My partner and I have been watching a lot of movies lately. It’s quite unusual for me, as I’m much more of a book reader than a movie watcher. Anyway, last night we were watching this rom-com, and 35 mins into it, just as I was feeling so restless and frustrated, my partner turned around and said:
“The best thing about this movie is the scenery, isn’t it?”
“I know right! I don’t know why it’s so bad.”
“Do you want to stop?”
“No, let’s keep watching. I want to find out why it’s so bad.”
I know that, in writing as well as in movies, we learn as much from terrible examples as we do from exemplary ones.
So, as frustrating as the movie was, I wanted to get down to the bottom of it and find out what made it that way. Where had the scriptwriter failed me?
Here are the 3 things I am reminded by the movie about how NOT to write and construct a story.
When you do one of these 3 things, you are literally committing an artistic crime against your readers and viewers, whether it’s a book, a movie, or just a fiction story.
Crime #1. Deny your audience the opportunity to love and root for your protagonist.
As readers and viewers, we secretly, subconsciously, want to get to know the protagonist, love them, and root for them. Yes, even if they’re bad boys who create havoc for others or depressed artists desperate for a shower and haircut.
We want to know them and love them as they’re faced with their challenge and go about conquering it. When we’re not able to do that, by failure of the writer, it hurts.
This is the case with the movie I mentioned earlier on. I just couldn’t warm up to the main character, and it hurt. If I didn’t care enough about the main character, why would I care whether he could slay the dragon and claim his treasure? The whole story became “meh.”
Here are some of the ways a writer/ author can take away from the audience this gift of loving and rooting for the main character:
The character is too perfect and without flaws. Everyone secretly wants to be perfect, and THAT’S WHY nobody loves a completely perfect character. Perfectly flawless people are not real. They’re robots. That’s one of the ways the audience can’t warm up to them.
The character is one dimensional aka. flat. Romance fantasy novels run this risk by focusing solely on the relationship between the protagonist with their love interest, as if boys (or girls) are the one and only thing in their lives, and nothing else exists outside that. It means they lack depth, they’re boring and shallow peeps. We don’t want to bother with boring and shallow peeps. We’re much more fascinated by rich inner worlds, our own and others.
The character’s motives are not clear or believable enough, because there’s not enough context and background information about what truly matters to them.
Let’s say, the protagonist’s challenge is to raise half a million dollars to buy or take over a store front to sell books. But why does he want that? Why is it important to him to run a bookstore? What does he stand to lose if he can’t sell books in the store? Why should we care if he can’t sell books? Failing to address and answer these questions, the writer takes away the audience’s ability to love and root for the protagonist.
How to do this?
Give the audience enough context, background information or time to get to know the main character first, before the challenge arises.
If you’ve shown only one scene of them for about five seconds or introduced them in just one paragraph, and then in the next scene or paragraph you’re given them an enormous challenge to deal with, there’s not enough time for the audience to “decide” that we’ve seen enough of the main character to like them and root for them to win the challenge.
Crime #2. Deny your audience the opportunity to believe that it’s real.
The audience wants to be convinced.
We don’t want to be fooled – actually, we want to be fooled in a clever way, not a cheapskate way. We’re actually begging you, “Come on, convince me that this story is real. I want to believe that this is real.”
As discussed in crime #1, when the character is too perfect, flawless, too flat and one-dimensional, it is not believable enough to the audience.
We want to believe that characters are real and that they have a life of their own.
We’re secretly waiting to see how the protagonist rises above their character flaw in order to conquer the challenge, slay the dragon and claim the treasure.
A flawless or flat character will have no flaw to rise above or inner conflict to reconcile, thus taking away almost all of the viewing pleasure.
Another common pitfall:
We don’t get enough context and background information on the character’s personality, and then suddenly there’s an outburst of emotions and they start acting dramatically. It leaves us perplexed: “Where does this come from?” It seems like that just came out of nowhere.
When this happens, we deem the characters as mere puppets from the strings of a poorly-directed mind, doing things that have no properly set up motives or reasons.
So, make sure there are enough lead-ins or hints and clues sprinkled along the way to make the emotional climax or the big reveal more believable.
The readers don’t want to be treated like easily-fooled pre-schoolers. We want to be entertained in a much more intelligent, nuanced, and sophisticated way. We want to believe it.
So, show, don’t shove aka. force the audience to take it at face value.
Crime #3. Deny the audience something that was implicitly promised.
One thing writers might forget is to connect the threads.
They mention a detail and then conveniently forget to follow up on it, thinking it doesn’t matter. This usually happens when this is not a key point in the story and is not part of the big reveal, so they just brush it aside. However, this irks the audience.
If your character’s fortune depended on getting his poorly-designed house sold, and he enlisted the help of a friend to spruce it up with interior design, then show the before vs. after scenes to illustrate how much better the place looks now.
As readers or viewers, we want to know what eventually happens to that which you’ve alluded to before.
Every single detail you mention must serve a purpose of the big picture and the whole story, otherwise, omit it. Don’t casually mention something and then forget about it.
When you commit this crime, not only do you look like a poor planner who’s not on top of his plot, but it also makes the audience trust you less. It’s a natural response when we’re denied something we were promised, even if implicitly.
In my teaching, I often equate writing a story with taking the readers on a thrilling, exhilarating yet seamless journey down a stream or a river.
You want to place some rocks along the stream for them to jump on. And you want to place the rocks just the right distance apart from each other.
Too close apart, and you’ll risk boring the readers with spelling out all the details for them, leaving nothing to their imagination or own conclusion, leaving them unengaged and unstimulated.
Too far apart, and the readers can’t join the pieces together to make sense of the story. You’d lose them somewhere along the way.
Giving the audience just the right amount of space and just the right amount of clues is an art that I love geeking out on studying when it’s done well and when it’s done poorly.
Are you writing a memoir, a fiction book, or a book of wisdom and knowledge interlaced with your life journey and stories? Mastering the art of storytelling is key to helping the readers follow your book all the way to the end and reap all the intended benefits.
If you need help with content development, plot structure, character development, writing style, storytelling, while making sure the deeper message is delivered, I can help. This is my jam. Please reach out to me for inquiry and we’ll see how we can create some magic together.