Spoiler warnings: The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Star Trek: TNG 7×08 Attached, and the series finale for Battlestar Galactica (2004).*
In season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s mother starts dating a guy that acts really nice but is actually a killer robot. Good thing Buffy knows he’s a creep; now all she has to do is tell everyone else.
Buffy: Mom, your boyfriend threatened to slap me.
Joyce: Honey, I know you’ve been my daughter for 17 years and he’s only been my boyfriend for a few weeks, but I can’t believe you for some reason.
Buffy: But you at least believe me, right Willow?
Willow: Of course not. You can kick his ass whenever you want, so if we all believed you, what conflict would be left in this episode?
If your teenage daughter informed you that your new honey was abusive, wouldn’t you listen? What kind of mother wouldn’t? I’m sure the writers didn’t intend to portray Joyce as a bad mother. They wanted Buffy to face danger alone but couldn’t think of a legitimate reason. So Joyce fell prey to their poor excuses.
This tactic can also be reversed. In season four, Buffy becomes irrationally aggressive toward her roommate. She insists her roomie is a demon who must die, with no evidence other than some toenail clippings. Convinced Buffy is possessed, her friends take her captive. Then it turns out she was right all along. While this might seem like a fun surprise, to many viewers it looks like the plot is bending backwards to justify the actions of an unreasonable hero.
If you need someone to face danger without help from their team, create a reason why the other characters can’t help, rather than why they won’t. In the episode The Zeppo, Xander has to go it alone because Buffy and the others are facing an impending apocalypse. You can send the mentor on a brief vacation, or demonstrate that your tough character is helpless against a particular threat. If you have an episodic series and this is an ongoing problem, make the backup incapable or untrustworthy so your hero won’t ask for help.
In The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, Sally and Jansen are out searching for an important McGuffin. Unfortunately, they run afoul of a hostile group called the Beagles, and Jansen is taken hostage. To get her back, Sally just needs a ring belonging to their mutual fried, Joshua. Great, all she has to do now is go talk to him.
Joshua: It’s a good thing Sally would come and ask me if she needed this ring for some reason.
Sally: No time to talk, too busy stealing your ring!
Joshua: Well, at least you left some kind of note explaining what’s going on, right?
Joshua: Oh look, now I’ve been captured just like Jansen, because no one told me what was happening.
Sally: I can’t hear you!
Sally has no reason not to communicate openly with Joshua about what’s happened. The writers won’t let her because they want to create more problems for the characters. Most often, this tactic is used to add interpersonal conflict. Any story with secret identities has a scene where the hero leaves a loved one to fight evil, making the loved one feel rejected. If you have that kind of story, make sure the secrecy is actually necessary. Dangerous enemies provide a good reason to hide from the public, but then keeping loved ones in the dark would put them in more danger, not less.
Sometimes a refusal to communicate is the only thing keeping the plot running. At which point, ask yourself: are your protagonists emotionally immature? If their social skills have evolved beyond teenage level, they should talk about their problems. In that case, make the problem they are facing harder, or give them a genuine disagreement that makes them too angry to speak with one another.
And for goodness’ sake, don’t put in a mysterious side character that knows what’s going on but only gives the protagonists tiny hints. Leave them out, and let the protagonists get their clues by doing some research.
In the show Lost Girl, the succubus Bo has no idea who she is or how to control her powers. Once she is discovered, the fae leaders offer her the training and support of a faction. All she needs to do is choose whether to be part of the light faction or the dark faction. Clearly confused, Bo chooses “humans” as her alignment. Well that’s rough for her, but she’s not worth troubling with further, right?
Dark Faction Leader: Bo has never thwarted my evil plans, but she is the main character so I think she should die.
Light Faction Leader: I am dedicated to good, but I also think she should die, just to be safe.
Trick: Wait! You can’t kill her. Instead, you must let the plans of the mysterious enemy you may or may not have unfold. Otherwise you’ll never know if you have a mysterious enemy or what their plans are!
Dark Faction Leader: Great idea.
Light Faction Leader: Yeah, let’s do that.
What’s hilarious about this scene is that the writers came up with a bad excuse for why the antagonists want to kill the hero, and then another bad excuse for why they don’t do it. All to shower Bo with praise. Nevermind that if you glorify your hero that much, you risk making her unlikable.
For many stories, the hero starts out weak, and the villain is already strong. In these cases it’s crucial to have a solid reason why the villain doesn’t just crush the hero like a grape. Instead of holding the villain back with some explanatory dialogue, make it so he doesn’t want to kill her in the first place. A new hero doesn’t need to be thwarting the big bad right away; she can unknowingly play into his hands a few times first. Once she starts doing some damage, she could also provide a side benefit, such as eliminating his evil competition.
