Five Cool Storylines That Went Nowhere

Cordelia and Angel

We’ve all had the experience of reading a book or watching a show only for our favorite storyline to disappear without any resolution. Crafting a compelling plot requires an intriguing hook, strong stakes, and exciting conflict, so it’s weird when storytellers throw all that work in the waste bin. And yet, it happens all the time for a variety of reasons. Let’s take a look at a few well-known examples and see how they might have been better if some of their coolest storylines hadn’t been dropped.

1. Fenring Is a Failed Chosen One: Dune

Three robed characters looking out over the Arakis desert.

One of Dune’s major difficulties is finding a villain capable of challenging the chosen one white savior golden boy that is Paul Atriedies. That’s not a huge surprise, since Paul is the result of a centuries-long program to produce a superpowered magical boy. Early in the book, author Frank Herbert manages Paul’s power level by making him a young teenager, but by the end, he’s all grown up and nothing can stand in his way. Both the evil Harkonnens and the emperor’s elite Sardaukar soldiers are at most a minor inconvenience, and Herbert doesn’t have anyone else to throw at Paul.

Except that he does: the mysterious Count Fenring. Fenring is a mild-mannered noble from a minor house, and at first glance, he doesn’t seem like a threat to anyone. He’s self-deprecating, makes a big show of hemming and hawing over even minor questions, and generally acts like an unimportant courtier. But there’s clearly more to him than that. First, we learn that Fenring is a personal agent of the emperor, trusted with the most critical assignments. Then we see that even the dreaded Harkonnens are afraid of him, convinced he could kill them in an instant, though he never acts violent in any way.

This contrast on its own is enough to build up Fenring’s threat level. Not only do others think he’s a badass, but he has no need to brag or show any bravado over it. This also creates anticipation in the reader: What will it look like when Fenring finally cuts loose? Then we get the big reveal: Fenring is a product of the same program that produced Paul. Fenring doesn’t have quite the right combination of traits to be the chosen one, but he still has many of the associated powers.

This perfectly positions Fenring as the final boss for Paul. Not only is he the only character with the skills necessary to threaten Paul in combat, but his status as a failed chosen one would give their battle extra thematic weight. It would be the final proof that Paul is indeed the chosen one, destined to… do something kinda vague. Herbert is really unclear about what Paul is chosen for, exactly. But that’s an entirely different problem; today we’re talking about Paul facing down Fenring in an ultimate climactic showdown.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. Instead, Fenring refuses to fight Paul, and that’s the last we hear of him. From what I can tell, he doesn’t return until much later in the Dune series, long after Frank Herbert had passed.* I’m honestly not clear on what the point of this sequence is. Maybe it’s supposed to be Fenring recognizing Paul as the true chosen one, but that would have been so much better if they’d had an actual confrontation first. And it’s not like Herbert didn’t want to use a fight as his climax. In the actual book, we end with Paul beating the daylights out of a Harkonnen heir who’s no match for him.

2. Starfleet and the Romulans Ally Against the Borg: The Next Generation

The Enterprise facing off against a Romulan Warbird.

The Next Generation’s first season is bad, and its finale episode is bad too. You might remember this as the one where our heroes find some cryopods from 1980s America, thaw out the people inside, then spend the episode mocking them for not understanding how a post-scarcity techno utopia works. The only saving grace there is that Star Trek’s worldbuilding is so shoddy that when our heroes try to make the newly thawed time travelers look silly, it often backfires.*

Much more interesting is the episode’s B-plot:* Federation outposts along the Romulan border have been disappearing. When the Enterprise crew investigates, they discover that entire colonies have been scooped out of the ground, leaving only massive craters behind. Naturally, everyone suspects the Romulans but is surprised that the Romulans would have the technology to do something like this.

Near the episode’s end, our heroes finally meet the Romulans. But instead of fighting, the two sides exchange information.* It turns out that Romulan outposts have also vanished in exactly the same manner. How mysterious! Both sides agree to share information, and the Romulans fly off. This is the first time we see the Romulans in TNG, and though the episode isn’t good, it does introduce a really interesting idea. Maybe in this show, the Romulans will be uneasy allies instead of total enemies like they were in the original series.

In season two, we find out what happened to those outposts: they were destroyed by the Borg, TNG’s new big bad.* Sadly, the Romulans are nowhere to be found, not even when the Borg launch a nearly unstoppable assault on Earth. This seems like a natural point for the Romulans to intervene, since they’ll likely be next if the Federation falls, but I guess they aren’t interested. Maybe they were too busy drinking that Romulan ale that Star Trek characters are always talking about.

