It’s very common for storytellers to accidentally make their big conflicts too easy. But what if I told you the reverse can happen too? These conflicts are too difficult for the hero to credibly overcome, forcing the storytellers to resolve them in an unsatisfying way. This problem is less common in published stories, but I see it all the time in client manuscripts. Today, we go through some examples out in the wild, which should give us an understanding of why this problem appears and the damage it does.
Spoiler Notice: Gideon the Ninth
1. The Mandalorian: Too Many Mooks
It’s a well-worn trope in Star Wars that stormtroopers have terrible aim. It started back in New Hope, when our heroes somehow avoided getting blasted while running around the Death Star’s corridors, and it’s continued through every major addition to the franchise. But guess what? Just because something’s been around for a while doesn’t make it a good idea, as we can see in the Star Wars universe’s newest offering: The Mandalorian.
The Mandalorian is a gritty scifi-western where protagonist Mando has to scrounge for cash and spend multiple episodes getting his ship repaired. This aesthetic is great for distinguishing the show from the movies’ more fantastic atmosphere. Unfortunately, it falls apart whenever Mando gets into a big fight.
I’m not sure why, but the writers really like putting Mando in fights with dozens of enemies at a time. In any rational narrative, Mando would be immediately overwhelmed, but we can’t have that. Instead, the bad guys all shoot like it’s their first time holding a blaster, even as Mando bullseyes them with ease. This is most notable when Mando is fighting stormtroopers, but it happens with mooks of all sorts. In one sequence, Mando is completely surrounded by enemies, but is somehow fine after taking refuge in a wooden cart. In another, his enemies are polite enough to not even bring blasters, despite a seemingly endless supply of speeders and explosives.
In a possible move to alleviate this problem, the show gives Mando blaster-resistant armor, but even then the villains almost never hit him. Presumably, the writers* know that it would destroy all tension if Mando could walk through a hail of blaster fire like the Terminator. Unfortunately, knowing that the villains can’t hit the broad side of a barn also destroys tension; it just lasts a little longer.
The good news is that not all of Mando’s fights fall victim to this issue. Often, he’s only fighting a handful of baddies, so it’s believable that he defeats them without getting hit. Occasionally, the show even figures out ways for Mando to credibly defeat a horde of enemies, like one episode where he’s being covered by two snipers. In that sequence, the stormtroopers either keep their heads down or they get sniped, so we don’t have to sit through a bunch of shots mysteriously flying past Mando’s head.
Despite that, there are lots of scenes where Mando has no cover at all but still has to fight a horde of enemies. Sometimes, instead of having the bad guys miss, they just don’t shoot at him. I’ve lost track of how often stormtroopers demand that our heroes drop their weapons in the middle of a fight. There’s just no credible way for Mando to win such battles, so it’s obviously contrived when he does.
2. His Majesty’s Dragon: An Unwinnable Battle
The first novel in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is a rip-roaring Napoleonic War story, but with dragons. It follows Captain Laurence as he meets and bonds with the dragon Temeraire who, thanks to some suspiciously fast draconic aging, goes from hatchling to adult in the space of one book. How convenient!
The conflicts are generally well handled until the final act, when that rascally Napoleon plays a dirty trick: he’s going to invade Britain with a fleet of dragon-carried transports, and there’s not a single thing our heroes can do about it! The French dragons are simply too numerous and too strong, while most of the British beasts have been lured away by a feint. So our heroes are off to fight a doomed battle where they can’t retreat and will definitely die, oh no! Stop me if something about that sounds unbelievable.
Normally, it’s not a problem if readers don’t actually believe the hero is going to die. Dangerous situations still create tension as we wait to see whether our heroes will triumph. So long as success and failure are up in their air, we can suspend our disbelief and consider that the hero might die, even though intellectually we know they won’t.
By making such a big deal about how hopeless and doomed the upcoming battle is, His Majesty’s Dragon creates the opposite effect. There’s nothing to help suspend our disbelief, so we call the book’s bluff. Since it’s pretty obvious Laurence and Temeraire aren’t going to die, we’re left to wait for the inevitable twist that will save them.
Sure enough, Temeraire just happens to develop a brand-new power and save the day. Rather than an exciting twist, it feels like this is where the climax finally starts, since it’s the first time the outcome has been in doubt. Everything before the twist was just killing time.
For this ending to work, the good guys would need a plan with some chance of succeeding, even if it’s a slim chance. Maybe their strategy is for every British dragon to make attack runs at the troop transports, since that’s the real invasion force. Napoleon’s dragons would make this extremely difficult, but it’s something. Then, in the actual battle, it could look like this plan is going to fail, which is when Temeraire gains his new power that saves the day. He would still need to karmically earn it to avoid feeling like a deus ex machina, but that’s an entirely different problem.
3. Supernatural: Death by Demon
Back in the land of TV, we have the monster-hunting antics of Supernatural. By its very nature, this show requires protagonists Sam and Dean to go up against creatures much stronger than they are, which is exciting but also raises logistical challenges. The problem gets worse in season three, as the brothers take on an ever-growing number of demons rather than one at a time. As each demon is super strong and nearly immune to physical damage, you can see how it might be difficult to justify the good guys’ victory.
This brings us to the episode Jus In Bello,* where Sam and Dean are trapped in a police station with a bunch of hostile demons outside. Right away, we have problems. The demons know that the heroes are trapped in a cell without any of their supernatural gear, protected only by a handful of cops who don’t even know about magic. Since demons are immune to bullets, they could easily walk inside and take the brothers out, but instead they decide to wait for even more demons.
The extra time allows Sam and Dean to convince the cops that magic is real, then fortify the station with anti-demon barriers. So that’s already contrivance number one, but don’t worry, there’s more. Trapped and under siege, our heroes face a moral dilemma. They have a spell that will destroy the demons, but it requires brutally murdering a civilian. Eventually, they turn this down in favor of a new plan, which Dean describes as: “Open the doors, let them all in, and we fight.”
That’s a really frustrating plan because it has zero chance of success. It’s hard to believe the heroes and their few allies will last more than a few seconds against so many demons, let alone defeat them. Even making a break for freedom would be more likely to succeed. But no, they decide to go with Dean’s plan. They don’t even try to channel the demons through a choke point to prevent them from attacking the heroes all at once.
After fighting for a few moments, in which it seems like all the good guys should have been easily killed, we find out that they actually had a hidden plan. They defeat the demons via a mass exorcism spell. That could have worked, but we’ve already had to sit through a whole fight scene where it seemed like the heroes’ plan was just to die. Worse, Dean’s description of the plan now feels dishonest, like he knew there was an audience he had to trick.
Hidden plans are a perfectly serviceable way to resolve conflicts, especially in visual media, but they should be paired with a non-hidden plan. That way, we feel like we know what’s happening, and then discover what the heroes are really up to. Supernatural instead makes it look like Sam and Dean have taken leave of their senses in the face of unbeatable odds.
4. Gideon the Ninth: All-Powerful Necromancers
Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is a Hugo-nominated space fantasy adventure about necromancers and cavaliers exploring a haunted castle while a killer lurks in the background. Naturally, the novel’s climax is an epic fight against this mysterious killer, who turns out to be an ancient necromancer named Cytherea. She’s a Lyctor, an immortal servant of the emperor who possesses godlike power.
It’s that last bit that proves to be a problem. Not only are Lyctors really powerful, but the extent of their magic is super vague. For that matter, the magic in general is very vague, which makes it difficult to tell what any of the necromancers can do. That’s not a problem for protagonist Gideon, whose only power is being good with a sword, but it does affect her necromancer allies like Harrow.
When Gideon and her friends attack, there are lots of snappy one-liners and vivid bone descriptions, but it’s impossible to gauge how well they’re doing. Gideon hacks away at Cytherea’s bone golem, but even if it’s destroyed, can’t Cytherea just summon another one? We know Harrow can create a dozen bone constructs each minute, and Cytherea is far more powerful. Of course, it’s always possible that Cytherea lacks that particular ability, but we have to fill that in ourselves.
It’s also difficult to track what Gideon herself is doing. We know she’s attacking the bone golem, but it’s never described in enough detail to know whether she’s causing serious damage. We’re told about all the joints and phalanges Gideon destroys, but the golem seems to have an endless number of them. After reading through the fight, I could not tell if the golem was any worse for wear after Gideon’s assault.
