Very few people set out to write a bad story. That’s a large reason why high-profile story bumbles by renowned storytellers draw so much attention from both fans and critics. These usually elicit an understandable combination of public anger, amusement, and disbelief. Traditionally, bad stories have had no place in the realm of storytelling advice and are at best regarded as amusing but altogether useless dumpster fires. But this is an unfair underestimation of the unique and considerable value bad stories hold in instructing aspiring creators. In fact, they can be a useful tool with which to study the craft of storytelling.
1. To Learn How to Edit Critically
In poorly constructed stories, issues become more glaring. Rather than sucking the audience into the narrative, there comes a constant supply of distractions, mistakes, and goofs. Audiences can usually forgive a silly line here or some clunky exposition there, as long as the story is compelling enough to keep them engaged in the main plot. However, in bad stories, the constant barrage of slip-ups pulls anyone watching out of the story. The veneer of in-story character is stripped away, revealing the actors underneath. The world and surroundings revert into the claustrophobic soundstage they actually are. The arcs and plot threads return to ink on a flat page.
This outside vantage point makes all of the errors more prominent. Once we’re firmly removed from a narrative, it’s easier to put it under a critical lens and examine what parts of the story pulled us away from it. We start asking questions, often surface-level at first, but which can lead to deeper dissection. Why is the character on this quest again? Why is the villain wearing that ridiculous hat? Where’s the time machine that gave every peasant in this medieval farmland a spiral perm?
Keeping a critical distance from the story in question is often involuntary with bad stories. If the mistakes are egregious or glaring enough, immersion – at least in the sense that good stories evoke it – is often simply out of the question. However, the more that mindset is inhabited, the more familiar it becomes, and achieving an analytical distance from the story can also become voluntary. This is critical to editing one’s own work, since the stories writers are often most immersed in are our own, and that can make it difficult to spot mistakes or treat those mistakes with the critical eye they deserve. How to transition from immersion mode to scrutiny mode is an important move that bad stories can teach.
2. To Discover What a Good Idea Can Become If Executed Poorly
Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Storytelling is such a staple of everyday life and the human experience that very few people go through our story-packed world without coming up with a few story seeds of their own. Anyone who’s encountered an exclamation along the lines of “Oh, you’re a writer? Let me sell you my million-dollar idea!” can attest to that. Maybe it really is a great idea, but readers aren’t going to pay a million dollars for the bare concept alone. Most importantly, it’s how the story seed is planted and tended that makes the difference. Some good ideas grow and blossom, while others die in the soil.
Bad stories demonstrate the latter end of that spectrum. The original seed is visible in the final product, and that idea is more often than not a fine idea in and of itself. The basic premise of “a young woman’s father goes missing while doing archeological research, and she goes to investigate” could be quite compelling, at least until you watch Alien from L.A. Similarly, “a dystopian future where the real world is neglected in favor of virtual reality” holds plenty of water until Ready Player One turns it into a cheap reference cash-in. “A spaceship crew of people who hate each other’s guts is forced to work together due to resource scarcity and isolation” seems like a solid premise until you see Voyager. The same holds true with any number of bad stories stemming from an initially inspired concept.
Every one of these concepts has potential, and bad stories show that having great potential doesn’t automatically equate to having a great story.* A good preliminary idea is one of the least important aspects of storytelling as a craft. Its main function is to get the writer interested in writing the narrative attached to it, and that’s where many stories flounder. Bad stories show us what the potential in these good ideas looks like and how it can go wrong. More than a cautionary tale, the squandered potential found in bad stories can often be traced to specific causes. Did the story focus on the wrong thing? Was it too afraid of its own premise? Did it extrapolate the core idea into something nonsensical? Considering and answering these questions can make it easier to consider the dynamics of potential in our own stories.
3. To Find Counterexamples for Good Stories
To expand on the previous section, for every bad story that falls face-first over its initial potential, a good story elsewhere executes a similar concept well. The same is true in the reverse, especially when it comes to popular franchises getting ripped off. Twilight has Fifty Shades and an entire subgenre of vampire erotica, Harry Potter has Tanya Grotter and the Mortal Instruments series, Star Wars has Turkish Star Wars* and Starcrash, Star Trek has The Orville – you name it. Anything that’s gotten popular in one place has seen an abundance of copycats and imitators, most of which fit the “bad story” designation. These types of knockoffs can be especially valuable, since an imitator trying to replicate bottled lightning of the original usually results in some spectacularly crappy fireworks. Seeing what made the copied elements fail is important to understanding the success of their popular counterparts. Copycats give a unique window into what makes an element work in one story and not in another, especially if those elements are what boosted the original to fame in the first place.
Comparing unrelated stories with similar core concepts but wildly different success rates in execution is another extremely valuable method of analysis, whether that analysis focuses on the ideas themselves or the techniques attached to them. Sometimes good versus bad execution of a technique is present within a single series or franchise. A great way to learn about story throughlines, for example, is to compare A New Hope to Attack of the Clones. One of these has a clear, solid throughline, and one very much doesn’t, and the absence makes a lot of difference. So much difference that you already know which is which.
What determines a story’s success or failure can be tricky to pin down, but comparing bad stories to good ones is a tried-and-tested method for figuring out what, exactly, the latter is made of. The contrast can lay bare the mechanics of what makes these tropes fly or flop, information that is useful to anyone hoping to use them. It can teach what steps to take to coax that idea seed into full bloom and what steps to avoid smothering it. Comparison between examples is a powerful tool in any storyteller’s inventory, and bad stories are an important part of that equation.
4. To Examine the Technicalities of the Craft
In good stories, the most foundational aspects of storytelling are all but invisible. You, as a reader or viewer, aren’t supposed to notice the nuts and bolts of what makes the story run smoothly, and a well-crafted narrative hides these well. Bad stories, on the other hand, make it painfully clear how hard concealing narrative mechanics actually is.
