Storytelling

Six Plot Excuses No One Wants to Hear

When storytellers are cornered by a tough plot problem, our first instinct is to ignore the problem by making our characters behave irrationally. Then we use character dialogue to handwave it and hope the audience doesn’t notice how unrealistic it is. Just take these six excuses.

Spoiler warnings: The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Star Trek: TNG 7×08 Attached, and the series finale for Battlestar Galactica (2004).*

1. You Only Think That Sinister Guy Is Evil Because You’re Emotional

buffy-ted

In season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s mother starts dating a guy that acts really nice but is actually a killer robot. Good thing Buffy knows he’s a creep; now all she has to do is tell everyone else.

Buffy: Mom, your boyfriend threatened to slap me.

Joyce: Honey, I know you’ve been my daughter for 17 years and he’s only been my boyfriend for a few weeks, but I can’t believe you for some reason.

Buffy: But you at least believe me, right Willow?

Willow: Of course not. You can kick his ass whenever you want, so if we all believed you, what conflict would be left in this episode?

If your teenage daughter informed you that your new honey was abusive, wouldn’t you listen? What kind of mother wouldn’t? I’m sure the writers didn’t intend to portray Joyce as a bad mother. They wanted Buffy to face danger alone but couldn’t think of a legitimate reason. So Joyce fell prey to their poor excuses.

This tactic can also be reversed. In season four, Buffy becomes irrationally aggressive toward her roommate. She insists her roomie is a demon who must die, with no evidence other than some toenail clippings. Convinced Buffy is possessed, her friends take her captive. Then it turns out she was right all along. While this might seem like a fun surprise, to many viewers it looks like the plot is bending backwards to justify the actions of an unreasonable hero.

If you need someone to face danger without help from their team, create a reason why the other characters can’t help, rather than why they won’t. In the episode The Zeppo, Xander has to go it alone because Buffy and the others are facing an impending apocalypse. You can send the mentor on a brief vacation, or demonstrate that your tough character is helpless against a particular threat. If you have an episodic series and this is an ongoing problem, make the backup incapable or untrustworthy so your hero won’t ask for help.

2. I Can’t Explain Because I’m Nothing Without My Secrets!

the-long-war

In The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, Sally and Jansen are out searching for an important McGuffin. Unfortunately, they run afoul of a hostile group called the Beagles, and Jansen is taken hostage. To get her back, Sally just needs a ring belonging to their mutual fried, Joshua. Great, all she has to do now is go talk to him.

Joshua: It’s a good thing Sally would come and ask me if she needed this ring for some reason.

Sally: No time to talk, too busy stealing your ring!

Joshua: Well, at least you left some kind of note explaining what’s going on, right?

Sally: Nope!

Joshua: Oh look, now I’ve been captured just like Jansen, because no one told me what was happening.

Sally: I can’t hear you!

Sally has no reason not to communicate openly with Joshua about what’s happened. The writers won’t let her because they want to create more problems for the characters. Most often, this tactic is used to add interpersonal conflict. Any story with secret identities has a scene where the hero leaves a loved one to fight evil, making the loved one feel rejected. If you have that kind of story, make sure the secrecy is actually necessary. Dangerous enemies provide a good reason to hide from the public, but then keeping loved ones in the dark would put them in more danger, not less.

Sometimes a refusal to communicate is the only thing keeping the plot running. At which point, ask yourself: are your protagonists emotionally immature? If their social skills have evolved beyond teenage level, they should talk about their problems. In that case, make the problem they are facing harder, or give them a genuine disagreement that makes them too angry to speak with one another.

And for goodness’ sake, don’t put in a mysterious side character that knows what’s going on but only gives the protagonists tiny hints. Leave them out, and let the protagonists get their clues by doing some research.

3. I Can’t Just Kill the Hero, I Have to Crush Her Spirit

lost-girl-fae-leaders

In the show Lost Girl, the succubus Bo has no idea who she is or how to control her powers. Once she is discovered, the fae leaders offer her the training and support of a faction. All she needs to do is choose whether to be part of the light faction or the dark faction. Clearly confused, Bo chooses “humans” as her alignment. Well that’s rough for her, but she’s not worth troubling with further, right?

Dark Faction Leader: Bo has never thwarted my evil plans, but she is the main character so I think she should die.

Light Faction Leader: I am dedicated to good, but I also think she should die, just to be safe.