From what I can gather, this plotline was dropped due to a shakeup in TNG’s writing and management departments. The Borg would stick around, but they were softly retconned to an enemy that lived really far away and took years to reach, rather than being right next door as was originally implied. The new writers probably figured that the Borg plots had enough going on already, and they didn’t need the added complication of bringing Romulans into it.

That’s understandable, but it’s still a lost opportunity. Unlike its predecessor, TNG actually took steps toward building a coherent and connected world, something that would have been strengthened by other species taking an interest in the Borg. It’s always felt strange that a powerful, all-consuming enemy would come to the Alpha Quadrant and only be interested in the Federation. Plus, an uneasy alliance against the Borg would have made for interesting contrast with the episodes that feature Romulans as more traditional villains.

3. Dooku Turns on Sidious: Attack of the Clones

Dooku talking to a restrained Obi-Wan

Speaking of things that are bad, I bring you Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. This film is a mess of barely related subplots, plus a political conflict where the Separatists want to leave the Republic for unclear reasons, and our heroes want to stop them, also for unclear reasons. The subplot we’re interested in is Obi-Wan chasing after Jango Fett, which eventually leads to Obi-Wan’s capture on Geonosis by forces loyal to this movie’s big bad, Count Dooku.

Even watching the film for the first time, it’s pretty obvious that Count Dooku is evil. For one thing, his title is “count,” the most evil of aristocratic ranks. Also, he just talks like a villain, insisting to Obi-Wan that he knows nothing about Jango Fett even though he’s clearly lying. But then, he tells Obi-Wan a secret: a powerful Sith lord named Darth Sidious is in control of the Republic, which is why Dooku is leading a movement of planets that want to secede.

For anyone who’s seen the previous Star Wars film, it’s pretty obvious that Darth Sidious and Chancellor Palpatine are the same person. Until now, the Jedi had no clue that there was a Sith in their midst, so this is really useful information. It’s also the first time that the prequels’ space politics are actually interesting. Sure, this Dooku guy is sinister, but if he’s opposing Palpatine, he can’t be all bad.

Then it turns out that Dooku is actually working directly with Palpatine, and no one mentions this scene again. In retrospect, it becomes one of the many nonsensical elements of Palpatine’s plan. The last thing he would want at that stage is for the Jedi to become suspicious that they might have an enemy in the senate. It’s honestly not clear if this is meant to be some five-dimensional chess move on Palpatine’s part, or if Lucas just got some of his plots mixed up. You never know – it could be both.

What makes this scene stand out against the prequel films’ general silliness is the untapped potential. If Dooku had actually been working against Sidious and legitimately trying to warn Obi-Wan, that would have been so much more interesting than what we actually got. Instead of another disposable Sith baddie, Dooku could have been a complex figure who started a terrible war because he thought it was the only way to prevent an even worse outcome. Granted, this would raise questions of why he couldn’t denounce Palpatine openly, but there are ways to solve that. Dooku might not have proof, and thus be unwilling to tip his hand. Even better, Palpatine might have other agents within the Jedi Order, explaining why Dooku never brought his suspicions there.

But now we’re getting into prequel rewrites territory, and that would take an entire post. Probably more than one post, if I’m honest. Instead, let’s spare a thought for the Dooku that could have been, rather than the Dooku we got.

4. Lizbeth Has Sisterly Drama: The Borden Dispatches

A picture of Lizbeth Borden from the cover of Maplecroft

Cherie Priest’s 2014 novel Maplecroft is all about Lizbeth and Emma Borden. Specifically, it’s about their fight against the cosmic horrors that crawl out of the sea to infiltrate their town. The sisters have a strong bond at the start of the book, made stronger by how they support each other in their fight against the occult. Lizbeth and her axe provide the muscle, while Emma’s keen mind provides the brains.* The teamwork and shared hardship make their relationship easy to care about.

Naturally, Priest strains that relationship until it snaps. This starts with relatively mundane problems. Emma doesn’t like Lizbeth’s girlfriend, and Lizbeth doesn’t trust the doctor that Emma wants to recruit into their anti-Cthulhu operations. After that, Priest adds the stress of nearly being killed by unspeakable entities from the abyssal depths, which widens the sisters’ existing disagreements. Things come to a head when Lizbeth’s girlfriend is infected by occult forces. Lizbeth will do anything to help her, naturally, while Emma is worried about the infection spreading even further.

