When is a Bad Plot Excusable?

This is a spoiler-free discussion, although some general plot points might be touched on.  Can’t say the same of whatever comments are below.  You’ve been warned.

So, I finally finished series four of Sherlock Holmes last night.  As I was sitting in the afterglow, warm and fuzzy, unwilling to watch anything else lest the spell break, I was struck with a realization.  The plot of The Final Problem… did not hold up.

The more I thought about it the more I was able to unravel details that bothered me.  I’m a nitpicker by nature, so this wasn’t a new feeling, but I wondered why I didn’t notice the problems while I was watching it.  Furthermore, why was I trying so desperately to excuse its faults?

I’ve felt like this at least once before, directly after a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.  I remember that same feeling of “Wow.  Such a good way to wrap up the trilogy,” while sitting in the theater, and then listening to my friends bitch the whole way home about all the stupid details and why they didn’t enjoy it.

I’ve also been that person, most notably during and directly after Avatar, which I hate with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.  (Ok, maybe not that much, but it’s pretty bad.)  I hate the premise.  I hate every detail.  I will concede that the visuals were all right (even downright impressive, assuming you had never seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit and/or any of the Pixar cannon.)  But in general I can’t forgive that movie.

So what gives?  Why am I so harsh on Avatar when The Dark Knight Rises has third act that basically revolves around this plot point:

RIP Adam West. You were underrated.
Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

Well, it basically boils down to three things:

  1. Context
  2. Audience Goodwill
  3. Emotional Resonance

Context

It is entirely possible to hide a bad movie plot through fast pacing and clever editing.  For example, Memento has one of those plots that wouldn’t make very much sense (or be particularly interesting) if the story was played in chronological order.  Cutting it up keeps the audience on the edge of their seat and obscures some of the more head-scratching details.

Genre also matters.  You can maintain an audience’s suspension of disbelief based on what their expectations are.  Star Wars can play fast and loose with physics because it’s essential a space adventure series but everyone lost their minds when the crew in Prometheus removed their helmets on the planet.  (I know, I was one of them.)  The Alien franchise is a survival-horror series so we’re much more critical of any “stupid” action our heroes take.  Also, it tends to have a stricter adherence to the “science” part of science-fiction and generally takes itself more seriously.

We miss you too, Bill.
Er… most of the time.

When it comes to Avatar, the visuals were the big draw.  The people who loved it usually didn’t care about the plot.  They wanted the immersive experience of a 3D film and a rich fantasy world.  Personally, if I’m going to be blown away by visuals I’d like a simple, compact story with little room for convoluted plot contrivances.  (See: Mad Max: Fury Road.)

Context is entirely subjective.  What some may forgive others have a hard time getting behind.  Likewise, what some consider groundbreaking innovation others may see as a cheap gimmick.  So let’s move on to…

Audience Goodwill

Both The Dark Knight Rises and The Final Problem are the last installments of a franchise. In respect to context, we want them to be good because we want to say that it goes out on a good note.  At this point in both respective series they’ve build up enough audience goodwill to withstand some criticism.

And sometimes a movie is just so bad it can’t be saved.  (Looking at you, Spiderman 3.)  Context matters in this case, too.  The first two Spiderman movies were fairly successful and received decent reviews.  But what changed between 2 and 3?  Batman Begins came out and suddenly the cultural landscape of comic book movies changed.  Audiences loved the dark and gritty realism of Nolan’s take on the character and suddenly they were less forgiving of the Raimi series and its camp.  The pendulum swung back the other way in the middle of the Amazing Spiderman series, with #2 losing out to Guardians of the Galaxy, which reminded everyone that camp can be fun.

dance off
So this gets collective pass, but we can’t forgive Tobey Maguire?

This doesn’t just apply to serialized properties.  Both Wonder Woman and Captain America: The First Avenger had weak third acts but their movies held up without having to rely on previous installments.   The first two-thirds of the film buoyed them when their endings started to tank.  The reason they had so much goodwill comes down to the time spent on character development.  And that leads us to…

Emotional Resonance

When you have good characters the audience wants them to succeed.

I care about Nolan’s Batman.  I care about Sherlock and Watson.  I care about Wonder Woman and Captain America.  So when they come out on top, I’m happy about that, even if the way they got there might’ve been a touch stupid.

I’m going to backtrack and talk about Spiderman 3 again as a comparison.  I think one of the reasons that movie lost so much goodwill is because the character of Peter Parker is such a tool.  (At least in that film.)  In the first two we empathize with his struggles, his internal conflicts and related to him as a flawed hero.  By the end of the third movie we don’t care if he succeeds because he’s become so unlikable as a protagonist.

gwen stacey
In Pratt’s defense he never had to make up for a scene like this.

Contrary to that, when Batman finally passes the torch at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, I felt a swell of emotion.  During the montage of Sherlock and John solving cases together at the end of in The Final Problem I felt satisfied with how they wrapped everything up.  For once the details were just details, and I was able to let it go because of the way it resonated with me emotionally.

It’s a lot easier to forgive something that makes you happy, even if that happiness is entirely subjective.

Additional thoughts

When I originally wrote this, I put a disclaimer saying that this discussion doesn’t apply to intentionally self-aware camp, so-bad-it’s-good schlock, or guilty pleasure movies.  I want to retract that statement.

When it comes to bad movies we love, it still applies.  Either the context is there (Adam West’s Batman knows exactly what it is) or the audience goodwill is (The Room might be the worst film ever made but I’m enjoying myself so I forgive it) or the emotional resonance is (I won’t try to convince anyone else to watch Last Man on Earth but I also can’t look away.  When it’s good it’s really good.)

