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Double Mumbo Jumbo Muddle

By on January 24, 2006 in Genre, Today's Blog

I propose that as an audience we can only buy one piece of magic per movie. You cannot have aliens land and then be bitten by vampires and become both alien and undead. Not fair. That to me is a “cheat” in writing and disses viewers. I call it Double Mumbo Jumbo.

My best example of DMJ is Dreamcatcher, the movie based on the Stephen King book (so even my heroes can go over the line) which is an example of Quadruple Mumbo Jumbo in my opinon. This is due to its use of e.s.p., aliens, germ warfare, AND predicting the future. To me, it’s too much to “buy.” The resulting film is very confusing.

And yet…

I have gotten into some very interesting discussions lately about the piling on of “magic” in a movie. What will we buy? And what does it take to sell more than one piece of magic? Are Star Wars and Star Trek examples of “cheating” due to their use of both sci-fi futuristics AND mysticism? And what about Spider-Man? Does its twin creation myths where we see both Spidey and Green Goblin “born” by two different sets of magic bug you as much as it bugs me?

I am dead smack in the middle of writing the chapter in my new book about Out of the Bottle movies, those films that use “magic” so it’s very pertinent. I am covering Freaky Friday, Cocoon, Nutty Professor, What Women Want and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All examples of various kinds of magic. So far, I’ve found one example of DMJ among these — the scene in What Women Want when Mel Gibson first gets his powers to hear what women are thinking. As he walks through the park, a dog passes, a female dog, a female French poodle in fact, whom Mel overhears speaking — in a French accent.

It is definitely an example of piling one talent (hearing women’s thoughts) on top of another (hearing what dogs are thinking) — and with an accent!

Is this fair game? Is this just a cute throwaway gag? Do we care?

So you can see the kinds of things that keep ME up at night!

Your thoughts on Double Mumbo Jumbo are welcome. And any examples of it that you have seen in movies — Ten big bonus points!!

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About the Author

About the Author: Read about Blake here. .

There Are 21 Comments

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  1. paul says:

    I believe that if the universe the story is taking place in is established and the rules are there for the audience to see, then it can be accepted. The Matrix does this very well.

    but when something appears ‘convenient’ as if thrown in, so they can get out of a situation its a cop-out for the writer to get around a hole that they wrote themselves into. It pops up in science fiction more than others.

    give me time I’ll get some examples

  2. Gurpreet says:

    Double Mumbo Jumbo rule is my favorite and the one that I ‘knew’ intuitively
    before reading STC. DMJ is lot like too much Marzipan -simply hard to digest.
    Let’s see how his rule is broken in Shyamalan’s Unbreakable which in my opinion is a good example of bad script .
    In Unbreakable we have a guy who is called Mr. Glass because he is born with extremely brittle bones (one piece of magic) and then believing that superheroes exist he goes in the search of a man whose bones are unbreakable. It’s two different sources of magic just like in the case of green goblin and spiderman.

    The best thing one can do while writing a script is to mind the double mumbo rule .That keeps it nice . Nice and easy.

  3. olaf says:

    Just read STC on a 28 hour journey to a film project in the Philippines. I do docs with feature structure (yes it does require a little manipulation). STC just about saved my life – I’ve been stuck for years in “the deep sea” and this gave me air. Tons of it.

    About DMJ – in Eternal Sunshine it was too much. What? Everybody had their memory erased! It was an example of “over-connection” which is a cancer on good plot films. In Unbreakable I don’t find that this applies. This is a problem with Spiderman, that’s a clear example of DMJ and kills the film. But in Unbreakable it works, because one “superhero” is fully developed all the time (Jackson) – while in the end we realize that this film is about the creation of another (Willis). For me the film works. Although from STC, I know B. Snyder has a different opinon on this film.

    Blake, just one thing. Thanks for saving me here, I was drowning. You’re gonna have good karma for years to come for “sharing” the “secrets”.

  4. Blake Snyder says:

    Olaf!! Thanks for your great comments! I am humbled by your kind words. And I appreciate your take on Unbreakable too. This discussion is key to forming our own opinions about what works for us. Much appreciated!

  5. Sarah Beach says:

    I had to think about it for a while.

    But THE ABYSS.