The novel’s ending is bittersweet. The cosmic horror is defeated, at least for now, but Emma decides she can’t live with Lizbeth anymore and moves out. This is a real blow after how close the sisters were at the beginning, and Lizbeth is left wondering if victory was worth the cost. On the bright side, it’s a strong hook for the next book. How will Emma and Lizbeth repair their relationship? What hardships will they face next?

There’s no answer because the next book takes place several decades later, long after Emma’s death. Apparently, the sisters never reconciled, something that doesn’t seem to bother Lizbeth as she spends her days looking after the town’s stray cats. But wait, it gets weirder. Not only does this second book not follow up on the major hook from last time, but it’s also barely about the Bordens at all. Most of the story takes place far south of Lizbeth’s home in New England, and she only connects with the actual plot toward the end.

This is a major problem for the sequel. Lizbeth is still around, so it seems like she should be important to the story, but she isn’t. It feels like a contractually obligated inclusion, rather than what Priest thought would be best for the story. The easiest way to fix this would be to cut Lizbeth from the story entirely, but another option would be to follow the hook from the end of book one. Instead of jumping thirty years into the future, the sequel could have picked up when Emma was still alive, giving us some closure on the sisters’ relationship. It would have taken some work to square this with the historical events that these stories are based on, but I suspect Priest would have been up to the task.

5. Cordelia Ascends to a Higher Plane: Angel

Cordelia from Angel

The spin-off of Buffy The Vampire Slayer focuses on two unlikely characters: the titular Angel and Cordelia Chase. These two barely interact in the original show, but that doesn’t stop them from moving to L.A. and running a private detective agency together. Then, due to the sudden exit of another character from the show, Cordelia winds up with magical visions from the Powers That Be, a mysterious group of at least partially benevolent beings. This works out well for Cordelia, since otherwise she probably wouldn’t have had the skills to contribute much to the group’s supernatural investigations.

Cut to the end of season three, and Cordelia starts to gain other abilities from the Powers That Be. This is still the Buffyverse, so what exactly she can do is pretty vague, but she’s at least powerful enough to cleanse demonic corruption from others, which certainly sounds useful. This is all a setup for Cordelia’s big moment: ascending to a higher plane and becoming one of the Powers That Be.

Sounds pretty cool, right? I guess the writers didn’t think so, because barely an episode later, Cordelia apparently decides that she’s done with this whole higher-being thing and wants to return to Earth. This leads to a truly bizarre storyline where Cordelia first gets amnesia, then gets possessed, then dies via a mystical pregnancy. It’s gross, and it’s also arguable how much of it is the character we recognize as Cordelia at all.

All of that happened because the show didn’t commit to its own storyline. To be fair, it’s possible that the writers were never interested in Cordelia becoming a higher power in the first place. There’s still a lot of speculation about what exactly was happening behind the scenes during that time. But that’s the story they chose, and doubling back on it was simply the wrong decision. It made Cordelia seem shallow for abandoning her new role so quickly, but more importantly, it robbed a season finale of satisfaction. If this storyline really was designed to account for the actress’s limited availability, as is often suggested, then it should have been about Cordelia going away to do magical research or something else that wouldn’t raise the expectations of a continuing story.

Actually committing to Cordelia as a higher power would have been challenging, but it also could have been a cool new direction for the show. We could have seen Cordelia grappling with the limits of her new role instead of just deciding she was bored, and it would have been a great excuse to explore more of those demonic realms the characters always talked about. I, for one, would have loved an arc where Cordelia teleports her friends across the dimensional boundaries to fight an evil god on its home turf. If that kind of story wasn’t in the budget, then that’s a great reason to have never started this storyline in the first place.

Starting a storyline is a commitment. You are making an implicit promise to your audience that this plot will go somewhere and have a satisfactory ending. There’s no legal penalty for breaking this contract, but it’s rude. Break too many promises, and your audience may move on to someone who hasn’t given them trust issues. So if you’re formulating a new storyline, take a second to consider whether you actually have room to follow through on it. If not, put it aside for later.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about



  1. V

    I think the Star Wars one was supposed to muddy the waters and get the Jedi and the Senate more confrontational. One of the excuses for them destroying the Jedi is that the Jedi were going to take overt power and attacked the Chancellor.
    Maybe the thing got fumbled or cut? (One more thing on the pile)

  2. Michael

    I always kind of thought Dooku’s intent was to manipulate Obi-Wan by feeding him part of the truth (i.e. the Republic was controlled by a Sith) in hopes he would take the bait and switch sides if it was believed. However, that didn’t happen obviously, and that was only my personal theory (I don’t think it has ever been confirmed what was going on there). It would be in keeping with the Sith methods though. Still, this was a wasted storyline to be sure. Even with Obi-Wan (wisely) not leaping on Dooku’s statement credulously, you’d think he’d at least consider the idea, and report the matter to his superiors. That never did seem to happen however.

