Five writing mistakes that ruin stories

LionPeople have told me I’m very critical of movies, TV shows, and video games. That’s true, I think; it’s a direct result of my obsession with the mechanics of writing. Knowing the mechanics automatically makes you see others failing at those mechanics. Below are the five that I see most.

#1 The unbelievable villain

Have you ever wondered why Senator Palpatine in Star Wars goes to all the trouble of overthrowing the Republic and becoming a dictator? I have. In Spectre, the 24th James Bond, the bad guy is Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He goes to almost inhuman troubles to make James Bond’s life miserable. Why?

As a writer, I’m constantly thinking about ‘why’ characters do things. Motivation is king in stories.

Villains are usually evil. Unfortunately, many movies and video games make a villain evil seemingly for the heck of it. The more a villain goes out of his way to achieve something they don’t directly benefit from, the stronger the motivation needs to be explained. A villain who goes out of his way to stalk and kill the partner of the hero must have a good reason to do so. They often don’t. For other examples, go re-read my review of the final Sherlock episode. Or the Librarian.

#2 The unbelievable henchmen

As bad as an unbelievable villain is, the unbelievable henchman may be worse. I already mentioned the Librarian as an example of a story with an unbelievable villain. The henchmen are worse. When the villain gains the ultimate weapon – the spear of destiny – he immediately tests it out on his right-hand man. Would you work for a person who randomly kills you or your colleagues? No. But it’s a staple of evil villains. They kill their henchmen in anger left and right. Why do the flunkies stand for it? Worse, why do they literally die for it.

#3 Unbelievable characters

Of course, it doesn’t end with villains and henchmen. Many movies and TV shows are rife with other unbelievable characters.

I’ve spoken at length about Alien: Covenant, which features a bunch of mindbogglingly idiotic colonists as the protagonists.

I stopped watching Lost about five episodes in, because this show was about a group of people stupid enough to survive a plane crash only to turn around and start sunbathing for days until their water runs out.

Characters being stupid is not that bad, but characters often act like no sane person would. Seriously, if you and some friends are in a dark scary house, how many of you would split up and start investigating by yourself? Stories often hinge on characters doing these baffling things. There’s even a name for that: the idiot plot.

#4 Lack of agency

Stories are about one or more protagonists. They drive the story, and the story changes them. Writing stories is about matching a plot and character arc to create a vivid tale.

Unfortunately, many stories actually don’t have much to do with their protagonist. This is one of my biggest gripes with for example X-Men: Days of Future Past. This movie is supposedly about Wolverine, but Wolverine is mostly tacked on to the actual story about Magneto, Xavier, and Mystique. Wolverine has little agency. He’s just there as an onlooker.

I’m sorry for everybody who liked Sense8 that it was cancelled, but I truly hated the show. I’ve rarely seen a show that features so many characters with zero agency.

#5 The convoluted approach

So, you’ve a villain who has decided to do something bad. Steal something, murder somebody, or whatever. How do you go about it? The straight-forward way? Or through a complicated plan with a large number of moving parts?  Many a movie is about people taking the latter route.

Let’s take a closer look at Ares, from Wonder Woman, which I reviewed last week. He wants humanity to destroy itself. He goes about this by whispering violent formulas in the ears of people on both sides of the war. Meanwhile, he also tries to convince people to sue for peace. Why the schizo-act? He could have played both sides from the shadows and be done with it. Why wait until the end of the war to whisper secrets of a potent weapon into the ears of somebody pretty far removed from power. Wouldn’t a whisper of violence into the ear of Kaiser Wilhelm work better?

Another example, the Erica Reed video game contains a very tangled story of sibling violence and clairvoyance. The story is based on some really weird character choices. To fill an entire game, the writers seem to have chosen to overcomplicate the plot up to the point of bafflingness.

Conclusion

Being critical about stories is the bane of the writer, and now, maybe, you can share in the experience. Of course, these five mistakes are just the beginning on the path. Just remember you can have just as much fun ripping a story apart and criticizing it as looking at it in ignorant bliss.

 

Author: Martin Stellinga

I’m a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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