Trick: Wait! You can’t kill her. Instead, you must let the plans of the mysterious enemy you may or may not have unfold. Otherwise you’ll never know if you have a mysterious enemy or what their plans are!

Dark Faction Leader: Great idea.

Light Faction Leader: Yeah, let’s do that.

What’s hilarious about this scene is that the writers came up with a bad excuse for why the antagonists want to kill the hero, and then another bad excuse for why they don’t do it. All to shower Bo with praise. Nevermind that if you glorify your hero that much, you risk making her unlikable.

For many stories, the hero starts out weak, and the villain is already strong. In these cases it’s crucial to have a solid reason why the villain doesn’t just crush the hero like a grape. Instead of holding the villain back with some explanatory dialogue, make it so he doesn’t want to kill her in the first place. A new hero doesn’t need to be thwarting the big bad right away; she can unknowingly play into his hands a few times first. Once she starts doing some damage, she could also provide a side benefit, such as eliminating his evil competition.

Make sure your villain has a goal that isn’t mutually exclusive with the hero keeping her life. Give him a few wins that won’t end the world before she is finally strong enough to take him down.

4. We Can’t Be Together… Because.

TNG attached

In Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Attached, Dr. Crusher and Captain Picard are kidnapped and given a telepathic link with one another. Once they are rescued and brought back to the ship, they meet to discuss what happened.

Crusher: Wow, we’re alone together, wearing super nice makeup and gorgeous clothing.

Picard: And we’ve just spent the last several days sorting out our past and confessing our feelings for one another. I guess we shouldn’t be afraid to explore those feelings.

Crusher: Or perhaps we should be afraid.* I’m leaving now so I don’t have to explain why.

Curtains close.

This episode unfolds like every one-off romance ever, except it’s between two main cast members. That prevents the writers from using reasons like “they live on different sides of the galaxy” or “she died” to keep them apart. Crusher and Picard are going to see each other every day, and everyone is friendly. Instead of coming up with a solid reason, the writing just shrugged and said, “Plot.” That way fans aren’t discouraged from shipping the characters.

Storytellers love to tease the audience with possible romances. But they think it will ruin the fun if the lovebirds aren’t perfect for each other. To maintain the sexual tension of courting, they need an excuse to prevent this perfect couple from being together. Cue the scene where the guy breaks up with the girl “for her own safety and protection,” whether or not it makes any sense.

“True love syndrome” is responsible for a lot of these messes. It’s pleasant to think that two people might be destined for each other. However, it eliminates the opportunity for couples to fall in love slowly, find out they don’t quite fit, and then make it work by growing as people. Or alternatively, discovering they aren’t willing to do what it takes to make their relationship work, and separating. It’s this process that makes for a strong plot.

5. I’m Going to Endanger My Life for Funzies!

ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane

In Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a boy befriends a witch named Lettie. Since he’s just a kid and completely helpless, naturally he stays behind while Lettie goes off on adventures.

Lettie: You stay here. I’m going off to face the super scary monster that is controlling your parents.

Blank Protagonist: No, I want to come. I feel safer with you.

Lettie: You feel safer watching me fight the scary monster than you do sitting in a super protected safe house where you’ve never come to any harm?

Blank Protagonist: Yes!

Lettie: Okay, you can come. I’m sure it will go much better than the last time you tagged along and got that spirit worm infection.

Gaiman doesn’t let Lettie go fight on her own because she isn’t his viewpoint character. For the scene to be shown in the book, the audience placeholder must be there. So he comes up with twisted logic to explain why Lettie would endanger a poor child. Similar reasoning is used whenever a storyteller struggles to get their character into a scene. The protagonists become adrenaline junkies, taking every opportunity to risk their lives when they aren’t even needed.

That’s the key to this problem. Why isn’t the character needed in the scene? If they are vital to the plot – which they should be – then you shouldn’t need an excuse to include them. With a large cast of characters, it can be difficult to make all the protagonists instrumental in defeating the enemy. But once you let a character drift into uselessness, they’ll lose agency and become a mere observer. Ultimately, that’s a much bigger problem than the excuses you’re using to keep them involved.

Sometimes, you may have to reconsider which characters are central to your story. Gaiman could have fixed his problem by making Lettie the viewpoint character. If you’re juggling a lot of characters, ask if you can combine two into one or write one out. It’s hard to say goodbye, but you’ll feel better once you aren’t grasping for reasons to include them.

