Promises, promises – a tale of broken plots

When I notice bad writing in books, TV shows, or video games, it’s often because of broken plots or characters. I’d like to talk about the first: broken plots. Everybody loves to talk about their work. So, as a writer, of course I also feel the need to blog about writing. Just like all the other gazillion writers in the world. Aside from reading books, I like watching television shows, and playing video games.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the plot is not the sequence of events in a story. A plot is a string of promises from you – the writer – to the reader, linked to a corresponding set of fulfillments of those promises.
At the beginning of a story, you should gravitate towards making promises, and at the end, you should gravitate towards fulfilling those promises. As an example, think of a generic detective novel or television show. Because it’s a story in the detective genre, the first promise that you make – before the reader even sees it – is that there will be a mystery to solve. The fulfillment comes at the end, when the protagonist solves the mystery. After that, everything you draw the reader’s eye to holds promises. A snippet like “Detective Flannagan kept fingering his gun” means you just made a promise about Detective Flannagan. Something is up with him. How you fulfill that promise is up to you: Flannagan could start shooting at the protagonist, or have a nervous breakdown, or reveal that his captain is on the take.
If you make a promise that you don’t fulfill, that’s when your story is in trouble.

An example

One case of broken promises in a plot that I found particularly interesting was not in a book, but in a video game. Mass Effect is a sci-fi role-playing video game – which basically means it’s a story-driven game. If you haven’t played it, don’t worry, I won’t spoil it, and you don’t need to play it to get the point.
In Mass Effect, you make all the decisions for the protagonist of the story. You control where your protagonist goes, which problems he or she tackles in what order, and what he or she says in conversations. All these decisions are promises to the player. This is a large game (a trilogy of them actually), and a lot of these promises are made. The fulfillments can be small or large, depending on the choice you had and the rest of the story. You might give a person some advice and later run into them having followed it. You might also choose to condemn an entire race of aliens to suffering and see how that plays out.
The ending of Mass Effect, however, led to outrage all across the internet. People wanted their money back, they felt lied to, cheated, angry. Could the ending really be so bad? There are dozens of video games that have terrible endings. Why was this one any different? Well, I say because of the way the promises were set up.
As I wrote above, every decision you make in the game is a promise to the player. They kept that going right until the very end of the game… and that was very bad. Because the ending of a story needs to fulfill the most important promises made earlier, and try to bring the fulfillments of promises together in a climax. In this case, the player could choose their ending, regardless of their choices. In other words, the ending folded on all previous promises made by the decisions of the players. No matter the choices made in the rest of the game, the ending was always the same. Three games worth of hundreds of choices. Hundreds of broken promises. Hence outrage. And rightly so, I would say.

Conclusion

So, the moral of this tale is: know what you’re promising and make good on it, or your plot will suffer for it. Spread the promises out correctly, and deliver on them correctly. It doesn’t matter how you fulfill them, but make sure you do.

Oh, and play Mass Effect, because right until the end it is pretty cool.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands