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Lessons From TV Shows and Movies

August 23, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 24, 2014

I started this article almost a year ago. Apparently I was fed up by the writing on some TV show—maybe a couple of shows—writing that didn’t make sense for the characters and their story.

I have no idea what show it was or what set me off, but I’ll include my reaction to it, toned down a bit, at the end of the article. First, however, I want to discuss a few positive lessons you can learn from watching TV and movies.

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The Real History of Science Fiction

I watched the four-part Real History of Science Fiction this week, a program put together by BBC America.

The series looks at four areas of science fiction—artificial life (AI and robots), space exploration, alien invasions, and time travel. It provides insights into sci-fi, especially these four areas, from authors and actors, TV show creators and movie makers.

What I really enjoyed were the references to world building and the explanations of the influences that caused writers to create their particular story worlds and settings.

Almost all the writers knew exactly what had influenced them to write the kind of stories they wrote, could pinpoint their inspirations.

Gene Roddenberry likened Star Trek to Westerns, with their exploration of unknown lands. Others saw aggressive empire expansion in their own worlds and parlayed that into the background for their stories and series (think Star Wars). Someone even used the McCarthy hearings as a spur to create a particular world.

Concerning world building, the BBC series stressed the detailed settings and world creation that goes into science fiction. I think they mentioned it was Ursula Le Guin who did comprehensive world building before ever writing the first word. She herself mentioned the elaborate world building of Frank Herbert, knowing how essential it was for making his books work.

While world building is vital for sci-fi and critical for stories that explore new planets, any fiction writer should welcome the reminder that the details of setting—including the social, cultural, political, historical, religious, and racial milieus of the fictional world—are important for creating a believable world.

Without a solid sense of the story world in all its particulars, readers cannot surrender themselves fully to plot and character.

Without knowing the story world in detail, a writer can’t write characters and events that intrinsically fit that world.

Without a setting that fits story events and characters and gives rise to logical problems, a story is incomplete. It can’t hope to be the landscape for involving drama if the elements that would make it involving and dramatic are not in place.

And a story that ignores setting or only focuses on one of the many aspects of setting has cut off sources of conflict and opportunities for manipulating both mood and emotional levels.

The episodes didn’t cover every issue pertaining to sci-fi and were light on the science of science fiction, but simply hearing the mention of story building and seeing how real-world events influenced major sci-fi authors, I was encouraged. Their advice and observations can only help writers.

My hope is that writers will continue to draw on real-world events and problems to craft their worlds and settings, making even fictional events seem authentic to readers. I also hope writers will find inspiration for writing great fiction from TV shows and movies, from the works of other writers. The inspiration and some great tips are out there, easily available. Being able to draw from TV and the movies in ways that helps us improve at the craft is a good thing. This is definitely a positive lesson learned from other fiction disciplines.

Not all lessons, however, are of the positive variety.

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Gravity

I finally saw the movie Gravity. I wish I hadn’t.

All I’d heard was how good it was, how stunning the effects. How believable the space scenes.

What I hadn’t heard was how far beyond far-fetched it was.

I’ll give you the lesson learned from this movie up front—don’t write unbelievable stories. And don’t keep piling on unbelievable events with the assumption that if you include enough of them, the scales will tip in your favor and suddenly your audience will believe everything you’ve said has happened.

Believability is a requirement for fiction—readers need to buy that your story world, your characters, and the events that link them are possible. And beyond that, your job as a writer is to convince readers that story events are not only possible, but that they really did happen, just as you’ve said they did.

There is little a viewer can believe in with Gravity. I was quite willing to suspend my disbelief and enjoy what I understood to be a good movie, but once story events started playing out, I simply couldn’t believe; they lost me early in the story with this one. And I couldn’t believe that the director would imagine that anyone could suspend their disbelief for the length of the movie.

I actually laughed multiple times at the movie’s absurdities, though I don’t imagine that was the response the filmmakers were shooting for.

There were too many fantastic events that resolved in the lead character’s favor—she was an engineer, not an astronaut, but by luck she survived when all the trained astronauts died.

Event after event after event pushed her into deeper problems, but she kept getting out of jams that would have killed the rest of us. The first problem she faced would have killed the rest of us, leaving no need for the escalation of problems.

And yes, story problems need to escalate, but they must be believable given the story world and the characters you create. How does a total novice accidentally survive so many catastrophes?

