If something is important in your story, it has to be introduced early, usually before the one-third mark. By then, we should know the main characters, be familiar with the major conceits of the setting, and have made significant progress on the throughlines. In addition to important elements, secret twists and reveals should be foreshadowed so they don’t appear out of nowhere. When writers forget to establish these elements in advance, it creates all sorts of problems, from flopped turning points to gaping plot holes. Since that’s a little abstract, let’s look at a few examples in the wild and see what happens when important stuff shows up at the last minute.
Spoiler Notice: Skin of the Sea, Archive 81, Picard Season Two
1. The Crucible: Mass Effect 3
The first two Mass Effect games are spent battling the Reapers and their minions, forever on the lookout for a way to keep these xenocidal robots from wiping out all spacefaring life in the Milky Way. The second game especially focuses on researching the Reapers, desperately searching for a way to stop them, since a conventional military conflict seems hopeless. Naturally, when Mass Effect 3 rolls around, the solution is something cleverly foreshadowed by the rest of the series…
Just kidding. You’re told that, offscreen, one of your squadmates found plans for a Reaper-killing weapon in an old archeological site. This is the Crucible, and it’s a serious contender for Top Contrivance in a plot that’s got plenty of contrived competition. Humans have long mined the archeological site in question for new alien tech, but no one noticed this superweapon before. Sure, and Commander Shepard only has one favorite store on the Citadel.
Beyond the logical issues, the Crucible is profoundly unsatisfying. It has nothing to do with any of your previous adventures, and it renders many of Shepard’s victories redundant. Who cares if the Collectors were stopped in the second game? The Crucible would have been dug up regardless. You spend the rest of the third game gathering resources and personnel to build the thing, and the disappointment never quite goes away. Every time there’s an update about the Crucible’s status, it comes with a silent addition of “you know, the thing you had nothing to do with.”
The ideal solution would have been for the first two games to present some common thread that finally flowers into a method for defeating the Reapers. That’s what a well-oiled, fully unified Mass Effect story would look like. Failing that, the ME3 writers should have picked something important from the previous games to use as a jumping off point for their anti-Reaper weapon. ME2 ends with you assaulting a base controlled by the Reapers’ most important minions; maybe something useful was found in the wreckage?*
If even that wasn’t an option, then a final contingency would have been to introduce hints of the Crucible at the start of ME3 and then spend the rest of the game chasing it down. That way, it would feel like a plot point contained to the third game rather than being part of the trilogy as a whole. The writers actually tried something similar, having you chase the Crucible’s missing component for a while, but that simply isn’t enough. You’re still left with a solution that springs from nowhere and means nothing.
2. A Selfless Backstory: Artemis
In Andy Weir’s second novel, protagonist Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara has a less-than-inspiring motivation. Specifically, her motivation is money. She would like to have more of it. What does she want this money for, you ask? To buy nicer stuff than she has now, of course. There is a brief mention of a specific sum she’s aiming for, 416,922 moon dollars,* which might strike you as odd if you’re paying close attention. But the book glosses over it so fast that most readers will barely notice.
Instead, the narration spends a lot of time describing the expensive food and luxurious apartment Jazz will buy when she finally has more money. These are perfectly reasonable things for a real person to want, but for the protagonist of a novel, they have little impact. Jazz’s current living conditions are sparse, but they’re not desperate. Without something more critical on the line, her goal just isn’t compelling.
This all gets worse when she’s offered a bunch of money to sabotage the moon city’s life-support system. She’s assured that this is all just a bit of business shenanigans and no one will actually suffocate, but she’s still destroying the air supply of a city surrounded by the vacuum of space.* If her motivation was lackluster before, now it’s an active problem, as you might have a hard time cheering for someone who endangers an entire city to make some extra cash.
But wait, there’s a secret aspect of Jazz’s backstory that changes everything! Well, it changes a little. You see, that oddly specific amount she wants is actually so she can pay back her father for that time her teenage self accidentally burned down his workshop and ruined his livelihood. It’s extremely strange for Weir to keep that from us, especially since he’s so liberal with the rest of her backstory. Early on, we learn about the fire and how she feels really bad about it, but for some reason, her quest to make things right is obscured.
Knowing this motivation would not have made Jazz into a perfect protagonist, but it would certainly have helped. Readers don’t start the story automatically cheering for the protagonist, and Jazz’s repayment quest would have given them a reason to do so. It would also have softened the blow of Jazz agreeing to sabotage the city’s life-support systems, since we’d at least know she’s not just doing it out of greed.
By the time Weir actually makes the reveal, it’s largely worthless. By then, Jazz has already taken on a mostly selfless quest to save the city from evil mobsters, so any plans she has to repay her dad are now a drop in the bucket. Usually, authors create meta mysteries because they want to save a bombshell reveal for later, no matter how contrived the choice is, but Artemis doesn’t even do that. To use a space metaphor, this reveal is like a ship’s maneuvering thruster. If fired early, it can change the ship’s trajectory over a long course, but the thruster is useless five seconds before impact.
