How Can I Judge if a Story Is Bad?

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Hello! How are you? I have been watching some of my absolute FAVORITE shows, and the fandom seems to be torn over the show’s writing. In all honesty, the writing tends to be hit or miss – but some people say it’s absolutely horrible. How can one determine when someone’s writing (book, movie, or otherwise) is bad? What defines “bad writing” and how does it differ from “the audience didn’t make this connection”?

Hey Atlas, great to hear from you again!

What makes a story “bad” is a complicated question with an equally complicated answer. I can’t give a comprehensive explanation, but I’ll try to lay out the basics.

First, when critiquing stories, we try to think in terms of “could it be better” rather than “is it bad.” Whether a story is bad or not depends a lot on individual tastes and tolerance levels. I think Enterprise is a really bad show, but others love it, and arguing over whether it fits the nebulous label of “bad” isn’t super productive.

On the other hand, I can easily point out ways in which Enterprise could be improved. Captain Archer, for example, could be less of a bigot, and the show would be much better. Those who already like him wouldn’t like him any less, and those who don’t would probably like him more. This is a productive use of my time, especially when I’m writing about it on Mythcreants. Some folks will fan rage, but for the most part, it illustrates the importance of making your protagonist likable.

As for specific criteria, we have a number of qualities we look for, along with some specific concepts that are important for all storytellers to know. Chris already has blog posts about those:

Finally, it’s important to remember that while bad media critique certainly exists, if a large portion of a show’s fanbase didn’t understand something, that’s probably a flaw in the show itself. It’s a storyteller’s job to make sure people understand what’s happening in their work, and if people don’t, that usually means the storyteller has made a mistake.

Hope that answers your question!

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  1. Ace of Hearts

    Thinking in terms of “how could this be better?” is a very good approach.

    Another point is that different readers (or viewers, or players) are more lenient with different writing tropes or mistakes. Every work has flaws, but for example, I can shrug off a plot hole or two in a novel if the main characters are compelling. If I’m playing a video game, I can tolerate subpar gameplay if the story is gripping enough. These same elements may ruin that piece of media for someone else: a bland and generic protagonist grinds my gears, even if I like all the rest. And if you take the opinions of fans instead of media critics, these will be the elements they’ll focus on.

    • Jeppsson

      That’s true.
      I love Philip K Dick, largely because he very accurately portrays the feeling of sliding into psychosis and having reality altering around you. This creates a really strong attachment to the novels for me, and so I can overlook that he obviously has a problem with women, and writes them in weird, often downright misogynistic, ways.
      I just talked with another woman about PKD, and she said she can’t stand him on account of how he writes women. And I get that. What’s a dealbreaker for one person might not be a dealbreaker for another, even if both sees the problem. That’s just the way it is.

  2. captain chameleon

    If a large percentage of the audience didn’t “get” something, that’s on the storyteller. Some people will argue that it means the audience was too oblivious/not smart enough to understand, but I think that’s just a pretentious and crappy way to look at it.

    In Rise of Skywalker,(spoilerish stuff ahead if you haven’t seen it) Finn tells Rey there’s something he wants to tell her, and he never does, but it keeps coming up throughout the movie. Then at the end he “just has a feeling” about something. Some people picked up that this meant he was Force-sensitive, but based on the internet conversations, it was pretty 50/50 on whether people “got” that. Many people had other interpretations. I think that’s a good sign it was too vague.

    • Jeppsson

      I was just in a discussion about the Star Trek TNG episode “Violations” that’s a good illustration of this…
      So there’s this telepathic alien who messes with the crew.
      At one point, Troi remembers meeting Riker way back. They chat and flirt, and she says something along the lines of “we shouldn’t do this, it’s too complicated when we’re gonna serve on the same ship”. But they keep flirting a little, and then the atmosphere changes and Riker rapes her (pretty heavily implied, even though we don’t see the whole thing). We also see the telepathic alien grinning at the scene, suddenly flashing into her memory.

      Many people in the discussion, myself included, thought that if the real memory included sex with Riker, it had been consensual. The reason the memory turned into a rape scene was that Troi sensed the telepathic alien pushing into her mind uninvited, she mentally tensed up in response and try to close her mind to him but couldn’t, and that’s why the scene from her memory changed to a rape scene.
      It’s a fair guess that this is how the writers intended it.