And there are a lot of them. A whole lot. One problem leads to another and that leads to another without end. Even when Dr. Stone miraculously lands on Earth, not dying on re-entry even though she has no idea what she is doing, the space capsule catches fire (of course it does) and she has to make one more unlikely escape. And did I mention she landed in a lake? But she doesn’t drown. Nope, she swims to shore.

This woman not only knows nothing about spaceships—and must pilot several different craft made by different countries, with notes in languages she doesn’t understand—but she knows nothing about flying in general or the procedures necessary for doing what needs doing. She doesn’t even understand how to use the tools she needs to use to accomplish what she needs to do. And what’s even more germane, not only doesn’t she know how to use the tools, it’s unlikely that she even knows which tools she would need.

Lack of knowledge can be the cause of humorous bumbling or escalating problems on Earth. In space, it’s a cause for immediate death.

If escalating problems aren’t enough, space debris manages to hit her and her craft multiple times. Again, what would kill the rest of us doesn’t do her in. And she’s caught outside her spacecraft several times when the debris comes her way—how coincidental is that? The writers just had to pile it on, never considering coincidence. She’s inside a spacecraft at times, but when the debris comes around, she’s caught out in it. She never catches a break against all these problems, but she’s ultimately successful nonetheless.

If you’ve not seen the movie and don’t believe me when I say the number of problem escalations is beyond believable, read the plot breakdown. You’ll discover that the negatives pile up without stop. And it’s not that such problems might not happen—introducing cascading problems is a great story device. It’s just that it wouldn’t matter if they did because the good doctor wouldn’t survive enough of the early ones to be around to face the subsequent ones.

It’s not credible or plausible that so many systems and mechanisms would go wrong, that each would be life-or-death serious, and that the main character would manage to outwit death every single time without the tools or know-how to do so.

It’s also not credible that with so many catastrophes, they would unfold in a linear fashion, allowing her to solve one problem, then the next and then the next. Wouldn’t it be more likely that she’d be overwhelmed with multiple problems occurring at the same time?

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Fitting Character to Story

If you’re going to give your main character a dozen life-or-death situations, you also need to give him or her the tools or the smarts or the will—preferably all three—to overcome them. Dr. Stone had nothing that would have allowed her to survive one—much less all—of the problems that were thrown at her.

She definitely didn’t have the will. Not to survive.

We learn that her daughter had died and Dr. Stone was basically marking time in her life. She had nothing to live for—with the way she was written, it’s more likely that she would have given up at the first opportunity. Everyone else is dead, there’s no way for me to survive, I guess I’ll die now too. I don’t have any reason to try to live.

She wasn’t portrayed as a fighter, as one who wanted to live or to overcome. She was portrayed as passive, as a woman just walking through the years.

I know that characters grow, but she didn’t grow logically. She became something that wasn’t even in her to be. Plant seeds of character growth in characters if they need to grow into something by story’s end and show them growing along the way rather than have them mature all at once.

Characters need to behave as their traits would indicate. If a character’s personality doesn’t fit what you need from that character, rewrite the character or rewrite the plot events. Make your story elements fit.

I know I’m being quite negative with this story, but I feel I have cause. And I want to remind writers that stories need to make sense and be believable. Every part must align with every other part.

You don’t want readers throwing your book across the room in disgust. You don’t want readers to shake their heads in disbelief, as I did with this movie.

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Pacing

One more issue bothered me with Gravity, and that was the pacing.

Once the problems began, the pace was unrelenting. It was dramatic problem stacked on top of dramatic problem followed by highly dramatic problem, all with no respite.

Action is great. Driving or pounding excitement is marvelous. But everyone needs to take a breath and relax for a moment or two. Even the audience.

Characters need a break because they physically can’t race around forever without collapsing or screaming or offering up some other release of tension. They need a change.

Readers need breaks too. They need to catch their breaths. They need to think. They need to stop for just a second to recover from all that has happened.

Just as a symphony piece can’t be all climax and crescendo, so too a story can’t be all high-level action events.

The pace must change. Something other than life-threatening events must happen.

Something different must happen.

Any element that’s always the same or that exists at only one level isn’t variety enough for a piece of long fiction. Movie or novel, fiction projects need variety and change. Tension must be broken and then rebuilt. The pace must not fall into a groove and stay there, not even in fast-paced stories.

Gravity did eventually have a change of pace, but it happened well past the time when the movie should have taken readers through several changes in the excitement level. Well past the time when it should have given both Dr. Stone and the audience a moment to breathe.

