Jeanne: Plot Peeves

In the rain.

On Sunday, Jilly talked about plot preferences.

Today, I thought I’d flip that and talk about plot peeves–the things that annoy and frustrate me in stories.

(Hold onto your umbrellas, kids, cause I’ve got a lot of them.

No. 1. Failure to show the climactic moment. No, I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about what Robert McKee, screenwriting guru, calls the “obligatory scene,” the scene the author has spent 300+ pages making you anticipate and is therefore obliged to show you.

It doesn’t happen often, thank goodness. The best example I can think of is an episode from the show Elementary (Season 6, Episode 12) called “Meet Your Maker” where Holmes and Watson are asked to locate a missing woman who was a financial dominatrix. (Hard to explain. If you want to know, you’ll have to watch it.) After 40-ish minutes of various plot twists and surprises, they locate the missing woman, who has been kidnapped and forced to craft untraceable guns (because of her sideline as a toymaker). Unfortunately, by the time the show reached this point, all those twists and turns had eaten up all the show’s runtime. The writers chose to skip the “freeing the captive toymaker from the bad guys” scene and jumped to the denouement where everyone was congratulating each other. What the hell?

No. 2. Failure to align the protagonist’s inner arc with the external story.

Example: Star Trek: Into Darkness

As the movie opens, Captain Kirk has a problem with accepting responsibility for his decisions. Whenever he’s confronted, he makes excuses and rationalizes his choices. About halfway through the film, he learns his lesson and becomes a stand-up guy, fully accountable. So the rest of the movie runs strictly on external plot with no additional character growth. Although this movie is very popular (89% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes), a number of people told me they found it weirdly unsatisfying but didn’t know why.

If you felt that way, this may have been why.

No. 3. Failure to build the story based on proactive choices by the protagonist.

I read a book recently where the character didn’t initiate anything. The story was built on his reactions to threats/actions by his antagonist. He also didn’t have a discernible goal.

If the character doesn’t have a goal and take action to achieve it, the story will lack profluence–that feeling of being pulled forward with the narrative. Basing it on reactions doesn’t work because the reader can’t think about what they’d do next. They can only, like the protagonist, wait for the next shoe to drop.

No. 4. Failure to employ ingenuity and originality in solving plot problems and relying, instead, on coincidence.

Seeing the protagonist escape from situations, not through his own hard efforts, but by lucky coincidence, feels unsatisfying.

Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and Story Genius, says we read books, in part, to imaginatively practice what we would do if placed in a similar situation. When the protagonist just gets lucky, readers feel frustrated because their purpose for reading the book in the first place hasn’t been fulfilled. There’s no value in practicing getting lucky.

What are some of your pet peeves with stories you’ve read?

10 thoughts on “Jeanne: Plot Peeves

  1. One of my biggest pet peeves is “The Big Lie”… you know that stupid simple thing that if one person would just ask a simple, straightforward question, or just pop in a simple, straightforward answer in there, the story would go up in smoke. One simple, annoying miscommunication that they drag on and on and on, beating us over the head with it – until it blows up in their character’s faces (which they still deny) while they are so mad because “you didn’t tell us/lied to us” BS. Hate it!

  2. Pingback: Elizabeth: Plot Tangles – Eight Ladies Writing

  3. RE #2: I love the movie, but now that you’ve said this, I can totally see it. And yes, that’s likely why it seems so unsatisfying and sort of off-kilter to me. I’ll keep my eye open for this one, because I’ve not been attuned to it before.

    RE #3: This so happened to me in early versions of my first book. That’s when I realized it wasn’t Susannah’s story I should be telling, but Nate’s. He was the one doing everything; Susannah was the unwitting victim of circumstances. Completely changed the direction of the book (in fact, the whole series) and it made telling the story so much easier.

    • I’ve been taking a Characterization class with Linnea Sinclair (online workshop teacher par excellence) and over the course of the workshop I’ve realized that I’m doing #3. The angel Gibeon keeps trying to make Lilith lose her baby and Lilith defends herself.

      Nope. He can make that first attempt, but after that she needs to grab the bull by the horns and come up with a plan to stop him. Which won’t work, of course, but she needs to be in charge of her destiny, not him.

  4. You described this perfectly! I felt that way over Stephen King’s 11/22/63-I am 40 pages from the end wondering how in the hell will he wrap this up; still feeling that with 10 pages left, then some weird time distortion crap happens and I’ve never bothered reading any more of his stuff). I also recently read a YA novel “Little Creeping Things” that if the heroine just went to adults/police, none of the bad things happen. You don’t find out her reasons until the final 30 pages, weak but acceptable in a YA book, I suppose.

    • I gave up on that one 100 or so pages in. It was clear BAD THINGS were going to happen (duh, not sure what I was expecting when I picked it up. I know King writes horror.) and waiting for those bad things just made me too uncomfortable.

      Glad to know I didn’t miss anything really great by chickening out.

      • It wasn’t even a horror story though. It became a dystopian time travel mess. I stuck with it because I thought either the hero would save the president, return to present day but “this” happened or the hero would choose the girl and live in the time line creating “this” problem in his original time line. Very disappointed.

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