Biggest roadblocks to story
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Our recent Reasonable Discussions conversation about stupid character behavior in Prometheus and in horror movies in general got us talking about the things that distract and annoy us in stories of all types—character behavior, specific writing styles, certain types of character or developments or storytelling styles. What kind of things most get in the way of your enjoyment of a story, or are most likely to boot you out of one?
I implied this to some degree in our podcast discussion, but while I get annoyed at stupid character behavior, nothing throws me out of a story faster than stupid character behavior that makes no sense other as a plot-advancement tool. If you have to ask “Why the hell would anyone do that?” and the answer is “No one would, but it’s necessary to make the story happen,” then as far as I’m concerned, it’s a bad story. There’s a ton of that in Prometheus [spoiler ahead!]—“Let’s casually open the ship to check on the sudden inexplicable zombie, rather than assuming something hostile might have put that corpse there, and investigating cautiously” is a big one. But it comes up a lot in action and thriller movies. And sometimes it even crops up in media I otherwise like. [Season-six Buffy spoiler ahead!] Like in the end of “Once More With Feeling,” when it turns out Xander summoned the dancing demon. What the hell? What, exactly, about six seasons of demon-related horror and misery supposedly convinced Xander that summoning a demon to create wedding fun times would be a great idea? It’s a dumb ending to a fun episode, largely put there for a joke (“Does this mean that I have to... be your queen?” “It’s tempting. But I think we’ll waive that clause just this once.”), but for a series so caught up in character development over time to violate a character that thoroughly for a quick gag… it still bugs me, obviously.
For some reason, I decided that my seventh month of pregnancy is a great time to watch We Need To Talk About Kevin. (I have some weird fascination with stories about very bad kids.) After having read that New York Times piece on sociopath kids and Dave Cullen’s Columbine, I know it doesn’t take a lot of bells and whistles to make a story about dangerous, malicious kids and their relationships with their parents chilling. We Need To Talk About Kevin, however, indulges in some Symbolism and Theme with capital letters. The noisy flashbacks, the ongoing obsession with Tilda Swinton cleaning red paint off her house and her hands (yeah, we get it) and the ironic soundtrack made me inwardly mock the movie, at least the first half. (The second half settles down.) Don’t get me wrong: I still watched the whole thing closely, but I couldn’t help but make fun of the movie as I watched it, which I don’t think was the director’s intent. With a slightly lighter touch, I probably would have been completely sucked in. Oh, and John C. Reilly both as Tilda Swinton’s husband and as a completely oblivious idiot was also a runner-up in terms of enjoyment-obstacle.
I love me a good mystery. But God almighty, I hate it when people inside mysteries employ intentionally obtuse language to keep said mystery from being solved. Direct questions get answered with rhetorical queries. Pronouns are uttered to obscure what proper names would illuminate. Seemingly straightforward replies are later revealed to be carefully calculated answers designed to throw everyone off the proper path. It’s one thing to invite people to follow a bread-crumb trail toward the final destination. But there’s a huge difference between throwing people off the scent and deliberately misleading the audience. When done skillfully, the former yields The Sixth Sense. When done poorly, the latter yields The Village.
When I’m watching a movie, I generally try to adopt an Ed Wood mentality (“Haven’t you ever heard of suspension of disbelief?”), and as a science-fiction fan, this has served me well on more occasions than I’d care to count. But while I can accept the existence of virtually any piece of technology a screenwriter can come up with, I am immediately ripped out of my enjoyment of a film when it commits the egregious sin of presenting something that clearly only exists for plot-convenience purposes and declaring that it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon. This has killed my enjoyment of more than a few disaster movies stone dead in seconds flat, but as far as I’m concerned, the poster boy for this faux pas is the Nexus in Star Trek: Generations. With all of the possible ways available in the Trek universe to bring Kirk and Picard together—the Guardian Of Forever, a quick slingshot around the sun, the list goes on—they instead decided to whip up this strange space phenomenon that travels through the stars, enveloping anything in its path, and if you’re inside it, all of your dreams will come true, but should you decide to leave, you can appear anywhere at any time. Awful. Just awful.
Now that it’s become the default setting for every clever little turd who just learned about postmodernism and/or discovered Douglas Hofstadter, this whole meta thing is really starting to drive me up the wall. In small doses, self-reference is fun. In large doses, it can be exhilarating and even profound. But when used as a crutch or mere filler, it just dulls the impact. Even worse, the mainstreaming of meta has leached the methodology of its inherent power; rather than drawing attention to the smugness of established structures, it’s become suffocatingly smug itself. Even worse, it’s being integrated in an increasingly glib, slovenly, haphazard way—as I point out in my recent review of China Miéville’s Railsea, a novel that starts out extremely strong before burying its head in its own ass, for no other reason than to demonstrate that it can.
Mine’s super-petty, but here it is: I hate when a character drinks from or carelessly wields a clearly empty “hot” coffee cup in a movie or TV show. Most people would just be a little annoyed by this, but it makes me question the whole production. Couldn’t they bother to put some water in those cups? And if they aren’t paying attention to even middling details like that, then what else did they ignore? Are the characters developed? Are the sets how they should be? Did they edit the whole thing together well? It’s not as grand a problem as timeline jumps or character inconsistencies, but I think it’s emblematic of larger problems, and thus wind up endlessly dwelling on that instead of being able to enjoy the production.
Mine would be similar, Marah: I tend to zero in on anything the characters are eating. Introducing food into any scene is a no-win with me. If the characters storm out of a restaurant without finishing their meal, I think about their dinner going to waste. If they eat, I think about the actors doing take after take and eating bite after bite. It’s been said that every time an actor doffs his or her clothes, a movie immediately becomes a documentary. I feel the same way about food: I get wrapped up in the physical reality of the thing itself, and for a time forget about the fiction.