    Undersea problem – with “breathing liquid oxygen” as a solution. That’s One Mumbo Jumbo.

    Demented Navy SEAL, with a nuclear warhead to play around with. That’s Two Mumbo Jumbo.

    Aliens. Strike Three!

    Overdone, as far as I’m concerned.

  6. Blake Snyder says:

    Sarah! That is so right on! I had not thought of The Abyss (though one line in that movie makes me glow with pride: “Who do you think you are Roger Ramjet!” Cameron is a RR fan!) it’s exactly what I’m talking about. And when you think about it, it’s a lot of stuff to digest. A muddle of too much magic — great insight!

  7. Steve Lang says:

    While we’re on M. Night…

    I think the Village gave us 1 too many twists which dilutes the dramatic effect of the movie. It’s not ‘magic’, but I thought it was analgous to this discussion in terms of destroying audience belief. First, the whole contrived setup about the color red, the mystery boxes in every house, and the creatures beyond the village borders. Second, a village idiot ends up being the cause behind the mysterious killings. Third, we’re all actually in the modern day, as a group of people contrived the whole village to escape modern society.

    If M. Night had actually picked just 1 (heck, go ahead and pick 2), he could have really explored the ideas and their ramifications. But having all 3 turned the movie into a giant gimmick IMO. The third and final twist was actually kind of clever IMO, but I still groaned because it was too much. What was the actual point of the movie? (6th Sense is one of my favorites too.)

    Along the same lines, I think Star Wars came close to losing me with the ‘not only is Luke son of Vader, but Leah is Luke’s sister’ thing. I bought it when I was a kid, but not by too much.

    Lucas also set up the Force as a mystical spiritual power, then later inexplicably added the quasi-scientific mumbo jumbo about mitochoridians, genetic inheritance, and a Force-measuring instrument that resembled a blood-sugar meter, all of which completely destroyed the Force for me. Not only was it 2 forms of mumbo jumbo, but 2 antithetical forms no less…

  8. Steve Lang says:

    Interestingly, referring to Blake’s original comment about Star Wars combining mysticism and sci-fi, that part never bothered me (although I can see how it could obviously bother some.) Maybe it’s because Lucas acknowledge the dichotomy upfront and center in the movie, as personified by Luke and Han Solo. If everyone was running around using a combination of laser guns and directing laser blasts with the Force, it would have likely fallen completely flat.

    Personally, I’m not a diehard sci-fi fan, so the Force was cool to me. Of course I saw Star Wars when I was 6 or 7…

    Okay, here’s one more. What’s up with the end of the final Matrix movie? The original premise is that Neo and others have superpowers due to specific reasons related to VR and computers. Very plausible in a big-budget movie sorta way. But by the end of the 3rd movie, all hell (and logic) breaks loose. Neo is stopping Sentinels in real life, and can somehow ‘see’ even though he’s blind. Also something about Neo’s code mingling with Agent Smith’s code, even though one’s a human and the other is a computer virus. Worse of all, they don’t bother explaining why all these things are.

  9. Jim DiPrato says:

    Pascal Boyer in chapter two of his excellent book Religion Explained analyzes the thought processes that make certain religious/superstitious beliefs “believable” (Be they actual beliefs of some culture or just ones made up for argument/experiment sake).

    I think if you want to find a sound scientific basis for DMJ, this would be a good place to begin as I believe fictionional narrative (especially when it involves fantasy) relys on similar cognitive processes as those used in religious/superstitious thought.

    Boyer’s overall thesis, if I recall, is something like: Supernatural/religious beliefs inherently rely on natural mechanisms of the human mind. They stem from thought processes we use for other more mundane tasks, like catagorizing people, places and things, and they follow certain rules related to the particular tasks these parts of our minds accomplish.

    One of these functions/rules, the one I think relates to DMJ, involves using what are called “ontological templates”, and how these templates are hijacked by superstitious/religious beliefs.

    We use ontological (naming) templates as a sort of shorthand or shortcut when we learn a new thing, sort of a way of saying this new thing is just like these other things, therefore it can be assumed to share a set of attributes. For example the “animal” template we use to learn new animals includes attributes like : grows and dies, has typical shape, needs food, reproduces within species.