Watch Gravity. And see what lessons you can draw from it that will help you as you write. These are a few that I was reminded of—

Create believable events

Don’t include so many events that you strain incredulity

Don’t rely on coincidence to save characters

Put into your characters the traits and abilities you need them to have

Vary the pace

Vary the tension level

Respect your readers

Start over if you can’t make the story believable

Okay, one more lesson, this one from TV.

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I don’t know about you, but I get royally ticked off at the main characters in TV shows who either do foolish things that allow the bad guys to defeat them (at least temporarily) or perform acts of great deduction (inhumanly great deduction) that allow them to defeat the bad guy every time.

The fault lies with the writers and not the characters, but I don’t know the writers, so I can’t talk to them. If I did I might say why did you create such a situation for the characters? It’s unbelievable and you just yanked me out of my enjoyment of the story. I’m thinking about you, the writer, rather than this story I’d hoped would entertain me for an hour.

Learn from TV shows; learn from their mistakes. And write believable scenes and actions. Don’t put your readers into a tizzy for the wrong reasons.

Let me explain my ire.

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When the bad guys (a generic term—they’re not always evil and not always guys) can hide every trace of their operations, when no one ever catches them committing the thousands of crimes they commit and when many of their crimes aren’t actually known to the protagonist (or law enforcement or the populace) but the good guys can’t hide their one piece of crucial information from some low-level hood, I get ticked off.

If the good guys are so bad at protecting the one object or person they must protect—key witness, intended victim, map to the prize, paperwork that would put the bad guys away for life—then I lose faith with the writers. If the good guys are so inept, how do they attain the rank or reputation that they achieve? When they fail at the one task they must complete, they show themselves incapable of success, undeserving of their reputations.

I do understand conflict and drama, of course. And accidents do happen. But conflict and drama and accidents must make sense in the course of a story’s structure.

If the protagonist can keep his nemesis’s henchmen away from the golden key simply by burying it in the back yard or an empty lot—and then never visiting that spot—then why wouldn’t he do that? Why carry the golden key around with him or give it to his best friend who will naturally be killed as the bad guys search for it?

Why do stupid when he has the reputation for being smart? Why do stupid at all?

Now, if you build in circumstances that cause a character to have to behave a certain way, that can work. But you have to make it work without creating coincidences or unbelievable scenarios. There must be reasons a character acts in ways that are detrimental to his plans.

TV shows often skip this step, this building in of reasons for characters to act in ways that aren’t so smart.

When a man is threatened, why wouldn’t he send his family out of town, out of harm’s way?

When a spy can’t do it alone, why not seek help instead of trying to go it alone?

I know, I know, the protagonist has to do it himself most of the time. But when he’s challenged, he should up his game, not make mistakes. The bad guys always seem to be successful in their march toward overtaking the world (or whatever it is they seek). And they’re always exceptionally lucky as well. But they should be—would be—just as tired as the protagonist. They would run out of ideas. They would run out of finances. They would face as many challenges as the protagonist does as a story heads toward the climax.

So why does the antagonist succeed every time until just before the end of the TV show?

They have to have reasons for their successes. Just as protagonists have reasons they fail, antagonists have to have reasons they succeed. Believable reasons. And you, as their creator, have to include those reasons in your stories.

Don’t follow the practice of TV shows that don’t give logical reasons for the protagonist to fail and the antagonist to win until the final showdown, when there’s that quick reversal. Provide reasons for what happens, logical reasons for lead characters to fail or succeed.

Don’t make your baddies super successful at everything all the time and your protagonists ineffective.

Give them comparable skills and resources. Make them worthy adversaries. And don’t allow your protagonists and secondary characters to do the one thing they shouldn’t do to advance the opposition’s plans or to give the game away.

Make the antagonist work for his successes, earning them, rather than have him only benefit from the protagonist’s errors.

An antagonist should take advantage of another character’s errors, but that shouldn’t be the only way he succeeds.

Maybe the bad guys call in reinforcements, gaining more help than the protagonist has. Maybe they realize that if they gang up on the protagonist they will win. That would make sense and be a logical way of tipping the balance.

But what happens to the protagonist—and his responses—should also be logical.

That doesn’t mean he always makes logical decisions, but the story events should be logical. The protagonist can’t always be the one to make mistakes that endanger his life, his family, or the world. It’s not believable that he gives away the hiding place of that key witness or the proof that would put the bad guy away forever, though this very scenario happens again and again in TV shows.