  3. HM

    Personally, I can see exactly why at least the common people of the Outer Rim territories would want to leave the Republic. What does a government do? Tax the people. Supposedly to pay for infrastructure, law enforcement, etc.

    To clarify why I’m focusing on the Outer Rim: While the Trade Federation was headquartered in the Colonies region near the Core and the Techno Union was actually in the Core worlds, the majority were from the Outer Rim. The Intergalactic Banking Clan had it’s headquarters on Muunilist, in the Outer Rim. The Corporate Alliance was headquartered on Murkhana, also in the Outer Rim. The Quarren Isolationist League was from Mon Cala – also Outer Rim. Geonosis? Outer Rim. And the Commerce Guild? Felucia, also Outer Rim.

    In Episode I, we are blatantly told that the laws of the Republic aren’t applied in places like Tattooine. Obviously, going by the standard of living, infrastructure isn’t improved much, either. Crime is rampant, slavery is blatant, and the average person is obviously SOL when it comes to anything beyond a subsistence wage. So, any taxes paid are doing absolutely nothing for the people there.

    By contrast, we have the planets of Naboo and Coruscant. Naboo, in the Mid-Rim, has advanced technology, well paved streets, and even Gungan exiles are decently fed if we take the lack of emaciation into account when they meet Jar-Jar. They are prosperous enough that they can afford to make inexperienced, barely pubescent children their leaders. Which implies a considered lack of conflict and cut-throat politics.

    Coruscant, as the Republic capitol, has an infrastructure so pervasive that the entire planet is a city. Law enforcement includes a constant Jedi presence, since they have their headquarters there. Admittedly, the lower down you go, the more poverty you encounter. (Per various related media, many of which have been relegated to Legends status.) However, this is still a planet where all food is imported. Imported food is expensive. It isn’t much of a stretch to think that a person at poverty level on Coruscant could be making exponentially more than someone on Tattooine.

    So, while the intent of the various leaders of the Sep movement isn’t addressed, it’s fairly obvious why none of the people in the Outer Rim would be terribly broken up by the idea of giving the Republic a collective finger. In fact, in addition to any greed or other interests they had, it is quite possible that the Outer Rim power players would have faced riots if they hadn’t supported the CIS.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Extractive taxes without any reinvestment is certainly a reason people might want to secede. Too bad the movie doesn’t put the thought into it that you did.

      • HM

        Well, to be fair, two hours (six if you include all three prequels) is not a lot of time to lay out all the problems a society might face. It could have been expanded better in the Clone Wars, but the cartoon was set up to be read as propaganda – as evidenced by the newsreel WWII-style introductions. So, telling things from the Sep side of the conflict wouldn’t have been within the format.

        Either way, though, the clues to what is possibly going on are there in the movies and text materials if you are as (obsessively) curious as I am and dig a bit.

      • William

        Because everyone and their mother complained vociferously about the excessive amount of attention given to politics and “discussions of trade” in episode 1. Lucas was clearly listening to the fans given the dramatic drop in screentime Jar Jar Binks underwent from Episode 1 to 2. There were a handful of lines, which served to explain why the Nemoidians were blockading and invading Naboo. They were business interests, looking to defy taxes, and escalated to seizing an asset by force, with Sidious clearly egging them on to create a crisis. There was as much political talk in Episode 4, with Leia arguing her diplomatic status, an Imperial officer warning Vader about the potential political ramifications, Vader indicating that the administration is stepping up its game and transcending political ramifications, and then the council on the Death Star where they discuss the Emperor doing away with the Senate for good and the use of the Death Star as a threat against any would-be political opposition.

        For anyone who cared to look, the political story in the beginning of each trilogy is there, but fans during the time of the prequels wanted their hands held and they wanted something familiar, and had no patience for Lucas trying to stretch his creativity. So he probably slashed a lot of the dialogue giving that backstory from Episode 2, and I would not be surprised that the love story was added to give more filler, and replace a dreaded horrible political scene that might have given this stuff some context.