6. If We Keep This Life-Saving Artifact, It Could Fall Into the Wrong Hands

battlestar-into-sun

In the last episode of Battlestar Galatica (2004), the war-torn fleet finds itself conveniently placed near a habitable planet called Earth. Time to break out the gear and create a new colony.

Lee: After our long struggle for survival, let’s give ourselves a break by sending all of our technology into the sun. That way we can live off of our good intentions.

Adama: What a great idea. I’m also ordering everyone to spread out across the planet, so we can’t form a support network of any kind.

Number Two: We’ll join in by giving our ships to our soldier bots to do whatever they want with. That could include killing us, but we don’t care anymore.

The writers of Battlestar Galactica were so eager to tell a creation story that they forgot to make it plausible. A community that is used to technology would never destroy it if they had another option – let alone make that decision suddenly and unanimously.

While Battlestar’s reasons are unique, this pattern is seen in a surprising number of spec fic stories. We love our powerful artifacts, but if we let the heroes use them, their problems will be solved too easily. So when the good guys get their hands on one, they declare they aren’t meant to wield something so powerful and throw it in the fire.

This kind of excuse is never necessary. There are lots of ways to put limits on magic or technology that is too powerful. Give your story an extra dose of conflict by allowing your heroes to use the artifact once – before they discover terrible consequences they didn’t know about. If you need them to destroy it, the evil it does must dwarf the good it could bring.


If you aren’t sure whether your explanation is a poor excuse, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Would the people you know accept this explanation if they were in the same position as the characters?
  2. Does the explanation alter the plot?

If the answer to both of these is “no,” you probably have an excuse on your hands.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

Read more about , ,

 

Comments

  1. Paula Bilyeu

    You missed my favorite so perfectly illustrated by the writers of JAG. You have a male and a female lead. A) they are heroic so their flaws have to balance. Often those flaws pop up with no explanation and it takes fancy dancing and writing to get the story back on track. They must be together; everyone KNOWS that viewers expect that eventually. But its like writers of adventure series have no clue on how to deal with interpersonal stuff. Things are said that are dramatic but unforgivable but then if the show runs too long, they are merely forgotten. The hero does something dramatic that should have gotten him a court martial but the writers just drop it and continue. Can it be done? Castle and Bones, so far have done credible jobs of it.

  2. SciFiMagpie

    I do have to offer ONE counterpoint to this otherwise excellent article–Ocean at the End of the Lane has autobiographical elements. That’s why Lettie couldn’t be the PoV character. As for the bad decision, personally, I saw that as her humanity coming through. Also, they are the kid’s PARENTS. What kind of asshole wouldn’t want to be there to make sure their parents are okay?

  3. Carol A. Strickland

    I’m sorry; I couldn’t make it past #1. In “Ted,” Ted was making drugged cookies so the people around him would be susceptible to his influence. Joyce wasn’t a bad mother; she was drugged, hello.

    The roommate episode was an over-the-top COMEDY/spoof about college roommates (this was Buffy’s first) and how (sometimes) they and the smallest things they do can really grate on one’s nerves. Note that in the end, even BFF Willow’s doings register like sandpaper on Buffy’s radar. Funny stuff!

    If the writer of this blog missed those obvious distinctions, I won’t read any further.

    • Izzy

      I had forgotten that the cookies were drugged. I was going to mention that Joyce was having a tough time believing Buffy in “Ted” possibly because Buffy had SUCH a delinquent past, so Buffy going on about Evil Ted might just be Buffy pining for attention. But you’re right– it was the drugged cookies.

    • Jenna Taube

      Um, ok yes the cookies were drugged but Joyce WAS a bad mother. There are plenty of other times she shows what a bad mother she was including throwing Buffy out while drunk and then blaming her for not coming back…. I have issues with people giving bad/abusive (mentally, emotionally, physically, sexually or otherwise)/neglectful parents (especially in movies/TV/books etc.) a pass on their behaviour, it’s not cool or acceptable and as a child of DV this pisses me off.

  4. Sally

    I completely agree with Carol’s comment above. And I’d add that in the roommate episode the demon roommate is sucking Buffy’s soul, which makes her extra unpleasant.

    Neither episode has plot problems – both are clear metaphors for difficult real life situations.

  5. Tab D.

    Actually, #1 can easily be disproven by the fact that there are tons of examples in reality where kids say they don’t like so-and-so their parents aren’t dating, and the parents do not believe them cause they just think they’re being kids and don’t want someone replacing their other parent. It’s not hard to figure out. If you really want an example of how horrible this is: look into cases where kids are abused by partners their parents are dating and the parents do. not. believe. them. Or actually accuse them of being to blame. The world is screwed up.

