Stories make promises, whether they mean to or not. When The Next Generation’s Captain Picard declares that the Enterprise’s mission is “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” the show is explicitly promising episodes about discovery and exploration.* Other promises are more implicit, such as the much-discussed Chekhov’s Gun. That means if a story mentions an item, character, or plot item, it should come back later in a significant way.
What happens when a story breaks its promise? An unhappy audience, that’s what. Check out these examples to make sure it never happens in your stories!
Spoilers: Legend of Korra, Battlestar Galactica, Mouse Guard, Sabriel, and Mass Effect.
1. Legend of Korra: Amon Was Just Some Guy
Legend of Korra has a fascinating premise for its first season: an anti-bender uprising. This is a huge shake-up after The Last Airbender, where benders are practically worshiped. The uprising’s leader, Amon, is equally interesting. He’s a deadly fighter, has the terrifying ability to take away others’ bending, and perhaps most intriguingly, always wears a mask.
By hiding a character’s face, storytellers create the expectation that the reveal will mean something. The audience expects that they’ll recognize whomever is underneath or that the mask is covering some horrifying secret. For the whole season, fans speculated that Amon was secretly one of Republic City’s rulers, or that he had made a deal with Ko the Face Stealer, or that he was a robot.
Instead, the mask finally comes off, and he turns out to be… some guy. He’s just a regular person, and his entire motivation for wearing a mask is out of concern that a secondary villain might recognize him. While this explanation is technically plausible, it isn’t satisfying because it wasn’t foreshadowed and doesn’t explain why the audience was kept in the dark for so long. Nor does it explain any of Amon’s powers. Instead, the writers spent an episode’s worth of flashbacks explaining how Amon could do all the things he did.
Because the writers didn’t keep their implicit promise, the most anticipated moment of the show lead to head scratching and disappointment. If the writers weren’t interested in a meaningful reveal, they’d have been better served by showing the audience Amon’s face sooner. That way we wouldn’t have spent a whole season wondering about it.
2. Battlestar Galactica: The Cylons Didn’t Have a Plan
In Battlestar Galactica (BSG), the broken promise is right in the opening credits. To paraphrase, the Cylons rebelled, they evolved, and they have a plan. We see that promise at the start of every episode, and it’s an evocative one. What is their plan? They’ve already wiped out 99% of the human species; what more could they have in store?
Throughout the series, the Cylons make all kinds of strange choices that the audience assumes have to do with their much-discussed plans. In several episodes, it seems like the Cylons could wipe out the human fleet, but they don’t. Are they keeping humans alive for something? No one knows!
By the third and fourth seasons, the Cylons’ actions become increasingly erratic, but the intro keeps promising they have a plan. Then the finale happens, and we finally have to face the hard truth: the Cylons have no plan at all. They’ve been following the human fleet for years just because they want to destroy it. Despite their vast advantages in both information and military force, the Cylons keep failing to accomplish their goal until they are eventually torn apart by internal bickering. None of their actions were building towards anything.
While BSG’s finale has many issues,* this is probably the worst. For one thing, an ending should feel like it weaves all the story’s various plot lines together into a cohesive whole. That’s basic storycraft, and BSG fails at it.
Perhaps more importantly, the end retroactively destroys the Cylons’ credibility as villains. The Cylons are really cool when they first appear. They have mystique and menace in equal amounts. It’s easy to believe they have some kind of far-reaching plan for the remnants of humanity. Then it turns out they’ve just been messing around for the entire show.
3. Mouse Guard: Giant Enemy Crab Attack Was Completely Random
In the first comic of Mouse Guard, young Sadie is on a secret mission to find the veteran guardmouse Conrad. Lockhaven’s been getting strange reports from Conrad’s region, and they need to know what’s up. Sadie eventually finds Conrad and learns the terrible truth: there is a treacherous conspiracy within the Guard, against Lockhaven itself!
Before Sadie can leave to convey this vital warning, she and Conrad are attacked by a swarm of giant enemy crabs.* It’s an epic battle to escape, and Conrad heroically sacrifices his life so Sadie can flee.
The timing of the attack creates a dramatic expectation that it’s somehow related to the conspiracy by occurring at the moment most advantageous to the conspirators. Conrad has only just finished telling Sadie what’s really going on, and suddenly the house they’re in darkens as crabs surround it. If Sadie had been a little slower in fighting off the crabs, no one would have warned Lockhaven of the conspirators’ plan.
It looks not only like there’s a conspiracy at work but also like they’ve somehow enlisted the aid of deadly crustaceans to their cause. The reader is left wondering how such a thing could be accomplished.