    In religious beliefs we generally add a SMALL variation, what he calls a counter-intuitive element, to a template we already have. (The counter-intuitive is what you call Mumbo-Jumbo).

    Too many counter-intuitives or inconsistent counter-intuitives however, according to Boyer, tends to render the belief, well … unbelievable.

    Basically the belief ends up not being close to any of the templates you already hold in your mind, and you are likely to reject it out of hand, without conciously knowing why.

    He goes to great depths in explaining this point and many others (far better than I have I’m sure), and argues extensively from the scientific literature.

    BTW – Loved Save the Cat. It definitely ruined me for other, less instructive books : )

  10. Jim DiPrato says:

    Upon re-reading my post I thought that, for clarity’s sake, I had better give a few examples of what I was talking about as it applies to movies.

    Positive examples that work (limited and consistent counter-intuitives):

    ET is a story about a boy who brings home a lost animal as a pet, a familiar situation that most of us have a template for, but the main counter-intuitive element is that this animal is an alien from outer space.

    Nightmare on Elm Street is a story about a serial killer that preys on children, something we all unfortunately have a template for, but this killer, Freddie Krueger, can get kids in their dreams, the counter-intuitive element.

    It’s a Wonderful Life Is about a man who learns, to his surprise, how much of a positive effect he has had on the lives of other people, something we all hope for in our own lives (a template per se), but the way he gets to see this, the angel, is the counter-intuitive.

    A negative example might be Signs. Although I personally really like the movie for some reason, I have to admit something about it doesn’t work for a lot of folks.

    The story is about a minister who has lost faith in his religion, and how he regains his belief.

    The problem is it has two big, totally INCONSISTENT counter-intuitives in it. First aliens invade the earth, then God intervenes in a mumbo-jumboish sort of way to save his son in the end.

    I hope this makes clear what I was saying.

  11. walt says:

    I agree that many movies suffer from “double mumbo jumbo” aka DMJ as Blake has correctly identified it in Save The Cat.

    There is an old saw in screenwriting that an audience will always believe it if you put your hero in more jeopardy or a worse situation. But they will never believe it if a “too convenient” or easy solution emerges. The best stories grow organically from a single concept, i.e. “What if believable aliens arrived?” (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, STARMAN, WAR OF THE WORLDS) and there’s plenty of material in that single “what if” to explore in various ways that still seem connected to reality. The more DMJ you add, the harder it is to tie the story to a reality we know. When aliens arrive in HITCHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, there’s planetary destruction, singing dolphins, philosophical computers and so much more. Triple-mega mumbo jumbo. Which works for comic effect. But no watcher beyond the age of 7 will see the movie as a “reality” with suspension of disbelief.

    It’s worth thinking about whether DMJ applies differently in comedy, and at what point there is too much mumbo. Literally, the concept of DMJ is the backbone of a movie like Victor/Victoria “A woman playing a man playing a woman.” But it works because the reality is not fractured. All we really have to believe is Julie Andrews has James Garner fooled. MEN IN BLACK has the DMJ of “top secret government agency” meets “illegal aliens.” But the movie still works because it’s comedy — so we forgive a little reality, and because Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones give very dry performances, deadpan, never winking at the audience. The overall danger of mumbo-jumbo, be it double mumbo jumbo, triple extra mumbo jumbo or whatever is — the more mumbo the harder it is to “keep it real.”

    DMJ happens, I think for a two main reasons:

    1. A writer runs out of what they have in story bucket A and feels they must add something from story bucket B to solve whatever jam they have gotten themselves into.

    2. They are told at some point by a friend, reader, executive that they should add commercially proven aliens, dinosaurs, sharks, the CIA, telepathy, true love, a twin, etc. to the story to “raise the stakes.” This is akin to the “more spices in the pot is better” school of cooking.


    Others have commented about the DMJ in Star Wars, i.e. both “SF” and “Mysticism.” How does screenwriter George Lucas get away with it? He “defuses” the mysticism by having characters in the story scoff at it:

    LUKE: You don’t believe in the Force, do you?

    HAN: Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

    Han Solo’s commentary defuses the DMJ, by providing the very skeptical reaction (“I don’t believe it!”) that is building in the audience. And by Han voicing our concern, it’s now OK for us to believe in the force more than ever.