      But a NUMBER of people thought, upon watching that episode, “WTF???? Did Riker actually rape Troi at some point in their past?????”
      This could have been easily avoided with just a little bit more exposition in dialogue (it’s not like Star Trek is generally averse to expository dialogue anyway, and they already have Troi telling others about it).

    • SunlessNick

      I’d be interested to know how that 50/50 correlates with people who thought he was Force sensitive after The Force Awakens (which I did).

  3. Jeppsson

    That’s a good answer.

    I like Star Trek Enterprise (even though it’s not high on the list of Trek shows for me, because I like most other shows MORE). It has some absolute stinker episodes with terrible morals, but it’s got some episodes I love too, and enough that’s just enjoyable for me to like the show overall.

    I agree 100 % that Archer is a bigot and pretty terrible in the beginning, although he does, fortunately, get less bad through the seasons. But a nicer captain would be a big improvement on a show I already like. Same thing if T’Pol had normal Vulcan clothes, if they never had those stupid fanservice scenes with the decontamination gel in the early seasons (thankfully dropped later), if the long romance between T’Pol and Trip (which I like in many ways) had a better start and a proper resolution, etc. I think we could agree on a lot of improvements, even if we disagree on how bad/good it is overall.

    I might fight you on T’Pol as a character, though. I love that she got to be messy and complicated, that she was space-HIV-positive and an addict, and still a HERO, and consistently portrayed in a sympathetic light. That still feels refreshing as far as female TV characters go, and also served to make Vulcan less of a planet-of-hats.

    But we probably agree on more than we disagree about, when looking at more concrete character- and plot matters.

  4. Arix

    For me, it’s less about the story as a whole and more about each individual piece, both in isolation and how they fit together in the larger picture. Every story has its ups and downs. Whether you consider a story good or bad is just a matter of whether the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. And of course, everyone has a different tolerance for different things – what makes one person throw a book against the wall, another person may be able to easily shrug off (or may even be the exact thing they like most about it). A lot of people also have their own personal bugbears, things that they acknowledge aren’t that big a deal objectively, but still drive them up the wall.

    Ultimately it’s hard to tell whether something you like is “bad”, because if you like it, that’s really all there is to it, that’s just a feeling that lives inside you and no amount of objective analysis will extract it. Best thing to do is talk to people with a variety of opinions and see why they feel the way they do. Remember that acknowledging the flaws in something you love doesn’t mean you have to stop loving it, even if nobody else in the world does.

  5. Cay Reet

    As others have mentioned already, whether a story is good or bad is subjective to a degree. Something which elevates a story for you might be a turn-off for me, for instance (I don’t know whether it is, but it might be).

    For me, a story has to entertain me, first and foremost. I can forgive a lot of ‘technical’ weaknesses such as writing or the overuse of tropes, as long as the story as a such is engaging and I’m enjoying myself while I read it. Does that mean the stories I like couldn’t be better? No, of course not. Every story has weaknesses and if they weren’t there, it would definitely be better.
    What I can’t forgive is when the plot and the characters are weak (because the characters and the plot are what makes things entertaining for me). People might not have a full grasp on grammar or a small vocabulary (for instance in fan fiction) and I can still enjoy myself, despite my inner editor screaming at how the sentences could be improved. If a story doesn’t engage me with the plot and doesn’t make me like the characters, it doesn’t matter how good the grammar is and how large the writer’s vocabulary.

  6. Esq

    Whether a story is good or bad or not is a really subjective because a story can fail in lots of ways and different people put different emphasis on certain things. For me, language use is very important on whether a story is good or not. A good story should be written well and an author be able to play with whatever language they are writing in. Other readers don’t place that much importance on language and care more about other things like does it have a wow factor. So I might like a story that isn’t really that original if it is written very well while other people might like originality more than mastery over language.

  7. Alverant

    To me, a story is bad if I finish it because I hate leaving a book unfinished and not because I’m enjoying myself. I’ll give up on a series, but only after I finished book one. There was only one time I gave up on a book.

    • Cay Reet

      Good point.

      I usually give a book several chances to ‘grab me,’ because I just might not be in the mood for the content when I read it (I do have a huge backlog). Yet, if I try it three or four times and I opt out very much in the same chapter every time, I just drop it for good.

      Sometimes, a book I’m not that happy with as a book can be fun as an audiobook. I’ve slogged my way through one book of a series (it was right in the middle, third of five), but when I listened to the same book as an audiobook, I enjoyed it.

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