Well, turns out it wasn’t. No further mention is made of the crab attack, not even as the conspiracy launches its coup attempt and is eventually defeated. The only explanation is that the crabs weren’t related to the conspiracy at all, and their attack was a complete coincidence. That’s incredibly unlikely.
What’s more, the story would have been better if the crabs were somehow related to the conspiracy. It would have given the conspirators a level of threat and menace that they otherwise lack. One problem with the first Mouse Guard comic is that we don’t know enough about the setting to judge if the conspirators are actually the bad guys. Sicking vicious crabs on their fellow mice would have been good evidence of the conspirator’s villainy.
If the author really wanted to keep the crabs unrelated to the larger plot, he needed to set them up differently. If Sadie had mentioned that she was venturing into dangerous crab territory, then the attack would have been expected. The author does something similar with a snake attack earlier in the comic, and it works fine. Why didn’t the crabs get the same treatment?
4. Sabriel: The Protagonist Gets a Surprise Resurrection
Sabriel is a great book named after its main character, a young necromancer on a quest to rescue her father from death. The plot effectively builds to an exciting conclusion, where the protagonist and her allies square off against a powerful undead bent on world domination. That’s when things get messy.
The book’s final chapter ends with Sabriel’s death as she uses her last fragments of power to defeat the villain. It’s a very sad ending, especially since she’d just started making progress with her romance interest. It also leaves the reader with a lot of questions about what’s going to happen in the setting, because it was strongly implied that the magic of Sabriel’s bloodline is vital to holding the world together. Then there’s an epilogue, which continues the same scene without any time jump, and Sabriel is resurrected. Wait, what?
It’s bad enough when stories pretend to kill the main character and then pull a fast one, because it damages the audience’s trust. It’s worse with Sabriel, because the resurrection is hidden in the epilogue. While there are no legally binding rules for what goes into an epilogue, it’s almost always supplementary information that doesn’t effect the main plot too much; you find out that the main character has gone on to have kids, or that the new nation is doing well, or something similar. Otherwise, the information should be part of the main chapters.
Since epilogues are supposed to contain non-essential information, some people don’t read them. Anyone who skipped Sabriel’s epilogue* would have an incomplete picture of the story. Imagine how confused they’d be trying to read any sequels. Sabriel’s resurrection completely changes the ending. Not only is she still alive to pursue all her hopes and dreams, but now the world won’t start unraveling from the loss of a magical bloodline. It’s as if Harry Potter’s epilogue had featured Voldemort as the new headmaster of Hogwarts. Sabriel’s conclusion would have worked much better with the protagonist being badly wounded and then saved from death before going into the epilogue.
5. Mass Effect 3: Your Choices Didn’t Matter
The Mass Effect series is a sprawling story of epic science-fiction adventure where choices matter. Through the avatar of Commander Shepard, players get to make important decisions for themselves rather than having them prescripted by the game designers. While some of these choices make more sense than others,* they are all central to the story.
In fact, choice is at the heart of Mass Effect’s narrative. The main villains are the Reapers, a race of artificial lifeforms that sweep through the galaxy every so often and wipe out all technologically advanced life. They’ve done this so many times before that they see humanity’s downfall as a forgone conclusion. Humans* can struggle if they like, but it won’t make any difference. The Reapers even have a form of mind control, called indoctrination, that takes away a person’s free will. Shepard defies them. Choices do matter, the future is not written.
Then we get to the end of Mass Effect 3 (ME3), and it turns out none of that was true. Shepard fights their way onto the McGuffin-spacestation, only to be presented with three “choices” that Shepard doesn’t even arrive at by their own agency. Instead, an ancient AI shows up and dictates to Shepard how the story is going to end. Worse, the results of all three choices are nearly identical. We’re left with the message that human choices matter, but not when they really count. The designers might as well have let the Reapers win.
Instead, ME3’s writers should have created an ending similar to that of the series’ previous installment. In Mass Effect 2’s climax, the player makes numerous decisions about which characters to send on which missions, and those choices determine who lives and who dies at the end.* Failing that, just taking out the AI would have been an improvement. If Shepard had looked at the situation and decided there were only three possible options, then the game’s message would have held true because Shepard’s agency still mattered.
Consciously or not, authors make promises to their audience, and breaking those promises has consequences. The audience might be confused because their expectations weren’t met, disappointed because something they wanted to happen didn’t, or angry because the story betrayed everything they thought it stood for. None of those are good reactions, and the best way to avoid them is knowing what promises your story is making – and then fulfilling them.
(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)