Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.