Don’t write story events like those in the TV show that has the antagonist’s henchmen in the right place at just the right time to take advantage of the protagonist’s error. It’s coincidence for the bad guys to just happen to see who a secondary character meets or to be there when the trusted courier drops the letter that’s the key to the whole story.

It’s bad plotting when characters who know they’re being watched by the bad guys publicly meet a character who could provide the bad guys just the information they need. Or meet with a character who should remain hidden. Or go to a secret location, leading the bad guys directly to it.

Don’t let coincidence and happenstance turn your characters’ fortunes or power your story’s cause-and-effect moments. Plan your events in advance so that they are logical and believable and likely to happen in the way you say they happen.

Don’t pattern your stories after shows filled with the kind of plotting that relies on coincidence.

Write stories in a way that doesn’t turn on one big mistake, a mistake it’s not likely your protagonist would make anyway.

Write logical actions and reactions, believable actions and responses.

At the same time, don’t make your protagonist so good that he can spot the key to a mystery after looking at the objects in a room for 20 seconds.

People are capable of hiding what they want to keep hidden. It’s not likely that your super sleuth can look at someone’s bedroom or living room and guess what happened there the night before or the month before or 10 years before.

It’s just not likely to happen. Not unless your character has extrasensory abilities or is a clone of Sherlock Holmes. (Both of which are possibilities, of course.)

Clues wouldn’t always jump out after a cursory look around a room or crime scene.

Yes, experts know what they’re looking for. But sometimes what they’re looking for isn’t there.

Make your protagonists work at their deductions and for their conclusions.

And while you’re at it, show how other characters adapt to characters who are always right.

If your sleuth always deduces who done it and how (and yes, this happens to TV characters), then those around him or her should not forever be in doubt of the sleuth’s abilities. When the amateur detective says she knows who did it—and she’s been right the last 100 times out of 100 guesses—the secondary characters should start to have faith. That is, you shouldn’t show them snarkily doubting the detective or arguing with her.

What reasons do they have for doubting? Absolutely none. The only reason the doubt is there is to raise the conflict level and give some sense of uncertainty. But if the sleuth is always right, why would any friends or co-workers doubt? Always-doubting second bananas don’t make sense when the main character hasn’t given them any reason to doubt.

Find another way, a realistic way, to create conflict and uncertainty.

You could fix this by having your lead character be wrong on occasion. Even spectacularly wrong. This is one way in which you don’t want your characters taking after perfect TV characters—you want your characters to fail at times.

In addition to coming to trust the lead character who always succeeds or is never wrong, supporting characters should also show some signs of learning from the wise or know-it-all character. If the character explains—every single time—who done it and how, then those who hang around with her should start learning something. We do rub off on one another, at least a bit. Characters should pick up skills from each other.

Why would a smart character want to hang around with a character incapable of growth, who never seemed to catch on? Would he even do it? It’s not likely. So secondary characters need to grow as a story progresses.

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Learn from TV and write characters and situations that make sense, that are believable for your readers. Think logically so readers buy your explanations.

Learn from TV and the movies what to do and what not to do with your characters, your plots, and your stories.

Create believable fiction with events that work for your story world and the characters you’ve placed there.

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I’m apparently in the minority regarding my opinion of Gravity; many liked it. The look of the characters floating in space was admittedly cool. But there is more to fiction than the look of something or the unveiling of a new technology. Effective stories need more than tricks. They need solid, believable events and characters.

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19 Responses to “Lessons From TV Shows and Movies”

  1. Martha says:

    You’re not alone! I gave up on movies and television a long time ago. We’ve traded the genuine and nuanced art of storytelling for a string of illogical, improbable and tantalizing hooks — each smacked on the backside of the last for maximum shock and awe. Video is a lazy medium, requiring little thinking. The difference is between a talented graphic designer’s artfully crafted book that has generous white space and thoughtful organization and the confusing and visually exhausting “videograhs” that pelt us with images. They make us react, but they don’t give us time — or reason — to think.

    • Martha, I admit I usually love both books and movies, but when movies fail, when they should be good but aren’t, I’m disappointed. I haven’t seen too many movies that I’d consider awesome the last few years.

      I want the characters I can love and hate as well as the action that has me on the edge of my seat and I want the story world that pulls me in. I want it all.

      And I know it can be done; I’ve seen it. I just want to see it all the time.