Nothing takes me out of a movie or television show quicker than clumsy exposition. Exposition is often a necessary evil in television shows or movies: we need to know what the fuck is going on, or we’ll be lost. The best kind of exposition is practically invisible: It delivers relevant information so smoothly, organically, and effortlessly that we’re barely even able to recognize it as exposition. All too often, however, exposition is artlessly unpacked in one giant info-dump, or is clumsily stuck in the mouths of characters who serve no purpose other than to explain what’s going on. Terrible exposition makes suspension of disbelief practically impossible: I have seen far too many films where characters tell each other things they obviously already know and are saying solely for the benefit of an unseen audience. Another example of terrible exposition lies in the endless film-opening crawl. Perhaps the most egregious example of this regrettable tendency is the opening crawl of Uwe Boll’s notorious Alone In The Dark, which seems to last a good half hour, yet somehow makes the film even more confusing and hard to follow.
Movies about musicians in which the star is a non-musician have very little chance with me, because I can’t get past an actor pretending to play an instrument. The piano may be the worst, because it’s so obvious when the cameraman has to avoid showing the hands on the keyboard, or cuts to someone else’s hands. And the miming that takes place during those shots where the hands are hidden, the random movements of hands and shoulders, bugs me to no end. Maybe violinists get equally distracted and annoyed by fake violin playing, drummers by fake drumming, and so on. Fake singing doesn’t bother me a bit, strangely, maybe because having Marni Nixon sing for you is almost as integral a part of the movie musical as lip-syncing to playback.
I can’t stand it when movies or TV shows used obviously canned sound effects. The one that always gets me is the police radio-dispatch call that goes something like “Liberty 285, code 6, 105 North Avenue, 52.” This was a useable effect in this crappy Spider-Man Cartoon Maker computer game I played with a lot as a kid, and it’s popped up dozens of times in movies and TV shows, usually as cops mull around a crime scene. Every time I hear it (or a canned door-creak, or cheapo owl), the narrative totally drops away, and all I see are actors on a set reading scripts, while some lazy sound technician drops in effects he got free via a Creative Commons license. It’s the audio equivalent of seeing the strings.
So many potential answers to this, but I’ll go with overly familiar or on-the-nose music cues. Using pop music, especially in a non-montage context, is a tricky proposition: Unless you’re using a song’s lyrics as an explicit comment on the action—see Mad Men’s use of “You Only Live Twice”—getting too close to what’s onscreen can be a big distraction, like having someone poke you in the ribs and go, “Get it?” Ditto a song that’s too well known, or, on a personal level, one of my favorites: Play, say, Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” over a scene, and I’ll be singing along for the next four minutes and all but ignoring what’s happening on screen. That goes as well for hideously overused classical music pieces like Arvo Part’s “Spiegel Im Spiegel” or Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie,” which essentially scream, “The music supervisor was out late last night.”
Nothing takes me out of a movie or TV show worse than glaring anachronisms. It’s not that hard to research an era, really, so when you have a scene set in the late 1970s, do not throw a Ms. Pac-Man machine in the background if you want me to continue to pay attention to what’s happening. (That’s not a theoretical example. Check out Man On The Moon. That scene has stayed with me longer than much of the rest of the movie, which I liked.) Here’s another one: There’s an episode of The Wonder Years where Kevin befriends a young Jimi Hendrix fan who’s wearing a Hendrix shirt that’s clearly not from the era of the show, but from the era in which the show was made. I remember seeing the shirt at Spencer Gifts around the same time. Look, I’m just a civilian who knows a bit about when things happened. I shouldn’t have a keener eye than those paid to put things where they belong.
With the possible exception of The Shawshank Redemption and Goodfellas, nothing rankles me more in either a TV show or a movie than the presence of a narrator. It’s a cousin to what Nathan was talking about regarding clumsy exposition: in most cases, the narrator is there to fill in the blanks that the screenwriter wasn’t able to fill with dialogue or—even better—with action. Whenever I hear a narrator on a show or movie, I immediately roll my eyes, as it makes me doubt that what I’m watching is any good. It’s very rare when the presence of a narrator isn’t used as a crutch, and it’s especially jarring in the “young person narrating a sitcom/movie about being young” genre. When Jane Levy’s disembodied voice popped up in the first seconds of the pilot of Suburgatory, for instance, my immediate reaction was “Oy, this show belongs on ABC Family, not ABC.” It took me at least a quarter of the season to embrace the show and enjoy how it fits in ABC’s Wednesday lineup. It might have happened sooner, though, if the action just played out without Levy’s voiceover help.
Mine’s extremely nitpicky, but tiny factual or grammatical errors pull me right out of whatever culture I was otherwise enjoying. Years of fact-checking and line editing have given me permanent editor-brain, and my eyes are trained to lock onto any error until it is corrected. It got so bad during the process of fact-checking a history book that I completely forgot how to read for fun. After months of reading comic books, I worked my way up to a Harry Potter reread, which was my mistake. Especially in the early books, every page could benefit from some heavy red ink. Having only read the novels in breathless marathons, I never noticed how often J.K. Rowling uses five words where one would do just fine. Reading them as an adult over several months brought out every flaw, as well as some well-placed foreshadowing, to her credit. I managed to make it through, but only because I developed a rhythm for stopping every couple of sentences to mentally scratch out unnecessary words. I’ve gotten a little better since then, but every time I catch myself correcting an episode of Good Eats, I wonder if it’s less editor-brain, and more me being an insufferable know-it-all.