Drama is a cornerstone of storytelling. Even the most action-heavy violence-fests need an emotional core if they want to be more than a forgettable special-effects reel. We have a number of articles covering how to get the right feels in your story, from character arcs to romances. But despite shouting our articles at every author we can find, sometimes dramatic plotlines fall flat.* While this is rarely fun to read or watch, understanding such failures can help the rest of us avoid similar problems in our own work.
Spoiler Notice: Legendborn, Star Trek: Discovery, and Fruits Basket (2019)
1. Bree Joining the Order: Legendborn
In this urban fantasy novel about sorcery and systemic racism, protagonist Bree is infiltrating the Order, a magical secret society that hunts demons. I say “infiltrating” because she doesn’t actually want to be there, and for good reason. The Order is super racist, and becoming one of their magically enhanced warriors is so draining that Bree likely wouldn’t live past her 30s, assuming a demon doesn’t get her first. Bree wants in because she suspects the Order had something to do with her mother’s death.
Helping Bree in her infiltration is Nick, who just so happens to be the Order’s future king. He’s also a love interest, and the romance naturally grows as the plot continues. Despite getting closer to Nick, Bree’s feelings on the Order don’t change. She has moments when she considers that it might not be so bad, but as the climax nears, she reaffirms her belief: the Order is bad news, and she wants no part of it. Plus, it seems like the Order had nothing to do with her mother’s death after all, so she’s headed right for the exit.*
For some reason, she still decides to attend the Order’s big celebration where a handful of initiates are chosen to become full warriors, getting those sweet magic powers that cut your life span by 60 years or so. This is already super weird, as it’s not clear why she’d want to go, given her feelings for the Order. She’s befriended a few fellow initiates and there’s her relationship with Nick, of course, but she can see them anytime since they’re all at the same college. There’s some indication that she wants to say goodbye before she cuts ties completely, but again, that would be much easier to do outside of an official Order function.
What’s more, Bree acts like she’s been taken out of the running as an initiate, but there’s no reason to think she has. That’s a serious risk, since if she’s picked, she either has to sign up for a job she doesn’t want (and a shortened life span) or refuse and cause even more drama with the Order.
Surprising absolutely no one, when it’s Nick’s turn to pick an initiate, he picks Bree. The narrative treats this as a celebratory moment, like Bree and Nick have triumphed over some great hurdle. Nick sweeps her out of the room as the racist Order members throw tantrums, and then the lovebirds share a victory makeout before further plot events separate them.
This moment is super confusing from both a logical and emotional perspective. Bree seems happy that Nick picked her, but earlier, she was very explicit about not wanting this. Nick has effectively signed her up for a war she wasn’t interested in fighting, and that’s supposed to be a good thing? It’s not like her relationship with Nick is dependent on being chosen either – they can date regardless! It feels like this scene was supposed to follow the beats of a classic ball sequence, where the prince finally professes his love. But in the context of this story, the shoe doesn’t fit.
2. Jake’s Death: The Gunslinger
The Gunslinger, the first book in the Dark Tower series, was written very early in Steven King’s career.* It shows. The prose exaggerates King’s normal atmospheric style to the point that it’s often difficult to tell what’s happening. The story provides an excuse for protagonist Roland to mow down a town full of civilians, and in the middle of that, he pauses for some fancy trick shooting. I guess that even when Roland is murdering townsfolk, he has to look cool. There’s also a lot of sexual violence, most of it even more contrived than the regular violence. Did I mention Roland has no motivation? We’re never told why he’s doing what he’s doing, probably because King didn’t know himself.
The book goes off a series of tangents, but in theory, the plot follows Roland as he chases an evil sorcerer named Walter.* Along the way, Roland runs into a young boy named Jake, and that’s where things get really confusing. Through Roland’s visions, we learn that Walter put Jake in Roland’s path as some kind of trap. A bit later, Roland thinks that he’ll have to sacrifice Jake to catch Walter. The omniscient narration is so out there that it’s difficult to tell how Roland knows that. Jake knows, too, and it’s even less clear how. He seems to have intuited it from the aether.
Even as Roland contemplates how he’ll have to sacrifice Jake, it’s unclear how Jake’s death will help Roland catch Walter. The most obvious explanation is that a point will come when Roland has to choose between saving Jake or catching Walter. Walter either wants to get away, or he wants Roland to have the trauma of killing a child. But in some sections, King implies that sacrificing Jake is a necessary step to catching Walter, like Roland wouldn’t be able to complete his quest if he hadn’t met Jake. In that scenario, Walter presumably wants Roland to catch him for… reasons? Who knows. None of this is clarified by the end, so it’s pretty obvious King was just throwing every random idea at the wall to see what stuck.