  2. Frances says:

    Oh my goodness THANK YOU. Finally someone whose reaction to GRAVITY matches mine. I sat through it and pretty much hated every minute. And I love movies…most of the time. One more thing that’s nice to include in a film that GRAVITY did not have — whether sad or happy, give me a satisfying ending, please!

    While I’m at it, thank you for your blog. I’ve learned so much!

    • Yes, a satisfying ending is a must, even in an otherwise good movie. If my last impression is a negative one, that’s what stays with me. Another good lesson for writers.

      Thank you, Frances. I’m glad you’ve found information you can use.

  3. Barb says:

    It think the point is: there’s not one way to tell a story. While some people didn’t like the movie, Gravity, millions of folks did. It’s grossed over $274 million.Seven academy awards, two BAFTAs, and a Golden Globe.
    In other words, the physics are wonky, but millions of people liked the story. Maybe those viewers would be considered morons in the science world, but they’re still willing to pay money to see it, own it, and/or watch it in 3D.

    I’ve finally come to the conclusion that there’s not one RIGHT way to build a world or tell a story. If there were, authors, agents, and producers would nail it every time and every work would be a best seller.

    Different works appeal to different people for different reasons. (Thank heavens, or we’d all be reading the same thing.)

    • Barb, as you said, there is no one way to tell a story. And even if all writers followed the same basic approach, every story would be different because of a writer’s strengths and tendencies to accentuate one element over the others.

      I was definitely in the minority in my opinion of Gravity. I don’t know that it was the physics and science that caused me problems, but simply that it was poor storytelling. If readers or audiences don’t believe what’s happening, they can’t trust anything they see. And while I’d never think anyone was a moron concerning science just because they enjoyed such a movie, I admit that awards typically don’t sway me and my opinions. Groups give out awards for all kinds of reasons, not always because something is the best of its kind at that time—we’ve all heard about directors who get awards not because one piece of work is deserving when compared to its competition, but because it was time for the director to be recognized.

      The technical aspects and breakthroughs of Gravity deserve recognition. But in my opinion, they didn’t make up for the shortcomings in the plot.

      The same was true for me regarding Avatar. Great new technologies pasted onto a so-so plot—how many times will the U.S. or a U.S. company be shown to be the ignorant bad-guy aggressor in a beautiful and peaceful world? Cool graphics and new technologies don’t do away with the need for strong stories at the most basic level.

      But people loved Avatar too. Or maybe they just wanted to see what all the hype was about.

      Great points—thank you for adding to the discussion. And I’m so glad we have different movies and books to match our different tastes. Otherwise some of us wouldn’t watch or read anything.

  4. I guess this is what I find most frustrating about trying to work out what people will like. I’ve seen movies, watched TV programmes, read books that I think are awful for many reason, yet they become huge success stories and when you challenge them, people look at you like you’re crazy.

    I for one liked Gravity for two reasons – the visual effects and the sound. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to looking at the earth from space and I thought some of the shots in this movie were great, and I have a home cinema system in my house and the soundtrack in this movie nearly blew my head off – but you’re right…the story was laughable in parts and downright frustrating in others.

    I read a mystery book recently that has had rave reviews, sold millions of copies and has already been made into a movie and yet I found it slightly immature in its writing stye and the ending was downright unbelievable. I actually said out loud ‘No way!” when I read the last chapter – and yet the author must be feeling pretty awesome right about now.

    I think Barb made the right point – if we knew what success looked like, we’d be mass producing it. Unfortunately, even bad things can be good in the eyes of millions of people. Go Figure.

    • Hi, Tracey. While we have some idea of what makes good stories, it’s more difficult to know what makes popular ones. A lot of readers fussed about Dan Brown’s books, yet he sold millions. And Fifty Shades of Grey was bought by many folks, even though the reviews weren’t always good.

      What I see are a whole lot of combinations—great writing, but not commercially appealing; great writing and commercially appealing; not-so-great writing but appealing; and not-so-great writing and not appealing. Plus you add in author reputation or popularity of the genre or critical reviews or the fact that a book is being made into a movie, and you have plenty of other combinations.

      Yet I think that there are standards to strive for, and believability is one of them. It’s not hard to convince readers that stories are real since they are prepped to believe that when they pick up the book. Just don’t do anything to make one seem unbelievable, like the one you found.

      Appeal or great characters or a wild plot or deep emotions can make up for other deficiencies, but wouldn’t it be great if all books hit all the high points and none of the negative ones?