3. Shapeshifting Magic: Skin of the Sea
In Natasha Bowen’s West African–inspired fantasy adventure, our villain is Esu the trickster god. He’s kidnapped a pair of magical children, and now the heroes have to rescue them. If the heroes take too long, Esu might convince or coerce the kids to hand over their magical MacGuffins, which would make Esu all-powerful. It’s a race against time!
Since the heroes are going after a trickster god, you’d expect many of their obstacles to be tricky in nature. Unfortunately, that doesn’t materialize. Instead, they have to surmount natural hazards like cliffs and rough seas, fight past Esu’s guards, and figure out a puzzle to extend a bridge into his fortress. Esu does infiltrate the heroes’ party, but as a painfully suspicious stranger, and he never actually plays any tricks on them once he’s there. Instead, he reveals himself at the finale for a big fight.
That’s disappointing, but, oh well, it looks like Esu doesn’t have any powers that would be useful for playing tricks on the heroes. Unless you count shapeshifting, of course. That’s right, we learn in one of the final scenes that Esu can alter his appearance to look like anyone he pleases. Huh.
This reveal creates a number of serious plot holes. Why did Esu try to infiltrate their group as a complete stranger when he could have appeared as someone they knew? More importantly, why didn’t he appear as someone the magic kids trusted when he had them in captivity? They’d have been a lot more willing to give up their MacGuffins. Ironically, he actually tries this at the end, but only once it’s far too late to work.
Beyond the inconsistencies, this late reveal just makes it more disappointing that Bowen didn’t lean harder into Esu’s nature as a trickster god. Tricksters can be difficult to write,* as it’s hard work to keep their plans from unraveling under the slightest scrutiny. But they also inject welcome novelty into the plot, as despite Loki’s and the Joker’s popularity, trickster villains are still a lot less common than the standard punch-up villain.
With his shapeshifting magic, Esu could have subtly hindered the heroes at every turn, without them ever realizing he was behind it. They’d wake up to find their rations spoiled, their boat leaking, and their maps in disarray, all problems that would be fun to watch the heroes deal with. Instead, the only tricks are confined to stories the heroes tell each other about Esu’s past deeds.
4. No-Killing Rule: Avatar
In Avatar: The Last Airbender’s four-part finale, the main emotional issue is Aang agonizing over whether he can kill Fire Lord Ozai. Fortunately for Aang, he’s saved from this dilemma by the arrival of a lion turtle that gives him a shiny new power so he can defeat Ozai without killing him. You might reasonably assume this section is about the lion turtles being introduced too late, and they are, but there’s a much worse problem here: Aang’s no-killing rule.*
This feels contrived for a number of reasons, and the first is that it’s arguably a retcon. Until the finale, the overarching goal has been to “defeat” the Fire Lord, and there’s no particular reason to think that means killing him. The heroes defeat enemies all the time without killing them, and death has never been an assumed outcome before. You might ask how they can stop the war without killing Ozai, but taking him prisoner sounds just as likely to work as his death. At least that way, he wouldn’t be a martyr.
And because Avatar combat is nonlethal by default, this is the first time Aang’s aversion to killing has seriously come up. Before the finale, we know that Aang only uses violence as a last resort,* but that’s hardly unusual on Team Good. We also know he’s a vegetarian; that doesn’t equate to a no-killing rule either. Aang even planned to fight Ozai in an earlier episode, and there was no angst about killing then. Rather than a well-established principle that Aang lives by, it feels like the writers have randomly assigned him a new trait to spice up an otherwise morally uncomplicated climax.
Admittedly, establishing a no-killing rule early would also have been difficult. Avatar is a kids’ show, which means even the villains rarely kill anyone. For Aang’s belief to matter, we would have to see him go out of his way not to kill his enemies. And that would probably mean that the rest of Team Good is killing their enemies, and we run into the kids’ show problem again.
An alternative would have been to show Aang convincing the other good guys not to kill their enemies. That could be done early to avoid breaking the show’s kid-friendly rating, but it would create another problem: it would sound naive to older viewers. Avatar’s story is about fighting an ever-expanding empire, so refusing to kill its soldiers doesn’t make sense. Avatar currently threads that needle by simply not addressing death most of the time, and it would be difficult to take a stance without upsetting someone.
Honestly, the best choice would have been to scrap the no-killing rule entirely and use something else for Aang’s emotional conflict. Maybe address his inability to use the Avatar state so it has a more satisfying resolution than “poked in the back with a rock.”
5. Villain Backstory: Archive 81
Content Notice: Infertility in fiction
Netflix’s latest one-season wonder is a spooky show about the spooky things that happen when protagonist Dan restores spooky 8mm tapes at a spooky mountain compound.* Also, spooky VHS tapes and spooky audio cassettes. There’s even a mention of spooky Betamax! Analogue spooks all around.
