When Plots Go Bad
Stories can be good, average, or bad. It is easy to categorize what we like or dislike. For example, a terrible story might be unbelievable, silly (when they should be serious) off-topic, or upsetting. However, some plots are bad and cannot categorize why.
Authors use many established rules to build remarkable stories—for example, the three-act story structure, the hook, or the dramatic conclusion. However, many marvelous stories do not contain classic elements, and I can dispel this mythical requirement with two words. Forrest Gump.
From a high-level view, this movie has nothing going for it. There is no classic plot, the romance is flawed, and the viewer gets hit by multiple untimely deaths. From a three-act, hook, and logical plot perspective, this movie is a complete failure. Yet, I loved that movie, and many other people would place this movie in their top five. (The book did not impress me, but that is a future topic.)
Let’s examine another movie, Avatar. It contains a three-act story with a hook and dramatic conclusion. Plus, the special effects, music, acting, and excellent premise which pushed the movie envelope. Also, the movie made lots of money, and many people loved it.
I was not too fond of the movie. Why? I could point out the underdeveloped characters, logic faults, implausibility, and blatant plot rip-off (Pocahontas.) However, that is not the core problem, and it took some time to put my anger into words.
My dislike stems from the movie demanding viewers to take on a mythical creature’s plight. To me, this felt like being forced to live with a hippie roommate. Do you know any giant blue beings who communicate through their tails? I do not either, which makes it hard for the viewer to relate to their struggle against invading humans.
How can writers prevent these issues? In a past blog, I discussed outlines:
It occurred to me that it is possible to identify significant plot problems at the outline stage. How would I have changed Avatar’s plot? The movie should have started without humans and established a baseline. I would then introduce humans halfway through the movie. Then, the audience would see how badly humans treated the blue creatures. This plot would have been more dramatic and relatable. Perhaps a common foe would have been helpful.
Plots can go wrong when an author cannot analyze the big picture from the consumer’s perspective. My second book contained these issues. I had a weak beginning, one arrogant main character, and another weak main character. It took a year of editing to correct these flaws. In my sixth book, the outline revealed a fundamental problem. My plot lacked focus (the story drifted away from the core premise.) It took four months of tinkering to update the outline. Had I started writing without an outline, the book would have been a disaster.
What flaws should we try to identify at the outline stage? A plot must connect with readers, keep them interested, and leave them entertained. How does an author do this? My best suggestion is to look at the outline several times and ask for opinions. The author should not get feedback like, “Hey, you have a story about a race car driver. Where are the racing scenes?” “Why does the hero lose every battle? Heroes should win battles.” “What should I like in this character? He’s a jerk.”
Why don’t author’s see the issues ahead of time? We focus on the little things and cannot spot significant problems. The most common problem is creating a great story that the author enjoys but the reader hate. Looking into the mirror can be difficult.

You’re the best -Bill
January 12, 2021

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