  5. Haydee says:

    Well, I disagree with you. I thought that Gravity was great. And yes, it was far-fetched. But I was expecting that, anyway.

    I enjoy SF films in general and I have yet to see one that might be considered as “realistic” or “believable”, that would be oxymoronic. It isn’t called Science Fiction for nothing. But then again, I don’t go to watch these films expecting to see something realistic. Genre is all about expectation. I can’t imagine anyone going to see a chick flick, for instance, expecting to find philosophical answers to what men and women want in life. Of course, there are some things that might come across as too ridiculous, even for SF or whatever genre.I must admit that in Gravity some things were way too silly. For instance, when Clooney character comes in her dream and gives her the answer to her problem. That nearly spoilt it for me. But I guess at that particular moment in the film, it was more important for me that the main character survived so I tried not to think about it.

    Speaking of expectations… a film that I really felt let down by it, was 12 Years a Slave. After reading reviews, I was expecting a truly moving story of survival and what I got was just a story of survival. Yes, there were moving moments in the film, but not many of them had anything to do with the main character. I guess it’s all subjective.., what someone finds entertaining or moving or realistic…

  6. Haydee, as I said, I am obviously in the minority. But maybe part of my problem was that I wasn’t expecting far-fetched. I was expecting believable after all the great reviews. So maybe my expectations led to my disappointment.

    And yes, Clooney’s character showing up was jarring. It didn’t seem like dream or hallucination to start with and yet knowing he couldn’t be alive and there with her had me wondering what was going on. And wondering not in a good way but in a way that distracted me from what was happening on the screen. When I’m involved in fiction I don’t want distractions; I want to be lost in the action and emotions.

    You said you tried not to think about the distraction, but with well-crafted fiction, there wouldn’t be distractions the viewer or reader would have to shut out. There wouldn’t be that interruption to the fictive dream.

    I never saw 12 Years a Slave. But I’ll keep your comment in mind when I do eventually see it.

    Here’s hoping for many more movies that allow us to stay lost inside the story until the credits roll.

  7. Darien says:

    Hi Beth, thank you so much for all the advice you have on this blog. I’ve been reading articles for days now, and this is the first comment stream that seemed recent, so I’m choosing to weigh in here.

    You always stress not to use coincidence, and I wonder if you find foreshadowing in books and movies a way to explain a coincidence, ie, a gun is shown in the early part of an action scene, that later is discovered and used–is it still a coincidence? Also, Dr. Stone uses the fire extinguisher to put out the fire on the space station, and then later uses it to propel herself–is that a coincidence?

    I’ve also heard that a lot of stories can have one “suspension of disbelief” moment, but if there’s more than one, the reader or viewer will be lost, do you agree?

    If you want to go crazy on this topic, check out The Strain and Under The Dome, ugh! The Strain relies so heavily on stupid people doing stupid things, and UTD is just a mess. I enjoy parts of both, but I’m constantly rolling my eyes while watching.

    Lastly, do you think it’s plausible to have a character act out of the ordinary for a scene or more, and potentially distract the reader, but in the end there is a logical reason that not only explains the behavior, but also acts as a twist or a hook? I would so appreciate any feedback on this especially.

    Thanks again for all the advice! It’s been so helpful as I’m combing through my own manuscript.

    • Darien, I hope you’re finding what you need here. And feel free to comment on any article that addresses your topic; I see all the comments when they’re posted, so it doesn’t matter if you add one to an older article.

      To answer your questions—

      I see preparation as a way of heading off the need for coincidence. If you put story elements into place ahead of the time when you’ll need them, then you don’t have to rely on coincidence to make something happen or to work out well.

      Coincidence is when a woman just happens to be in a place where she can overhear the antagonist’s plans to kill the prime minister. Planning is when she’s in her normal place and going through her everyday normal activities when she overhears the antagonist plotting.

      Coincidence relies on happenstance and often uses flimsy excuses for why the right character is at the right place at just the right time. Any other time, and the character wouldn’t be there. And if any other character heard, he or she wouldn’t understand the implications. Without a legitimate reason for the one character who would understand what’s going on being in place at just the right time, you’ve got coincidence.

      Foreshadowing could be used to head off coincidence, but the two aren’t necessarily directly related. That’s why I used the word planning earlier. When the writer plans, he doesn’t have to rely on coincidence to have a character in the right place at the right time. But he doesn’t have to necessarily foreshadow his plans. That is, foreshadowing is for the reader, to hint at what’s coming up, but the writer doesn’t have to foreshadow a character being in a certain place in order to head off coincidence. He just has to plan logical reasons for putting the character into place at the right time, reasons that make sense for the rest of the story and not just for that one moment in order for the character to end up where he needs to be.