    If you have anything in your script that’s hard to believe you can sometimes get away with it by having some character in the movie make that very comment.
    My favorite recent example of this is in Michael Bay’s THE ISLAND where Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor jump out of the 60th floor of a building and fall 300 feet to the ground luckily saved by some construction netting and one of the construction workers yells a line about like:
    “Wow! That’s the most unbelievable thing I ever saw!”

  12. Steve Lang says:

    I really liked both the ‘template’ concept, and the tactic to defuse DMJ. The Star Wars example was really great.

    Here’s a piece of mini-jumbo. In Chronicles of Narnia, who arrives on the scene to deliver gifts to the kids? Santa Claus! It didn’t really bother me, I loved the movie. But it kinda threw me for a loop for a moment. Santa Claus is more or less a commercial icon rather than religious one, so I thought it ‘felt’ okay. But had the Easter Bunny shown up (a talking one at that!), that would have been over the line for me.

  13. Sarah Beach says:

    Steve, not “Santa Claus”, but “Father Christmas”. He’s in the book, and he delivers the tools to the children, so he’s kind of hard to excise, no matter how awkward he is, story-wise. In the film, of course, he isn’t actually named (for the benefit of the audience on both sides of the Atlantic). But the children are reminded that under the White Witch, Narnia is locked into “always winter and never Christmas”. The arrival of Father Christmas is to signal the release from her dominion.

    Is that DMJ? I don’t know. More awkward story-wise is the concept of Christmas in a land where Aslan is the Christ-figure. 😉 How are the Narnians to know of Christmas? I (and Tolkien) blame Lewis for that slap-dash insertion.

  14. Rob says:

    See, I think the DMJ thing is kind of bogus. To some degree the idea makes sense. But the real issue is in establishing the world of the story up front. If there are aliens AND vampires, and the writer establishes that in the begining of the story, it can work. I had no problem with the seperate origins in Spider-Man, because that’s the kind of world that was presented to us, where science can sometimes create superpowered people by accident. There are too many great stories that break this “rule.” There are also some really horrible stories that break the rule. And the example about the ABYSS seems way off to me. There’s no DMJ. It’s science fiction. This means advanced technology (the liquid oxygen, underwater oil rig) and alien lifeforms are fair game. We would have to empty the SF shelves at the book and video stores if having these elements in the same story was actually a “flaw.”

  15. Abe Burnett says:

    How about Bewitched. The remake really disappointed me. It had a lot of money behind it, two likeable stars, a good director…and no cohesive story. But I thought that what really sunk the film was that it had the whole DMJ syndrome go’in on. There was just a point when, for me, I mentally threw up my hands and said, “yeah, right! Let’s cut and go again people.” When I read the DMJ idea Bewitched is what came to mind (the new one, not the old).

    I think you’re onto something with DMJ–but as others have pointed out–the concept needs a bit more refining. Why does it appear to work in some films and not others? The last two Batman films, for example, were horrid; total DMJ catastrophes. But the first two were ok; or great even.

    Maybe your DMJ idea might be best described as some films have too much sugar pouring from the bottle. The darn stuff clogs the story arteries, sends it into hyperglycemic shock (complete with gitters), and results in such an overwhelming sweetness in one’s mouth that you just wanna throw up. Even with that description where does the line lie, and how does an audience (or writer) know when it’s been crossed? I think it may have a lot to do with consistency and enviromental rules. Or that’s how I think of it anyway. If you establish a framework for the kind of weapons or tools that are available to you heros and villains at the beginning of the film then you’d damn well better not pull out any surprises later on. Your audience will (and should) revolt against you. It’s like running a “free nukes for terrorists” program. Nobody likes it, and everyone feels violated. You’ll see that in tons of movies that most everyone “buys.” Aliens, Star Wars, Spider-man, Army of Darkness, and so on. Just my 2c.

  16. James V. says:

    “Okay, here’s one more. What’s up with the end of the final Matrix movie? The original premise is that Neo and others have superpowers due to specific reasons related to VR and computers. Very plausible in a big-budget movie sorta way. But by the end of the 3rd movie, all hell (and logic) breaks loose. Neo is stopping Sentinels in real life, and can somehow ’see’ even though he’s blind. Also something about Neo’s code mingling with Agent Smith’s code, even though one’s a human and the other is a computer virus. Worse of all, they don’t bother explaining why all these things are.”