    As for the Lost Girl one, this is an example where someone did. not. watch. the. episode. Or the show in general. Why? Cause then they’d know that the reason both the Light and Dark Fae leaders want to take Bo out is that she went against the rules. BEFORE she was discovered, they didn’t know she existed and so no she couldn’t cause them problems, but then she moved there, was revealed to be a Fae, and instead of choosing a side as is required by every Fae she went against their rules/laws. This is bad. Why is it bad? Cause then it makes other Fae think maybe they could do the same and not have to listen to the rulings of their Light or Dark Fae leaders. And how Trick actually convinces them to not kill her, AND WHY THEY LISTEN TO HIM, is a lot more in-depth than what you write. This isn’t rocket science.

    Both of these examples actually being legitimate and not just “excuses for plot” as is the case with Ocean at the End of the Lane and the BSG episode, and that just disqualifies anything else on this list. Nice generalizations to make your points “valid”. This is such an awful list. I’m sorry that I read it.

  6. John Gregory Hancock

    OHmyGHERD I’ve never seen anyone so completely misunderstand Gaiman’s Ocean at the end of the Lane before. That alone disqualifies you to you judge anything else. I stopped reading there.

    First of all, Lettie and her relatives are decidedly NOT witches, the book explains they were here before the earth was. They in fact refute the term “witch” directly in the book.
    The protagonist is involved because he comes to them ALREADY INVOLVED by the death of the opal miner, which is a symptom of the evil thing that invades his house, which also is the reason he seeks out lettie in their second meeting. Did you even read the book, or were skimming every fifth page or something?

    Otherwise, I don’t think your advice is bad, but if you’re going to use well known examples, try to make them exemplify the advice.

  7. David MacDowell Blue

    Hmmm…am not familiar with all the examples used, but in terms of BUFFY and BSG you are wrong, ignoring all kinds of details in context. For example, in BSG you’re talking about an entire society suffering from P.T.S. after suffering a Holocaust that makes that of the Jews in WWII look like a minor car accident, then literally years of social upheaval and fading hopes, living in refugee conditions breathing recycled air and eating recycled food (this amongst those used to a higher standard of living than today’s Western Industrial Powers). Keep in mind it is also a deeply religious society that believes in a recurring cycle of destruction, which it turns out they now know did indeed happen in terms of at least three Apocalyptic rebellions by their machines wiping out whole worlds! Under those circumstances, the decision made sense for those people to turn their back on technology when they finally found a place that frankly looked like an unspoiled paradise by that time. Not saying their choice was right (or wrong) but claiming it didn’t make sense just…well, doesn’t make sense.

    I think you have a good point here, but your POV seems formulaic. “Never do this” does not make for good writing. “If you do this, justify it ten times over” on the other hand makes for very good advice in story-telling. IMHO.

  8. Jolene Perry

    I love this so very much.

  9. Amy Koss

    Thanks for the laffs!

  10. Kirinin

    I’ve seen every show on this list, and while I’m fond of many of them and Buffy is my GIRL, I can still recognize each and every issue discussed here; I found myself nodding all the way. Critically Touched can do a lot better at explaining the Ted episode’s foibles than I can – and it’s a fascinating read for Buffy fans anyway, so I highly recommend checking it out. Everyone who aspires to write fantasy or YA should be devouring that thing on the daily.

    Re: the ST:TNG ep – THAT LINE. *flips a table* IT WAS SO LAME.

    As for Bo, “She went against the ancient rules” is a hackneyed trope that should be put out to pasture. For my part, I’m aware of the explanation the show put forth, but I couldn’t buy it as a viewer. Here’s the issue: it makes the bad guys appear short-sighted, archaic and bloodthirsty, because we as the audience believe that “our culture says I can if you disobey me” isn’t a good enough reason to want to hurt someone. We find their rules silly when they’re not scary… as we’re meant to.

    The only time a writer uses such a device is when they want to keep their hero squeaky-clean: Bo can’t have done anything worthy of honest aggression, so her enemies have to have a frankly irrational reason for being after her. That’s why this is bad writing!

    I do agree that the roomie thing in Buffy was pure spoof, but the writers had Buffy do far worse things without much explanation, so another, possibly better example could have been used in its place. In fact, the episode ‘Ted’ displays the same behavior. Up until Ted’s ‘death’ Buffy believes him to be a human man. If he were just some abusive, controlling jerk, she would be a murderer in this ep. Her behavior is provoked by Ted’s, but he slaps her and she KILLS HIM. With great power and all that! Yet the plot saves her arse by making her enemy a robot so it’s all ‘no harm, no foul’.