      So . . . When Ben tells Lisa (in Chapter Five) that he’ll pass the Star Key to her behind the local Baptist church at exactly nine p.m. on Saturday and she hears two other characters plotting mayhem (in Chapter Seven) as they exit the church that Saturday while she’s waiting for Ben, that’s not coincidence. Ben was purposely late and had told her to meet him there because he knew the others would be there and he wanted Lisa to see them together for herself.

      She’s not accidentally there; there’s purpose and planning behind her presence there at that time. There are rational reasons, set up ahead of time, for her being there. If she’d just stumbled across those men because she happened to cut through the church parking lot on her way home, that would be coincidence.

      But there’s no need for any foreshadowing to set this up. So the writer doesn’t have to hint that something is going to happen at the church, something other than the passing of the key. So planning, yes. Foreshadowing? Probably not.

      ———–

      As for the presence of a gun and its subsequent use, that is both planning and foreshadowing, but not coincidence.

      Foreshadowing is a scientist showing off his collection of rare poisons to his dinner guests. Carrying through with that foreshadowing is having one of the guests poisoned and one of the vials of poison missing. There’s no coincidence involved so far; this is just setup and consequences. Coincidence is one of the other guests just happening to have the equally rare treatment for the poison in his pocket.

      Dr. Stone using the fire extinguisher twice is planning, but not coincidence. It’s a way the screenwriter uses props or story elements for more than one purpose.

      If writers are too heavy-handed with their foreshadowing, that can be a problem. You don’t want to shine a spotlight on foreshadowing, as though you’re saying look here, look here. But you don’t necessarily have to try to hide the foreshadowing either. You may want the foreshadowing obvious or nearly hidden in a way that readers don’t catch on until the end of the story (or at any level in between), but you don’t want readers picturing you behind the scenes setting up something. That is, you want the reader lost in the story, not concerned about its foundations.

      Put the gun into an early scene, but in a way that it becomes just one of the elements. Readers don’t need to be told this is foreshadowing. They just want to experience it and then anticipate what that foreshadowing might mean.

      ————

      Does that get at the specifics of what you were asking about concerning coincidence and foreshadowing?

    • As for suspension of disbelief and its loss–

      I’m all for not having any interruptions to the suspension of disbelief, although one interruption is not usually enough to have me too upset. But anything that draws readers out of the fiction weakens their bond with the story. And if other events (stuff going on at the reader’s home) also get in the way, destroying the fictional dream, you may lose the reader. Anything a writer can do to prevent interruption to the fictional world, anything he or she can do to keep the fictional world separate from the reader’s real world, is good. I vote for not having any disruptive moments in a story.

      ———–
      I’m not familiar with The Strain, but I do watch Under the Dome. And I have to keep watching just to see what’s really going on. (I could pick up the book and read it, but then what would I watch in its time slot?)

      ———–
      As for a character acting out of character only for the rationale for it to be explained at the end . . .

      I think you could definitely do that, have a character acting out of character. But I suggest that you hint that there’s a reason for such behavior. Otherwise the readers might be so concerned about what’s going on that they’re pulled out of the fiction.

      They might not be bothered, but they could very well be. It depends on which character is acting in a manner that doesn’t fit him or her, how out of character the behavior is, and how often that character appears on the page before there’s an explanation.

      You run the risk of readers thinking your character-building skills are bad if you have characters acting contrary to their known characteristics. This may seem like a little thing, but you don’t want readers thinking of you at all as they read.

      For this one, weigh the pluses and minuses. Weigh the attention the character will get. Weigh the resolution of the seeming differences—will readers be thrilled that they were so easily fooled and for a good reason, or will they think you tricked them for no good reason?

      It can definitely be done, but you do risk confusing the reader. If your intention is to do that, that’s a plus. If it isn’t, confusing them is a big minus.

      And maybe you don’t want to hint that there’s something odd about the character acting out of character. You don’t want to hint at something causing him to act as he does. That one might be harder to pull off because the observant reader will know something isn’t right. If he’s repeatedly reminded of that, your decision will keep pounding at his suspension of disbelief and eventually reality will break through.

      I always suggest that you can try anything, so see how it works. See what beta readers think. See if you can tone it down somewhat so the reminders that the character is acting out of character aren’t so strong.