Then there are Cytherea’s personal powers. When fighting another Lyctor, she’s described as having superspeed, but when she crosses blades with Gideon, that speed is mysteriously gone. She also seems to be impervious to physical damage in some exchanges but vulnerable in others. It’s possible she has some kind of magical protection that the heroes are wearing down, but without a more robust understanding of the magic system, it feels like her powers are inconsistent.
Even worse, what our heroes are trying to accomplish with this battle is an open question. They seem to know they can’t win; are they fighting just for the heck of it? Sometimes the story implies that they’re waiting for help to arrive, but this fight is measured in minutes, and help is hours away at least. In other instances, they briefly mention trying to escape, but that never enters into their tactics, nor is it clear where they would go.
Of course, the battle ends with Gideon’s sacrificing herself in a magic ritual that lets Harrow win. This turning point has its own problems, but it’s fine conceptually. The issue here is similar to His Majesty’s Dragon; everything before the turning point feels like it’s running out the clock. For a second time, the heroes have no plan other than to fight a hopeless battle. The main difference is that Gideon the Ninth’s vague magic makes everything worse. In Novik’s story, we at least know that to win, the good guys have to destroy or turn back the French transports. We’re told that’s impossible, but we can still imagine ways it could be done.
In Muir’s novel, the heroes’ theoretical goal is to kill Cytherea, but she shrugs off most physical damage. This makes it difficult to imagine even a theoretical victory, leaving us a long fight scene that’s well described but ultimately hollow.
5. Mass Effect: Unstoppable Reapers
Oh boy, it’s time to complain about Mass Effect again, except this time we won’t even talk about the ending. Mostly. I promise it’s not to rehash my beefs with the color-coded explosion choices.
In the first game, the Reapers are a practically unstoppable enemy. It takes the combined fleets of every major power to defeat just one, and even then, Shepard needs to do some thrilling heroics to finish the job. There are still thousands of Reapers ready to attack, and their only obstacle is being really far away. By the time of Mass Effect 3, the Reapers are still practically unstoppable, but they’ve had time to cross the void of space and invade the galaxy in force. This creates some serious plot problems.
First, the third game starts with an incredibly contrived reveal: we just happen to have discovered a previously unknown anti-Reaper weapon on Mars. This later turns out to be part of a convoluted Reaper plot, but it’s eye-rolling when introduced. Even worse, it’s unclear why the Reapers don’t overrun the galaxy in a matter of days. We’re told that, offscreen, the allied fleets are holding the Reapers at bay, but every time we see the Reapers in action, they cut through all resistance with ease, so how does that work?
From there, the entire plot revolves around this randomly discovered anti-Reaper weapon, eventually culminating in the rightly panned color choice ending. So why did this happen? While it’s tempting to blame everything on the third game, much of the responsibility lies with Mass Effect 2, my personal favorite in the series.
Given how strong the Reapers are in the first game, you’d expect the second installment to be about devising countermeasures against them. That way, when the Reapers arrive in the third game, beating them will be at least remotely possible. Instead, Mass Effect 2 is about foiling a plot that would have made the Reapers even stronger. It’s a compelling story, but it does little to make an eventual victory over the Reapers more credible.
Mass Effect 3 takes this problem and compounds it by refusing to follow up on even the meager avenues the second game left it. Other than occasional clashes with your former allies from Mass Effect 2, it’s almost like the game never happened. This leaves the good guys with no choice but to dig up a deus ex machina on Mars.
To credibly defeat the Reapers, the Mass Effect series needed more time. If it were up to me, there’d be a fourth game where Shepard and co finally get the tools they need to win. If that wasn’t in the budget, I’d have the Reapers show up near the end of game three rather than the beginning. That way, most of the third game could have been spent coming up with countermeasures in a way that’s actually compelling. The game could even keep its reveal that the big anti-Reaper gun you build is actually a plant by the Reapers themselves. That reveal would mean a lot more if it was about something you were actually involved with.
Stories run on conflict, and in most cases, making that conflict tougher for your heroes is the way to go. After all, that’s how you build tension and satisfaction. But in the rush of piling on problems, don’t forget to leave your heroes a path to victory, however narrow and treacherous it may be. If there’s no way forward, the story almost inevitably becomes a dismal slog followed by a contrived ending.
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