    That’s one of the pitfalls that every writer seems to fall into eventually, that if the bad guys do it, they ought to perish, but if the good guys do it, it’s moody “gazing into the abyss” or pragmatic “doing what had to be done”. The creepy bit is that I’m not sure that people who write this way are aware they’re doing it… that has some nasty implications.

    -K

  11. Qondomon

    My smile just fall to the deep of my chest.

    3. I Can’t Just Kill the Hero, I Have to Crush Her Spirit

    Hell no! Is so true “Otherwise you’ll never know if you have a mysterious enemy or what their plans are!” 0_0 I really can’t kill the protagonist ಠ_ಠ but now I have to!

  12. Mary

    Regarding the Star Trek one, they couldn’t be together because she had married his best friend. Honoring his death by hooking up with his wife? You can see why they would both have problems with it.

  13. gemma

    6th goes for Harry breaking the elder wand

  14. Bess Marvin

    We Can’t Be Together Because Reasons is rampant throughout Pushing Daisies. And I don’t mean Ned and Chuck – there is definitely the good reason that his superpower would kill her. I mean with Chuck and her aunts. Aside from “let’s not shock the mentally unstable shut-ins after they’ve already lost and mourned me” there’s no real reason not to tell them that their beloved niece has been resurrected. It’s just the potential for comedy as Chuck spies on her aunts in humorous circumstances that keeps them apart. The aunts are shut-ins with no friends. Who are they going to tell when they know about Ned’s powers over death? The writers finally caved when the show had officially been cancelled and Ned admitted to Chuck that asking her to keep the secret from her aunts had been selfish of him and the show ended with her showing up on the aunts’ doorstep. I love Pushing Daisies but the aunts were so dependent on Chuck that it seemed cruel to actively avoid them and still try to take care of them. The character Olive pointed this out all the time, “You’re not really dead. You’re just pretending to be dead while the people who love you are heartbroken.”

    • Chris Winkle

      Sometimes irrational but understandable emotions can be good explanations for odd behavior. I think in Pushing Daises, Ned’s motivation for asking Chuck to keep quiet was his great fear of discovery. Then Chuck’s motivation for going along was feeling in debt to him for bringing her back to life. But the more emotions motivate characters away from common sense, the more the writers have to work to get that accross, and the writer’s of Pushing Daisies probably fell short on that. I think it would have been okay if they hadn’t done it for so long. It would have been more understandable if the characters took just a couple episodes to come to their senses.

    • Cay Reet

      I’m overall no fan of the whole ‘will they – won’t they’ thing, to be honest. If you want the characters to have a relationship, then give hints from the beginning that they will have one. If not, make it clear they are partners, colleagues, friends, but feel no sexual attraction towards each other.
      Bones (as far as I’ve seen the series) does this pretty well, as far as I’m concerned, showing Bones and Booth have a certain chemistry. Her very emotionless behaviour and his past relationship which still influences him both are a very good reason why it takes them a long while to get together.

  15. SRM

    For the “if only we could communicate” one… The Wheel Of Time… give me 15 minutes of conversation in book 3 between the main characters and we can clip out the next 9 novels and skip straight to the Final Battle. But, no, we have to win only by scheming. Winning by communication would break the male/female wall of mystique.

  16. Rata

    Thanks I enjoyed this.
    I know Buffy too, but I’m not going to complain about you getting anything wrong because I realise you needed examples, and the way you wrote it generalised the action so you could show what you meant. The cliché you were talking about.
    You did the same with all the examples I assume, but can’t really comment because I don’t know them all.
    I can, however, sit here and start to pile up different shows and stories I know into each category and notice how each dealt with the situations. Some did well, while others left gaping holes you could drive an army through.
    I can also sort out my own works and see how I have done some of the exact same things, and yes some of them left the same holes.
    But now armed with my inside info, I can go back and begin to plug those holes.
    And to all those who commented, I’m taking from you too, although some of you didn’t stick around to read it all, well at least you said you didn’t , because you all had good points to make.
    And that is what this is all about isn’t it, the sharing of ideas and learning from each other?
    Thanks again.

  17. Tumblingxelian

    Thank you for writing this, it was really well laid out and frankly cathartic to read.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.