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?