So what about you, gentle reader?  What gets a pass in your book?  What can never be forgiven?  Let me know in the comments and feel free to tell me how my interpretations of your beloved films are horribly, horribly wrong, while my favorites totally suck.

See you there. 😉

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The Content Checklist

Congratulations!  You’ve just finished writing your story!  I assume that you’ve already done your first editing pass to get rid of all the grammar errors and get your word count down.  (You have done that, right?)  But you’re not done yet!

Before you submit that bad boy to a publication you need to re-read your piece and judge it like an editor might.  Here’s some basic things editors look for to get you started:

  • The Beginning: Does it take forever to get going?  Pretend the editor has 100 stories to read today and they can only accept 10 of them for publication.  If your story can’t grab their attention by the end of the first paragraph they will toss it.  (Note: not all editors do this, but be wary of anyone who has a super-short rate of return.  You probably have very few words to impress them.)
  • Pacing: On a related note, now that you’ve got their attention, don’t lose them!  Don’t over-pack your plot.  Don’t rush the ending, but wrap it up after that climax; don’t waste words by drawing it out into five different endings.  (*Cough*Return of the King*cough.*)
  • Conclusion: Is it a good ending?  Be objective.  If this editor stayed with you all the way to the end you want them to be glad they spent their time with you.
  • Completeness: Did you solve all your problems?  None of this “To Be Continued…” nonsense.  I have a personal pet peeve against anyone who ends a story with a cliffhanger.  If you read this story as a stand alone piece in a magazine would you be annoyed that that was all there was?
  • Real threats: Was it an important problem?  Don’t rely on paper tigers or deus ex machina to get you out of a jam.  (This is one reason why twist endings* are so hard to pull off: important stakes always beat consequence-free conflicts.)

“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” – Emma Coats

  • Characters: Are your characters easily identifiable & likable?  If not likable, are they at least relatable or entertaining?  Do you have too many?  Does everyone in the story have something meaningful to contribute? If not, cut it!
  • Interesting: Is the story engaging?  How about the characters?  If there’s something important you’re trying to say, make sure it comes across clearly and edit out anything that draws focus or contributes nothing to the narrative.
  • Dynamic:  Did anything happen or was this just an atmospheric piece?  (Seriously, no vignettes, I can’t say this enough.)
  • Market:  Read your competition (I don’t mean the other submissions; anything that’s been published is still competition.)  Make sure your idea is unique.  Last I checked publishers are really sick of zombie stories and paranormal romance.  If you wrote something too common you don’t necessarily need to toss it, but maybe hold off until the timing is right.
  • Offensiveness/too dark: This is going to depend on the publisher, but in general, don’t be gratuitously graphic with violence or erotic content.  And keep in mind that even mild content can be too depressing to print.  Check out this feedback from my personal rejection files:

“Superb writing, but the story is just too much of a downer for us. We don’t insist on happy endings, but we prefer to avoid stories that leave us contemplating suicide.”

Ouch.

Seriously reader, learn from my mistakes.  There’s a reason why I always revert back to this checklist before submitting.  If you find yourself breaking any of these “rules” make sure you know why and ask yourself if you’re talented enough to pull it off.

Otherwise, edit it!  You’ll be glad you did.

 

*I’ll do a separate post later on why twist endings are hard to pull off and why it’s better to avoid them.  For now, just know that if you have one it could become a problem.

No Vignettes: Plot in Flash Fiction

 

“At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, apart from the word length, the key factor with Flash Fiction is it has all the elements of a traditional self-contained short story, including a beginning, a middle and an end, even if some aspects may be implied.  Flash Fiction is NOT an extract or vignette from a longer story.” – Grievous Angel

Chances are, if you’ve ever scoured the internet for a Flash Fiction publisher, you’ve seen some variation on this in their submission guidelines.  Flash Fiction Online and Freeze Frame Fiction say much the same thing.

So what does it mean, and how can you avoid making this mistake?

Let’s start by talking about basic plot structure and then see how we can apply it to Flash.  Your basic plot has seven points:

I don’t know about you, but I’m already lost.  Hey, Pixar, can you break this down for us?

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. And ever since that day___.

Much better.

So now that we’ve got our outline, let’s talk about vignettes.  A vignette is a day-in-the-life scene that covers your first two plot points. Since we’re talking about Pixar I’m going to use WALL-E as my example.  A vignette would be telling a beautiful, evocative story about a lonely little robot on an abandoned wasteland cleaning up trash while the other robots rusted away.

Now, that’s an interesting idea, but if you’ve seen the rest of the movie, it’s not nearly as interesting as the day EVE lands – after which point you get your story.  And that’s the problem with vignettes: they have no conflict, no character arc.  Publishers aren’t interested in your thought-experiments, they want a story.

Now, as you’ve probably guessed, the seven point plot structure is redundant and better suited to novels than flash.  What you really need is to get back to basics:

The beginning sets up the story.  The middle complicates it.   The end resolves it.  Put your hero in a tree, throw rocks at him, and get him out. – David Trottier

Getting back to WALL-E, you don’t have room in a Flash Fiction piece to tell the whole movie.  But there are several stories within WALL-E that would make excellent Flash pieces.  You could tell the first act, where WALL-E and EVE meet and end up flying off to make contact with the humans.  Or you could tell the last act, if you flip it to the perspective of the Captain who must decide whether to help WALL-E get the humans home or continue letting them atrophy in perpetual comfort.  You could even tell the story of the little repair droid who spends the entire movie trying to fix a light on the ship, if you really want to get into those DVD extras.

See what I mean?

For more on plot structure check out: The Story Spine: Pixar’s 4th Rule of Storytelling.