As discussed previously, shattering immersion helps to lay these mechanics bare. Further than revealing the mechanics, however, these types of stories also teach us the ways that they run and clog. We can move from the superficial questions into a more in-depth examination of where, exactly, the sticking points are – that is, take some lessons from bad writing, if you will. A useful exercise can be doctoring a script or narrative – brainstorming changes and fixes to a bad story to improve it. What could the author have done differently to make the reveal more effective? Is there a way to make this dialogue more relevant and engaging? What percentage of this needless description would need to be cut before the book vanishes entirely?
This also holds true for certain core storytelling rules, including foreshadowing future events, crafting antagonists with reasonable motivations, and giving characters flaws. Occasionally, instances arise wherein it’s appropriate to break these rules. This has to be done carefully, however. It’s easy to mess up a subversion. As such, a good place to study how to break the rules properly is to look at the many times it’s both been done wrong and been done accidentally.
5. To Understand the Importance of Breaking Stereotypes
Many bad stories lean heavily on stereotypes to provide their characters with personality traits. It saves the creators the bother of having to create interesting, complex, unique characters, and instead relies on overused motifs that we’ve all seen done a thousand times before. It’s one thing to start with a stereotype and deepen the character from there; it’s another thing entirely to play that stereotype completely straight and give it no more thought than that. Spoiled princesses, noble knights, chosen ones, obligatory love interests, and many others blend into a forgettable mush of bad and worse.
The lack of diversity in most of these stories serves to further prove what a bad strategy this is, as it makes the characters even more bland and interchangeable. When the entirety of your cast is “white guy with dark hair,” names and titles become meaningless fast. When diversity is included, it almost always gets an unnecessary in-story justification of why the storytellers are deviating from the white, straight, cis, male default. Female characters aren’t allowed to be there doing all the things their male counterparts are doing; they have to be shoehorned into love subplots, be damseled, be straw feminist Amazons who will act sexy and threatening before falling for the protagonists,* be murdered in their bathtubs by monsters and killers, or provide screams for the soundtrack. Similarly, disabled people are tragic innocents, seniors are either hags or blithering basket cases, and Black characters die first or serve as jungle savages and/or mystical brown people.*
These stereotypes are insulting to everyone involved, and I hope I don’t have to explain why this is wrong. Older bad stories laid the groundwork of many sexist, racist tropes we still see in media today. Seeing bigotry in this oblivious, obvious form can make it easier to recognize in modern stories. Understanding the history of marginalization through the lens of stories is extremely helpful for storytellers looking to move beyond those harmful and regressive tropes. Beyond that, though, these stereotypes are plain boring. There’s nothing innovative, novel, or new to catch our attention; stereotyped characters are flat and nearly identical between narratives. Bad stories demonstrate why it’s so important to move beyond these easy caricatures and why wariness about playing into harmful stereotypes is critical.
6. To Gain an Appreciation for Good Stories
This is a somewhat obvious but important point. After all of the comparing and contrasting, dissecting, and doctoring that we do to bad stories, it can sometimes begin to feel like the bad is all that there is. As such, returning to a well-crafted, effective story is a tremendous relief. By studying everything that can and does go wrong, witnessing a story fulfill its potential, follow its throughline, conceal its technicalities, and convey its messages effectively heralds a much more appreciative viewing experience. Dialogue that doesn’t sound stilted and cheesy? Costumes made of something other than pure spandex? A main character with actual motivation and an arc? Incredible!
Telling a good story is, at its heart, quite a difficult pursuit. It takes skill to make it look easy, the way many renowned storytellers often do. After learning about the inner mechanics of plot, character, and other foundational elements through the lens of bad stories, you begin to notice how tricky it is to get all of those elements to work together. This newfound viewpoint makes stories that do this effectively all the more impressive and worthier of appreciation.
The change in perspective bad stories provide also serves as a helpful reminder that mistakes don’t have to be fatal. Even the most highly regarded stories have their bumbles and slip-ups, and these don’t make or break them. Bad stories give us a window into what types of and/or concentration of mistakes audiences will tolerate and which will make them throw the book away. Just as it’s unrealistic for a storyteller to expect absolute perfection in any project, bad stories teach us the threshold for error on the other end of the spectrum.
7. To Have Fun
In addition to being helpful examples, teachers, and cautionary tales, bad stories can just be plain fun to experience. The popularity of bad story dissection – including numerous YouTube channels devoted to reviewing bad movies, Rifftrax, Mystery Science Theater 3000, 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back, the Jealous Hater Book Club, and our very own Lessons From Bad Writing – is due to more than solely hate or anger. Storytellers have a fascination with stories gone wrong, and much of that fascination comes from a place of morbid curiosity, which is enjoyable to satiate.
The pleasure that comes from consuming bad stories is of a much different sort than that derived from good stories, but it’s potent nonetheless. Many bad stories – most often movies – have gained cult followings as a result of their crappy hilarity. The Room, Vampire’s Kiss, Who Killed Captain Alex, Birdemic, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Troll 2, The Eye of Argon, and many others now hold a kind of legendary status among fans.
Clearly, just because a story is bad doesn’t mean you won’t like it nonetheless. The enjoyability level also depends in part upon the story itself – some are boring or uninteresting or unforgivably offensive – but there’s much fun to be had in consuming bad stories. There’s no reason that they must uniformly be a slog.
Obviously, experiencing good stories is a critical part of writing good stories of our own, but bad stories are much less appreciated in that regard. They also have a place in our playlists and libraries and on our bookshelves. So take some time to settle down with a few. Get a party of friends together, form a book group, or simply set off on your own. And who knows? You might end up learning something.
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