I was recently asked the question in the title during a job interview, and I immediately remembered a film I’d watched last year that epitomizes “bad” storytelling. By sharing my insight, I hope to remind all of us how to, at the very least, make our work acceptable by avoiding the disastrous attributes in the list below.
Let me start off by listing the 8 qualities of a bad story. This can apply to the story of a book, short story, movie, or any other form of fiction.
- Muddled, instead of sophisticated, structure.
- Characters acting outside of service to the plot.
- Lacking of one (superior, strong, and worthy) antagonist.
- Confusing, weak, or non-existent central message.
- Unrealistic dialogue.
- Melodramatic/over-the-top-in-a-nonsensical-way drama.
- Slow, dragging pacing.
- No end goals or deeper pursuit.
There you have it. Now, let’s discuss.
The difference between a muddled structure and a sophisticated one is the difference between being able to follow characters and their progression within the plot clearly or not. This doesn’t mean you have to go in a neat, chronological order to tell your story, you just have to make it clear where we are when we’re there, and suggest why we are there to begin with.
The next issue is characters not acting in service to the plot. This happens too many times in modern movies – to add entertainment value, apparently. Characters have a clear cut path, a direction they are going in, but then random distractions are presented to the character (and thus the audience) that have nothing to do with the progression of the plot. These tend to be either comedic, sexual, or just plain stupid – no, really. The character(s) will act in a way that is silly or random and/or distracting for no reason of significance. Of course it is important to have moments like this in stories, for many acceptable reasons (keep an eye out for an upcoming article on those reasons), but when moments get stretched out into lengthy scenes in what is supposed to be a dramatic fictional structure, it’s frustrating and off-point. UGH! Someone please pull my hair out, my hands are too busy face-palming when this happens.
Moving on, one superior antagonist—whether that’s your own personal demon or the one foe who disturbs you on a nearly tangible level just by being him/her-self—is one of the core building blocks of a story. You cannot have a (good) story without a worthy, strong, and dangerous-on-some-level (figuratively or physically is up to you) antagonist.
Please, writers, study antagonism. The enemy is not always the guy or gal who wants to kill you or make you suffer. It may not even be the guy or gal who wants you to fail in life. What that person wants may have nothing to do with the protagonist, specifically. (S)he is a merely a person who wants something, just like you, and (s)he wants it at all costs because it has great significance to him/her. What (s)he wants may not even be something that the protagonist wants as well! The conflict between the good guy and the bad guy is a conflict of interest, that’s what it boils down to. You, the protagonist need, not want, either the same thing as the antagonist or its opposite, in order to be able to live (in peace). I could go on and on, about antagonism, as I’ve come to learn a lot from recent writing, film, and TV analysis, but this is not the post for it, so let’s move along.
The following atrocity I’ve seen is the lacking of a central message – the theme. Every story is about something that’s actually under the surface of the problem at hand. It’s totally awesome if a story has many subliminal messages or lessons learned by the end, too. However, the central message is the mother and father of all the other lessons. It’s the main extract of any good story.
So, does your story have one? I know it may have several, but does it have the one, and does it hit you in all its’ clarity after you’ve walked away from the story? Does almost everything that happened in the plot add up to it? (A great read as a theme delivery case study is Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.)
Why not address my next two points together, huh?
“I just… I just need some space to breathe! God, Jamie, you’re crushing me piece by piece!” she cried.
Jamie watched her unravel onto the cherry wood floor. She wept as the rift between them heightened to its newest pique. Lena was at her farthest from him to date, but Jamie continued to need her more and more.
Not only was the above dialogue a chore to read—I’m already emotionally drained after that, and it was just a paragraph—but the whole passage is melodramatic.
Now read the following:
“I just,” she whispers, “I just need some space.” Tears unravel her as she finally gives voice to her own needs. Arms wrapped around herself, she looks off somewhere beyond him – not ignoring him, but looking away in fear. What happens now?
Jamie stands away, regarding her cocooned form, still unable to fathom her distance from him in all his obsession.
See, you can be dramatic without being exaggerated about it. The magic is in the way you deliver the emotions in the scene. Delivery equals formation of words, so learn how to craft your writing, and you’ll be effective at its delivery. Also, key point here, describe actions more than feelings. Actions say a lot on their own; trust them, manipulate them.
You know what’s worse than melodrama? A slow, dragging pace to accompany it. Fiction should constantly be moving forward, not stuck in place – unless it is for intended effect, which is rare. Even when a part of a book is supposed to be stuck in one time or place, the story itself must continue developing and moving forward (the 1993 film Groundhog Day comes to mind). Moments should be cleverly inserted when they can really pack a punch, but not overdone or frequently occurring, because then they are not “moments” anymore. Each of these points were ignored in the shortest feature length bad film I had to sit through last year.
There are other attributes of a slow-paced story, however, and those include focusing on individual feelings more than actions, and in written works, overwriting (repeating things, over-describing, being too blunt and leaving no room for meaningful, subtle implications). Basically, remember the point of the chapter or scene, its fundamental purpose, stick to it, and then move on.
This last one irks me, because I know that I’d wasted my time reading or viewing the book/movie – it has no deeper meaning, or at least not one that is obvious and universally appealing. In other words, the characters have no internal goals and dreams and desires that are easy to follow, and they are not translated into a journey (the story) that teaches them something important about those goals and desires.
That deeper meaning to the journey is important, because it is how the character’s journey comes full circle and connects the audience to the fiction. The end of every journey has various layers and facets; it should be given importance, even if just for a short while – in a conversation, a scene, a chapter, whatever. It’s closure. Usually, in fiction, closure of some sort, any sort, matters a great deal. Without it, a story cannot end. Bear in mind, closure does not imply a happy ending; it implies that the journey of that particular piece of fiction has come to and end, at least for the time being.
Now that you have these 8 qualities of a “bad” story, go back to the fiction you’re working on; is your fiction in good standing, or is the storytelling falling flat?