Being a writer tends to taint your experiences of film, TV or novels, albeit in a way which can improve your own work. While absorbing fiction, I'll inevitably analyse why I'm enjoying, or especially not enjoying, a story. Finding faults can be brilliantly instructive, in terms of avoiding the same mistakes - provided, of course, that it's not simply an issue of taste. You don't learn much from not enjoying a gangster film, for instance, if you don't particularly care for the genre.
Here are five of the mental notes I've made over the years, while trying to work out why some stories leave you feeling instinctively dissatisfied. There's no exact formula for making audiences happy, with that indefinable sense of 'fiction fullness', but we can certainly try to avoid these pitfalls...
1) IMPORTANT CHARACTERS TURN UP LATE
I've seen this happen in two horror films in the last three months alone. The protagonist has been established, then between half and two-thirds of the way through the story, new people turn up. Key distinction here: these characters aren't newly-introduced incidental characters like gas station attendants or waiters. No, they're behaving like protagonists. To all intents and purposes, they areprotagonists. In fact, in both of the films I saw they were Good Guys, on a (rather late) mission to rescue people from Bad Guys. This feels instinctively wrong, as if the writer has only just arbitrarily decided to throw them into the story - or she's become bored with the protagonist's plight, or even the protagonist themself, since these Newcomers are behaving like heroes. At the very least, they should have been seeded into Act One. But even then, there's a potentially fatal snag when...
2) THE PROTAGONIST DOESN'T RESOLVE THE MAIN PROBLEM
Yes, if those Newcomers actually do manage to sort stuff out, that's unsatisfying to say the least. We want to see those Original Protagonist deal directly with the threat they've been facing - it's no good, watching them rescued or helped by magically materialising outside forces. This is mainly because the OP has had the longest journey. They've been through the most hardship and are ideally the least equipped to deal with the main problem or threat. So their eventual triumph over adversity is bound to be the most entertaining. We're rooting for them to overcome all... so if someone else does it for them, we're deflated like a cheap air-bed.
Sometimes, often in TV drama, the protagonist needs to be instrumental in solving someone else's predicament. I recently watched an episode of an otherwise good drama series from a few years back, in which our regular protagonist tried to help a guest character overcome their terrible problem. Come the final scenes, it felt very much as though the guest character would have overcome it anyway, without the protagonist's help. Needless to say, this was deeply unsatisfying, and could so easily have been fixed. So here's a good question to ask yourself: if your protagonist was air-lifted clean out of this plot, would the whole story collapse? If not, you've got real problems and need to carry out some surgery.
3) COINCIDENCE OVERSTEPS THE MARK
Sure, we'll swallow the occasional small coincidence in a story. Two friends bump into each other in a big city? Okay, we'll buy that. Fine. When coincidence plays a major role in the story later on, though - that's when our brows furrow, we become restless and suddenly we can hear The Wheels Of Plot grinding and creaking (more on that in a moment). Plot should be a big chain of events, each of which follows logically on from preceding events, so that we understand and sympathise with how this story developed in a logical fashion. Attempt to serve plot with a great big coincidence and you run the very real risk of that chain's links flying apart. It's like hurling a basketball at a domino which stubbornly refuses to topple onto the next. Here's a useful general rule: we're much more likely to accept a coincidence which gets the hero into trouble, than one which gets them out of it.
4) THE RULES OF THE WORLD ARE NOT DEFINED
This is especially dangerous in the more fantastic genre fare. Real-world drama has an in-built set of rules. We know that world and so it needs less explanation. If we're in a heightened, supernatural, fantastic or otherwise unfamiliar world, though, we need to know the rules. This doesn't mean we have to be force-fed them, Fight Club-style, in the first 10 minutes. They should be ladled on throughout, with the artfulness also reserved for character detail and general colour.
Why are the rules important? Because if we don't know the rules, it's likely that we're unclear on the nature of the threat faced by our protagonist. What are the stakes? What's the worst thing that can happen in this story and world? If our protagonist is a ghost, can they actually die in any meaningful sense? If we don't know what they stand to lose, we're far less engaged and liable to switch off altogether.
5) CHARACTERS DO STUPID THINGS
Now, this one's interesting, because it certainly isn't always a mistake. If characters didn't do stupid things, they wouldn't get themselves into the scrapes and conflict demanded by all good drama. So many stories - so many 'inciting incidents' - are launched by characters doing stupid things. Drama practically demands foolishness, folly and flaws. But here's where the Creaking Wheels Of Plot come back into play. If characters do stupid things because, for instance, the film would be over if they didn't, that's when the writer feels our wrath. We hear the Creaking Wheels Of Plot and it's a terrible noise, reminding us that this is just a figment of someone's imagination and a clunky figment at that. The spell is broken.
I've been deliberately vague about the other fiction to which I've alluded, but can give you a precise example of this one, which will give you a mild spoiler for the otherwise excellent horror film Wolf Creek. About two-thirds of the way through, a protagonist (there are three in this film, which is one of its many strokes of genius) escapes the evil antagonist's house. She then goes back inside, and for the first time, we hear the infernal din of those Creaking Wheels. It's the film's sole flaw. Incidentally, I'm giving you this example because I once interviewed its director Greg McLean as a journalist and put the criticism to him. Here was his response: "Guilty! Absolutely. Without giving too much away, there's no reason in the world why she'd do that. What the fuck is she doing? I watch it and I go, 'Mmmm... okay'."
Needless to say, I've generalised throughout. Rules are made to be broken, and all that, but I think it's best to have very good reasons for breaking the majority of the above.
What about you? What regularly disconnects you from fiction and/or leaves you instinctively dissatisfied? Tell us about it, in the comments below.
I'm a writer of stuff, including Doctor Who, Friday The 13th and Beast In The Basement. My latest fiction release is the Orbit Books novel The Last Days Of Jack Sparks, now in movie development at Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment.
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