        And I am clearly not the first one to say this, but Dooku (or Darth Tyrannus) is almost certainly acting to instill paranoia in the Jedi and make them doubt and turn against the political leadership and IT WORKS!

        First of all, he was playing out Obi-Wan’s execution in dramatic fashion, to convince the Jedi there is an enemy they need to fight. In case Obi-Wan survives, because Jedi, he will bring word of a Sith Lord having influence in the government of the Republic. This is going to make the Jedi suspicious of, and even hostile to, the government. Other people don’t know this, they don’t even know or care about the Sith, so it makes the Jedi look undemocratic and supports the narrative that Palpatine is pushing, that they are enemies of the elected government. Again, this is all there if you are interested in looking for it, but Lucas went at the explicit political stuff with an axe once the crybabies grabbed the mike after Phantom Menace.

        Sidious is running a long con on the whole Jedi order and the Republic, with the dual aim of casting down the Jedi and seizing total power over the galaxy (beyond the revenge factor, the former is a necessary prelude to the latter). So he creates crises to destabilize the functions of the government, he takes advantage of the corruption, mismanagement and bureaucratic inertia which are all alluded to, and part of the whole idea that a great civilization falls because it’s already started to rot when the enemies come. He has plans and contingencies, which are what make him such a good villain. He orders the Jedi ambassadors killed, because they alone can ruin his plans for Naboo, but when that fails, he just moves up the crisis and is ready to either use the defeat and subjection of Naboo, or the Nubian victory over the Trade Federation to his advantage. If Amidala dies, he can use that to drive measures to prevent another such tragedy. If she wins, as in OTL, he’s there congratulating her and sharing in the victory and taking credit for the resolution of the crisis as a win for his new administration.

        Sidious wins by keeping the sides playing against one another, the victories of the Republic over the Separatists only serve to taint the Republic and get it mired deeper in the military-industrial model that works better for a tyrannical state anyway. War is always useful to authoritarians because it promulgates an “us vs them” artificial binary, which Sidious uses as the excuse to get rid of the Jedi. The Sith told the Jedi there was a Sith Lord and then, when he was ready, Sidious explicitly told Anakin that HE was the Sith. Either Anakin is cool with it, in which case Sidious has a new henchman and can continue escalating things in secret, or he tells the Jedi and the Jedi attack Palpatine, and give him the excuse to issue Order 66 and tell the Republic that the Jedi have betrayed them, so we need even MORE emergency measures, we have to become an Empire to protect ourselves! And they cheer him.

        And, too, maybe Tyrannus IS betraying Sidious, but that’s how they roll. They ARE villains, in a religion of evil. We already saw Vader plotting against Sidious in the original trilogy, offering Luke the chance to join him to cast down Sidious and take over (always two, master and apprentice), so one Sith betraying another is not exactly a surprise. Prior to Dooku “betraying” Sidious, treachery was the working model for 50% of the Sith relationships we had seen. So regardless of how you interpret Dooku’s action, it STILL supports the build-up of Sidious as the main villain of both (as it turned out, all three) trilogies. Either Dooku was committing treachery and Sidious ordering Anakin to kill him is payback served cold, or he was following the plan and being a good minion and Sidious’ ruthlessness is demonstrated by his willingness to cast off a no-longer-useful servant.

  4. Kenneth Mackay

    If ‘the laws of the Republic aren’t applied’ in the Outer Rim, then who’s collecting the taxes? With all these financial institutions locating their official headquarters on low-income, underdeveloped planets like Tattooine, far from their customers, it sounds as though the Outer Rim is more of a tax haven…!

    • HM

      A tax haven for those with the most money? Probably. But, in order to keep the Core happy and looking the other way the local crime bosses (many of whom would be the so-called government of the worlds) would send taxes in. Because, of course, they understand that the corrupt powers in the Core care only about the money they get. And, as it would be anathema to have it come out of their own coffers, they’d take that money from the lower classes.

  5. Martin

    Just a somewhat different viewpoint (not to speak against the article itself). As an TTRPG player I enjoy reading unfinished storylines. This allows my imagination to finish/continue them. I often read books to get ideas and more to think about how I may tell them to others and less for the sole purpose of self enjoyment. More often I would wish a storie would have unfinished endings, because the ending was so awful, while the rest was just outright amazing. This also reminds me of The Neverending Story, where the author mentions several times that something would be part of another story for another book (which makes it obvious for the reader that its intentionally left open).

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.