Make sure your villain has a goal that isn’t mutually exclusive with the hero keeping her life. Give him a few wins that won’t end the world before she is finally strong enough to take him down.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Attached, Dr. Crusher and Captain Picard are kidnapped and given a telepathic link with one another. Once they are rescued and brought back to the ship, they meet to discuss what happened.
Crusher: Wow, we’re alone together, wearing super nice makeup and gorgeous clothing.
Picard: And we’ve just spent the last several days sorting out our past and confessing our feelings for one another. I guess we shouldn’t be afraid to explore those feelings.
Crusher: Or perhaps we should be afraid.* I’m leaving now so I don’t have to explain why.
This episode unfolds like every one-off romance ever, except it’s between two main cast members. That prevents the writers from using reasons like “they live on different sides of the galaxy” or “she died” to keep them apart. Crusher and Picard are going to see each other every day, and everyone is friendly. Instead of coming up with a solid reason, the writing just shrugged and said, “Plot.” That way fans aren’t discouraged from shipping the characters.
Storytellers love to tease the audience with possible romances. But they think it will ruin the fun if the lovebirds aren’t perfect for each other. To maintain the sexual tension of courting, they need an excuse to prevent this perfect couple from being together. Cue the scene where the guy breaks up with the girl “for her own safety and protection,” whether or not it makes any sense.
“True love syndrome” is responsible for a lot of these messes. It’s pleasant to think that two people might be destined for each other. However, it eliminates the opportunity for couples to fall in love slowly, find out they don’t quite fit, and then make it work by growing as people. Or alternatively, discovering they aren’t willing to do what it takes to make their relationship work, and separating. It’s this process that makes for a strong plot.
In Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a boy befriends a witch named Lettie. Since he’s just a kid and completely helpless, naturally he stays behind while Lettie goes off on adventures.
Lettie: You stay here. I’m going off to face the super scary monster that is controlling your parents.
Blank Protagonist: No, I want to come. I feel safer with you.
Lettie: You feel safer watching me fight the scary monster than you do sitting in a super protected safe house where you’ve never come to any harm?
Blank Protagonist: Yes!
Lettie: Okay, you can come. I’m sure it will go much better than the last time you tagged along and got that spirit worm infection.
Gaiman doesn’t let Lettie go fight on her own because she isn’t his viewpoint character. For the scene to be shown in the book, the audience placeholder must be there. So he comes up with twisted logic to explain why Lettie would endanger a poor child. Similar reasoning is used whenever a storyteller struggles to get their character into a scene. The protagonists become adrenaline junkies, taking every opportunity to risk their lives when they aren’t even needed.
That’s the key to this problem. Why isn’t the character needed in the scene? If they are vital to the plot – which they should be – then you shouldn’t need an excuse to include them. With a large cast of characters, it can be difficult to make all the protagonists instrumental in defeating the enemy. But once you let a character drift into uselessness, they’ll lose agency and become a mere observer. Ultimately, that’s a much bigger problem than the excuses you’re using to keep them involved.
Sometimes, you may have to reconsider which characters are central to your story. Gaiman could have fixed his problem by making Lettie the viewpoint character. If you’re juggling a lot of characters, ask if you can combine two into one or write one out. It’s hard to say goodbye, but you’ll feel better once you aren’t grasping for reasons to include them.
In the last episode of Battlestar Galatica (2004), the war-torn fleet finds itself conveniently placed near a habitable planet called Earth. Time to break out the gear and create a new colony.
Lee: After our long struggle for survival, let’s give ourselves a break by sending all of our technology into the sun. That way we can live off of our good intentions.
Adama: What a great idea. I’m also ordering everyone to spread out across the planet, so we can’t form a support network of any kind.
Number Two: We’ll join in by giving our ships to our soldier bots to do whatever they want with. That could include killing us, but we don’t care anymore.
The writers of Battlestar Galactica were so eager to tell a creation story that they forgot to make it plausible. A community that is used to technology would never destroy it if they had another option – let alone make that decision suddenly and unanimously.
While Battlestar’s reasons are unique, this pattern is seen in a surprising number of spec fic stories. We love our powerful artifacts, but if we let the heroes use them, their problems will be solved too easily. So when the good guys get their hands on one, they declare they aren’t meant to wield something so powerful and throw it in the fire.
This kind of excuse is never necessary. There are lots of ways to put limits on magic or technology that is too powerful. Give your story an extra dose of conflict by allowing your heroes to use the artifact once – before they discover terrible consequences they didn’t know about. If you need them to destroy it, the evil it does must dwarf the good it could bring.
If you aren’t sure whether your explanation is a poor excuse, ask yourself two questions:
- Would the people you know accept this explanation if they were in the same position as the characters?
- Does the explanation alter the plot?
If the answer to both of these is “no,” you probably have an excuse on your hands.