The only thing we know for sure is that Roland is conflicted about the need to sacrifice Jake, which is fair. No matter how grizzled a gunslinger Roland may be, it’s nice that he still has qualms about killing a child. Since we don’t actually know why Roland is trying to catch Walter, this angst provides the book’s only emotional depth. Without it, The Gunslinger is just a guy walking through some tumbleweeds and mumbling about how everything was better when he was a kid. Granted, the emotional conflict is somewhat undermined by the confusing premise, but maybe that’ll all come together in the climax…
Spoiler: it doesn’t. Instead, the “sacrifice” moment comes, and it is truly bizarre. Jake has slipped and is hanging off a ledge over a bottomless pit. Up ahead, Walter taunts Roland by saying, “Come now, gunslinger. Or catch me never!” This suggests that if Roland pauses to save Jake, Walter will get away. But that’s obviously not true. Pulling Jake up is the work of a few seconds. Walter isn’t going to escape in that time unless he has a spaceship hidden just offscreen. Although, given how the rest of The Gunslinger is written, maybe that’s what King imagined.
The circumstances are also incredibly random. With all the talk of sacrifice, I assumed Jake’s death would come about because of Walter’s actions. Instead, Jake slips when a rotted mine trestle gives way, completely independent of Walter. It’s always possible that Walter has perfect future-sight, but if he can do that, then nothing in the series matters anyway. It feels more like Walter just made an unfounded prediction, then took credit for random coincidence like a huckster psychic.
After building up Jake’s death for half the book, all we’re left with is a confusing mess that means nothing and has no payoff. It’s a classic case of a writer making promises they can’t deliver on. Our only solace is that King also seems to have been unhappy with how he left things, as he later has Roland take a time-traveling jaunt to undo this particular plot point.
3. Burnham’s Arc: Discovery
Character arcs are the bread and butter of serial TV shows, so it’s no surprise that Discovery’s writers wanted one for protagonist Michael Burnham at the start of season three. Burnham did just catapult herself and Discovery’s crew 900 years into the future, which is the sort of thing you expect to leave its mark. The only problem is that the writers don’t seem to have had any idea what Burnham’s arc was supposed to be.
The first thing you need for a character arc is a problem that will eventually spur change. Burnham’s problem is that she’s not happy on Discovery, which is reasonable. Such an arc could easily resolve with Burnham learning how to be happy on the ship again or deciding that it’s best to leave and seek her fortune elsewhere.
Things go wrong when we get to the second essential element: the cause. We need to know what’s causing the problem, and Discovery never makes that clear. The dialogue often makes references to the year Burnham spent off ship due to time displacement, but that’s not a cause; it’s somewhere the cause could have happened. An obvious cause would be that after some time on her own, Burnham has trouble fitting into a command structure, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. She does disobey orders once, but that’s hardly new. She’s a Star Trek protagonist – disobeying orders is her thing.
Another possibility is that she’s upset at the idea of losing Booker, a boyfriend she picked up during her gap year. He’s not part of Starfleet, so that could track. But Burnham only ever talks about being unhappy on Discovery, not missing Booker. And if he was the problem, you’d expect at least a conversation or two about the possibility of him staying, something he ends up doing in any case.
The last cause that Burnham occasionally brings up is her obsession with the Burn, a cosmic event that caused mass destruction across the galaxy. She is definitely obsessed with the Burn and sometimes even says she can’t be happy until she figures it out. However, if solving the Burn is what’s causing her unhappiness, then staying on Discovery is the obvious solution. Discovery, and Starfleet in general, gives her access to resources she wouldn’t have on her own, and in fact, it’s because of these resources that she eventually solves the mystery.
Since not even the writers know what’s causing Burnham’s unhappiness, her arc is barely present in the story. We only know she’s supposed to be having an arc because it keeps getting mentioned in dialogue. At one point, Burnham has a log entry to remind us about her character arc.
Then the arc “resolves” in a truly surreal way. Burnham is participating in a cool scientific debate about whether to release sensitive information when a side character* demands she tell the other side all about her personal issues in the name of honesty. Burnham does, it’s very awkward, and then the debate moves on. Eventually, the debate is resolved via politics rather than science, but it has nothing to do with Burnham’s arc either way.
And that’s it. From that moment on, the characters act like Burnham’s arc is resolved. She’s happy on Discovery again. While it’s impossible to know for sure what happened in the writer’s room, this feels like a case of someone mandating a character arc without any plan for how to make it happen. That would explain why the arc is only ever brought up in dialogue, as no one was willing to accommodate it in their plot.
4. Riker’s Arc: The Next Generation
Whenever we criticize new Trek, it’s important to remember that classic Trek isn’t immune to similar foibles. For that, I give you Commander William Riker of the USS Enterprise-D, the man with Star Trek’s most famous beard and also the most famous way of sitting in chairs.
Despite the awful writing of TNG’s early seasons, Riker’s arc is clear from the start: maturing until he’s ready to command a ship of his own. This is first brought up when Riker turns down promotion not once but twice, saying that he really wants to be a captain, but that he needs more experience first. That’s pretty straightforward, and it’s even clearer because of the way TNG treats the first officer: as an emergency backup captain.
In some Trek shows, the first officer also has another role to fill, like being a science or liaison officer, which is something they might care about more than rising in the ranks. But on the Enterprise, most of Riker’s job is repeating Picard’s orders or taking command when the captain isn’t around. Becoming a captain in his own right is the only direction for Riker to go.
