on a world with a certain color of sun. ↩
- A MacGuffin is a thing or idea that serves as a focal point to the plot, but is not what the movie is really about, and could easily be substituted with something else. TV Tropes has a long list of MacGuffins, which it considers “plot coupons.” ↩