      Or if you can’t hide the fact that a character is acting in a way that doesn’t fit him—or if you don’t want to hide it—try playing it up big and see how that works. Stressing the odd behavior may be just what the reader needs to accept that something is going on, something that will likely be ultimately explained.

      I hope that helps.

  8. Darien says:

    Beth, I am so thankful and humbled by your incredible responses! You have sincerely covered every angle of what I was asking so completely! I am so relieved that my manuscript doesn’t have coincidence, phew! In short, I have a cop in my story who is always off the record, and very unprofessional–that is the risky part, possibly causing my reader to say, “What cop would act that way?”–but it is explained, and it becomes a hook and an opportunity for my MC to grow and change. Personally, I was dancing in my living room when it all came together! Coupled with your comforting opinions, I feel confident that I “planned” it properly and I am looking very forward to hearing what beta readers and friends will think of it.

    I will say, as I read and edit my manuscript, I keep hearing your words and advice, “that’s a cliche”, “that’s mind reading”, “don’t use ‘there was’ “, “eliminate favorite words”, and especially, your tips on fleshing out scenes and having characters interact with their surroundings. My story is already so improved based on your site, and again, I am so grateful!

    With all that you’ve written above, perhaps it’s enough to expand into another topic . . . : )

    Also, I have read “Under the Dome”, and it’s nothing like the show. A few characters are from the book, but the rest is strictly for TV. The second season has moved in directions completely away from the original, but I wonder if it will circle back and conclude as the novel did. I’m glad you’re enjoying the show.

    Good to know you will see comments on older postings, I’ll be sure to add some as I review them in the future.

    Warmest regards!

  9. Kevin says:

    Beth

    I’m with you on Gravity. Having watched it last week I have to agree it just became stupid. The situations she (Sandra Bullock) found herself in were frankly ludicrous, and also treated the audience as chumps who would believe such garbage.

    I agree, you must write to the situation, which has to be constrained in some reality. Agreed it is sci-fi, but it is present day sci-fi and should reflect — in the story— what is feasible in that situation. And in that situation she would be dead. So the writers stretched the concept much too far to produce a film that relied more on graphics and FX, than good storytelling.

  10. Kevin, I love whizz-bang special effects. I also love lots of action. But at the same time I want believable plots and characters I can develop an attachment for.

    The best action movies make me care about the characters, have me worrying for them. A movie that’s all action without giving me readers to care about doesn’t work because I don’t worry about the characters. If there’s no one to worry about, the most wondrous action sequences are meaningless and without suspense or conflict or drama.

    And an unbelievable story, movie or book, makes me feel I’m wasting my time. If I know it isn’t real, why worry about the characters? Why care about what happens? If there’s no way such events could happen, I can’t get excited about them and the people involved.

    But believable story worlds and events paired with characters I care about—characters I love or those I loathe, the ones I want to see succeed and the ones I want to see get their comeuppance—that gets and holds my attention.

    I want engaging plot and fascinating characters. I want big and flashy as well as intimate and deep. You said it—I want good storytelling.

  11. Ivan Izo says:

    Good article, Beth. Your points about the movie Gravity are valid but I enjoyed it anyway. Sure, it’s unrealistic, but most action movies are unrealistic too. Every time I see a high speed chase through a city, I think of how unlikely it is that no pedestrians get run over and the protagonist doesn’t get in an accident. It’s entertainment. We’re along for the ride and need to accept unlikely luck for the sake of an exciting story. That’s why Gravity was so unrealistic. A story set in space would be a flop due to intense boredom if it was realistic. I agree with your main point. We need to avoid unrealistic situations in our writing if we want it to be accepted as true fiction. I think it all depends on the kind of story, the genre. Thanks again for the article.

    • Ivan, I think you’re right about the genre having a lot to do with the believability.

      And maybe the number of unbelievable events is a key factor for influencing a reader’s or viewer’s reception of the story.

      I can overlook one wild high-speed chase, but 10 of them in a crowded city and no one is ever hurt and the protagonist never crashes? I’m certain to have stopped believing that the story could be true well before chase #10.

      That any car can keep going after such adventures is one more to add to the unbelievable list. As are the regular guys—no special training—who only aren’t knocked flat from a couple of solid blows to head or gut, but who keep coming back for more when someone attacks them.

      Now, if we have an indestructible car or it’s a cyborg rather than a man being beat up, the believability factor goes back up.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.

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