Part of Dan’s investigation is uncovering an old cult that tried to summon a demon in the 1920s. This demon appears to be responsible for the spooks Dan is currently experiencing, so this is good for building tension. Then, in the penultimate episode, Dan makes a startling discovery: the cult’s leader, Iris Vos, is still alive in another dimension and trying to find her way back.* That’s a bit late for an introduction, but she could make a good secondary villain, since fighting the demon directly is probably beyond Dan’s ability.
Then the episode pivots away from Dan entirely, and the rest of it is dedicated to a flashback about Iris Vos and her motivations. This is extremely jarring, as it violates Archive 81’s central conceit: that when we watch scenes from the past, it’s because Dan is watching those scenes from recorded footage. The show isn’t 100 percent consistent with this, but it’s pretty close. Vos’s scenes have no recording at all, we’re just watching events that Dan has no way to know about.
And yet, there’s very little new information in these scenes. Mostly, we see Vos sacrifice a woman to summon her demon buddy, only for it to explode in her face and leave her trapped in another dimension. We already knew all of that! The only new information we get is about Vos’s motivation: she wants to have a baby and thinks the demon will help her do that. Oh boy.
Infertility is a complex subject in both fiction and real life, but Archive 81 handles it with all the delicacy of a spooky VCR hurtling through plate glass. Vos becomes yet another female character who is entirely defined by her inability to gestate offspring, committing horrible deeds because she just wants a baby so much.
Even if this episode wasn’t contributing to the harmful idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with infertile women, it’s telling us stuff we have no reason to care about. Vos’s introduction is less than an episode old, she’s never been portrayed as sympathetic, and her exact reasons for summoning the demon aren’t relevant to Dan’s story. This tidbit about her motivation means nothing.
For a backstory episode to work, it must fulfill some kind of dramatic need that the show sets up in advance. If Archive 81 had invested us in Vos as a character in the early episodes, then learning more about her motivation might be satisfying, though it would also need work to eliminate the misogyny. Alternatively, if there was some big mystery for the backstory to explain, that could also work. But Archive 81 does neither. It just yanks us into a secondary villain’s backstory with no warning.
6. Parasocial Relationship: Picard
Star Trek: Picard’s second season is such a mess that it could easily be its own article, but today we’re only looking at one aspect of it: Tallinn’s relationship with Renée Picard. Tallinn is a Romulan who looks identical to another character,* and Renée is an astronaut who will somehow discover the solution to global warming when she visits Europa. Suuure.
Tallinn is a “supervisor” assigned to protect Renée. If you don’t know what that is, it’s because you haven’t recently watched the original series episode that Gene Roddenberry tried to use as a backdoor pilot for his Doctor Who–knockoff idea. The short version is that supervisors are sent back in time by a mysterious agency to perform certain missions, whether it’s stopping a missile launch or protecting an important person.
This storyline comes to a head in the season finale, when Tallinn has to sacrifice herself to save Renée’s life. One problem with this is that Tallinn had options for protecting Renée that didn’t require anyone to die, but, whatever, the important part is the emotional payoff. Tallinn and Renée have a heartfelt goodbye, the culmination of how important they’ve been to each other over the years.
Or, they would have, if the show had established any kind of relationship between the two characters. Instead, all we know for sure is that the two of them have never met, Renée has no idea Tallinn exists, and as a supervisor, Tallinn’s main job is to occasionally spy on Renée’s personal life. If Tallinn has ever protected Renée from anything, the show doesn’t mention it. In fact, Tallinn is so hesitant about interfering in Renée’s life that it doesn’t seem like protection would even be viable. Tallinn is less like a bodyguard and more like the stealth anthropologists Starfleet sometimes sends to study pre-warp civilizations. She has about as much connection with Renée as you and I do with celebrities who share personal details on Twitter.
This doesn’t sabotage the emotional moment so much as destroy it from orbit with a full spread of photon torpedoes. We have no investment in the relationship between these characters, and it’s difficult to imagine either of them having strong feelings about the other. Tallinn’s sacrifice might ensure the integrity of the timeline,* but it does nothing on an emotional level.
For this sacrifice to be meaningful, the show needed to establish some kind of meaningful relationship between Tallinn and Renée, something more active than Tallinn’s occasional voyeurism. We might find out about some of the threats Tallinn has stopped without Renée ever knowing, then discover that Renée is actually more aware of Tallinn’s protection than we thought. Or Tallinn might be an active presence in Renée’s life, acting as a best friend or beloved aunt. That way it would actually mean something to both of them when Tallinn sacrifices herself.
Sometimes, establishing story elements is trivially easy. Jazz’s backstory is only a secret because Weir went out of his way to keep it that way. But in other cases, it’s more difficult. Picard’s second season is already so crowded that there was little room to introduce Tallinn and Renée’s relationship before the finale. In that scenario, it’s usually a sign that something has to be cut. It’s better to remove an element entirely than to include a half-baked version at the last minute.
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