    The implication at the end of the second film is that the Architect “creates” heroes by imbuing them with computer code (since the heroes are really just a solution to a problem in the Matrix). This code is what allows Neo to communicate with the Sentinels and “see” the inner workings of the machines. Both are symptoms of this new sense he’s developed.

    Hopefully that makes sense. I think the bigger case of Double Mumbo Jumbo in The Matrix series is the introduction of vampires and werewolves and ghosts. Even though they’re ostensibly explained as anomalies in the system, they never serve any significant purpose…and therefore read like a desperate effort to up the stakes superficially.

  17. Matt says:

    I think you mentioned Unbreakable, but I’m not sure in this manner. It seems he has Green Mile insight powers, plus he can’t be killed.

  18. Matt says:

    Oh, and PTA is guilty in Boogie Nights. No way can one guy know karate, have a huge cock and be a great musician. Thank you, thank you. And those 3 are interchangeable.

  19. Chris says:

    This is one reason (of many) “Iron Man” did so well — the Villian was created by the same magic as the Hero. It looks like they’re gonna more or less stick with that formula in the sequel with regards to Mickey Rourke’s villian: similar technology, counter agenda (and surely, since it’s a franchise, we know what the outcome will be, so let’s hope we enjoy the ride as much the second time around!)

  20. Matt says:

    Could not disagree more with earlier comments about Eternal Sunshine. The movie had only one bit of “magic”: the memory erasing technique. Everything else was extrapolated from that. The fact that more people than you expected had used it was a plot twist, but also crucial to the theme. You could see why the protagonists would be driven to use the tool, and the audience learns the unintended consequences alongside the protagonists.

    (I should also point out that the “magic” wasn’t implausible at all. Researchers have found that taking beta-blocker drugs _while recalling a traumatic event_ lessens future recall of the event. The movie replaced the drug with a laser, and made the erasing 100% effective, but the screenwriter clearly was using the drug research for his premise and exploring some of the ramifications.)

    I agree that Spiderman 1 is somewhat guilty of DMJ, but of course it comes from the source material. In that sense it’s two short stories, just as Superman’s origin in the first Reeve movie is a prologue to the Lex Luthor storyline. But I agree, it would have been more satisfying if they’d avoided it like the Iron Man movies have managed to do (to steal Chris’s example.).

    Great discussions here! I’m not a screenwriter but I do tend to dissect things I watch. Might pick up one of these books to put names to things that have bothered me.

  21. Jim Valko says:

    These blogs are excellent and really make me think about the concept of DMJ. For myself I sort of expanded the definition and would state it this way: A movie creates a universe in and of itself – and everything in that universe has to relate to everything else consistently and logically in order to be believable. A movie establishes its own “laws” and then has to be true to those laws. The purpose of the “laws” is to set the guides as to what freedoms and barriers the characters must work within. A good movie will create a reality mold (framework of laws) early on. Big, for example, let us know within the first 18 minutes (yes, I timed it once) about the magic machine that will grant his wish. The Wizard of Oz creates a fantasy reality mold early, where we know that practically anything is possible. We accept it all because the reality mold is established early. It’s kind of like we go: “Okay, I see what this movie is doing. I get it. I’ll play along.”

    Someone mentioned “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The reality mold was established from the beginning with the angel narrating the story. We knew the angel would intervene at some point, therefore it didn’t break the reality mold established. Although… An interesting point is “It’s a Wonderful Life” didn’t do well at the box office and only gained popularity after years on TV. I have often wondered if that was because the angel concept, although introduced early, was too much magic by the time the angel arrived later. The majority of the movie had zero magic in it. When the angel finally came it was “out reality” to the audience. This “out reality” then only became accepted after the movie became old, in which point the angel concept seemed endearing rather than unreal. Just a thought.

    For years I’ve disliked certain movies because their “reality mold” was broken, but I never clarified why for myself until I read STC. I’m using the term reality mold because it works for me, but obviously I’m referring to DMJ, and sort of expanding the term for myself. Thank you, Blake.