Riker’s arc comes to a head in the season three finale, “The Best of Both Worlds.” This is a two-parter, and in the first half, Riker is offered command yet again. This time, Picard urges him to take it, since refusing a third time might make Starfleet think Riker isn’t captain material. At the same time, Riker butts heads with the young and ambitious Commander Shelby. Shelby is a daring hotshot who’s not afraid to bend the rules, exactly what Riker used to be. Their conflict makes Riker worry that he’s lost his edge and isn’t captain material anymore.
In part two, Captain Picard is assimilated by the Borg, leaving Riker in command. This is a great use of external conflict to advance an internal arc, and I applaud the writers. At first, Riker tries to emulate Picard’s tactics and command style, but when that fails, Riker innovates and wins the day with his own ideas. So there you have it: proof that Riker is ready to command a starship. Naturally in the following episodes he… stays right where he is?
That’s right, with the return of Picard as captain, Riker is back as first officer, and nothing else is said about it. There’s no payoff, no change for the character, just back to square one. TNG is an episodic show, so we’re used to the characters remaining fairly static, but this arc played out over three seasons. In some ways, this is worse than what happened with Burnham. She has no arc despite the writers clearly wanting one for her. Riker does have an arc, and then the writers act like it never happened.
Unlike with Burnham, the reasons why are obvious: it wasn’t acceptable to shake up the cast by having Riker leave to command his own ship. Whether because of contracts or simply not wanting to mess with the formula, Riker had to resume his role as Picard’s understudy. And to be fair, I’d have missed Riker if he left to take his own ship. But I would have preferred giving the character a real send-off to wasting such a good arc.
And let’s be real: this is Star Trek – they have several ways to both give Riker his own command and keep him around. A couple seasons later, there’s even an episode where the writers considered killing Riker and replacing him with a transporter clone. Why not do something like that, but instead of death, Riker Prime finally gets that captain’s chair he’s always wanted?
5. Yuki’s Development: Fruits Basket
For this final entry, we leave books and live-action TV behind to enter the world of anime. Fruits Basket (2019) is a show entirely about relationships and character growth, so it’s home to a number of excellent emotional storylines. The downside is that because the show has very little external conflict, when one of these stories flops, you really feel it.
This brings us to Yuki Sohma. In season one, he’s part of a Who Will She Choose love triangle with protagonist Tohru and broody boy Kyo. This arc has everything you’d expect: furtive glances, blushing sighs, and outright flirting. It works pretty well, but things start to go wrong as it becomes clear that Tohru and Kyo will end up together. Since this anime isn’t ready for polyamorous relationships, that means Yuki needs a new arc for season two.
The obvious choice is recovering from the abuse in Yuki’s backstory, but it seems the writer* thought that was too obvious, or maybe that it wouldn’t fill a season’s worth of screen time. Instead, Yuki becomes the man in search of a problem.
First, we’re told that Yuki has trouble working with other people. This is not true. Yuki won’t be leading corporate team building exercises anytime soon, but he’s perfectly capable of cooperating when necessary. To obscure this, the writer sticks Yuki on a student council full of assholes who are extremely difficult to work with. As expected, Yuki has trouble working with them, but that’s not indicative of anything on his end. Anyone would have difficulty in this situation.
Within a few episodes, this problem has faded, more because the other students get more reasonable than from any change on Yuki’s part. Then the show tells us that Yuki’s problem is that he can’t express himself. Again, that just isn’t true. Yuki does have trouble standing up to the people who abused him, and that includes not expressing himself, but with other people he’s fine. Since there’s no actual problem here, the show resorts to making Yuki’s rudest classmate ask him a bunch of overly personal questions, and when Yuki finally gives in, it’s treated as growth.
By the end of this “arc,” Yuki laughs and smiles more often, but that’s not actually progress. Before, Yuki was more stoic, but that wasn’t a problem; it was just his personality. The show is so desperate for an arc that it ends up assigning weird value judgments to his personal affect. There are other stoic characters on the show; are they also gonna get arcs where they need to smile more?*
But wait, there’s more! In a move so strange it feels like a fever dream, Yuki spends an entire episode monologuing his latest realization: he wasn’t actually attracted to Tohru last season! All that blushing, hand holding, furtively glancing, and outright flirting? It was because he wanted a… surrogate mother figure. I can only assume the writer threw a dart to pick that one because, otherwise, what the heck? I don’t know about any of you, but when I view someone as a maternal figure, my first instinct is not to flirt with them.
I can’t know the writer’s mind, but after talking with Chris, this feels like an attempt to retcon away Yuki’s previous feelings in preparation for his new romance with a fellow student council member. There’s an unfortunate trope that romance is somehow lesser if the character has ever loved anyone else, and it certainly feels like that idea is at play here. Otherwise, I have no explanation for this turn of events, except maybe some very good drugs. That might do it.
It’s fun to look at all the out-there ways that emotional arcs can go wrong, but there’s a major lesson to be learned as well. Drama is just as important to a story as dragons and fight scenes. When the drama goes wrong, the story will be amusing at best and boring at worst. Emotional plots need real problems, understandable context, and satisfying payoff. Otherwise, a story is all spectacle and no substance.
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