Ah, my horrible, awful, vomit-inducing, virginity-protecting, cancerous first book. A 77-page Legend of Dragoon fanfiction. You can decide which part of that sentence makes you squirm the most. Did I mention there was a self-insert in there?
Anywho, if by some herculean effort and non-existent gag reflex you should slog through the bulk of this literary dumpster fire, you’d find that while the ending is not the worst part of this book (ghosts…on…MSN…Messenger…), it’s not good.
So our hero has told the other warriors to flee while he stays to defeat the villain, sacrificing himself for the good of the world. He charges, things go boom for some reason, and the others are sad because their leader and mentor is dead! But wait! He’s alive! But how?
I. Don’t. Know. I wrote this grotesque excuse for literature and I don’t know! I just remember that I wanted a heroic sacrifice, but I wasn’t willing to kill off my MC.
That’s how you mark a bad writer: fear of consequences.
Consequences are Good
“Consequences” has a bad tone to it, but I simply mean the natural result of something. You plant a seed, it grows. You drink water, you quench your thirst. You space out while walking, you run face-first into a pole and people laugh at me when I was seventeen.
Good stories have consequences to their plot points, especially the big, dramatic ones. Bad stories do not. Why is this? Because good writers know how to work with the events they plug into their own world. Bad writers want to have their cake and eat it too.
Let’s go back to my harrowing first adventure into that literary dark alley known as fanfiction. I wanted a character to have a big, sacrificial moment because big, sacrificial moments are cool and heartbreaking. But I didn’t want to kill him. So I had him die…but not. No passable explanation, no nothing.
However, this problem goes beyond characters who die-but-not-really. If you want any number of examples, watch The Legend of Korra.
I’ve already torn this show to shreds in the past…and I’m not going to stop. But I will limit myself to one example.
The show establishes that Korra can’t bend the air element because she’s a brash, bold, punch-first-ask-questions-if-I-feel-like-it character. Air bending prefers elusiveness, evasion, and lightness, everything she’s not. For the whole first season, Korra struggles.
Then, when a friend is in danger, she suddenly learns air bending. How? Did she finally learn the disciplines essential to air bending? No. She punched and air came out. She did the same brash, bold, punch-first technique she’s always done. Yet this time, it worked. The show spits in the face of all established lore about air bending and breaks its own rules.
In short, it evades the consequences. They set up that Korra can’t bend air because of how she goes about it, then scrap it when convenient. That’s bad writing. It’s cheap, easy, and shatters the story world.
The Deus Ex Machina and How to Not
The most garish example of a lack of consequences is the Deus ex machina, a plot device that instantly solves an impossible-to-solve problem by introducing some never-before-seen trick that comes out of left field.
Here’s an example: The Matrix Revolutions.
By the end of the much-maligned Matrix Trilogy, our hero Neo is in a fix. The cyber-villain Smith had duplicated himself to infinity, and Neo can’t fix it. So Neo sacrifices himself instead, becoming another Smith clone. Then machines outside the matrix go, “bzzt,” Smith goes, “Boom!” and the audience goes, “What?”
So…the machines outside the matrix can just “bzzt” Smith to death? When was that established? Why didn’t they do it before? Deus ex machina. No establishment, an all-to-easy fix, and no consequences.
So how do you avoid the Deus ex Machina? Simple: setup.
Many say that the T-Rex’s saving appearance in Jurassic Park is a Deus ex machina, but I disagree. The film already set up that the T-Rex was on the loose, so why couldn’t it show up suddenly? True, it’s lucky, but it’s at least plausible. A Deus ex machina is only plausible by bull crap pretzel logic hastily slapped on at the end.
Here’s another good example: Boo Radley can appear to be a Deux ex machina in To Kill a Mockingbird, but he’s set up as an existing character who’s secretly interacted with the kids he saves, seems to know what’s going on outside his isolated home, and has a history of violence. Combined, it’s perfectly reasonable that he would save the day even though he’d never appeared on-page before.
Meanwhile, in the toilet regurgitation I call my first story, I had no setup that my main good guy could survive nuclear-level explosions. He just does because I need him to.
Setup and Payoff
There’s a writing principle called “Chekhov’s Gun.” It means that if you put something in a story, use it. If you point out a gun on the wall, that gun better come into play somehow. And in reverse, if a gun goes off, it better be pre-established to exist. For example, if a soldier suddenly shoots a gun, that’s believable because we implicitly know that soldiers have guns. But if a nun shoots a gun, where the heck did she get it?
Consequences follow a similar rule: if you set something up, follow through.
Allow me to return to my own example one last time, I swear. Eventually, I rewrote the story to be less-than-atrocious-but-not-quite-good. The ending changed with it. This time, just as the main character is about to make his sacrificial plunge, his best friend swoops in, saves him, and screams, “The hell are you doing?!”
Not only does this explain how he survives (he had help and he escaped), but it also pays off an earlier theme of the MC’s habit of acting alone because he fears losing people, and it even sets up a friendship that comes back into play in the even-less-terrible sequel I wrote later.
I think the reason Harry Potter remains beloved is the all the long-distance firings of Chekhov’s gun. So many things set up in book one come back in book seven. Snape’s hatred for Harry, the dragons in Gringott’s bank, even the wand lore that saves the day in the end. No miracle is just shrugged off. They’re all set up clearly in advance, or the following explanation still falls within the established rules of the world, as opposed to miracles with zero establishment, all wrapped up in the convenient excuse of “magic.”
Good setup and good payoff make a good writer.
Think About It
We all suck at some stage in our writing journey. I gave you my examples so you wouldn’t think I was sneering down from my high horse. But it’s our job as writers to grow, and a lack of consequences is a big red arrow that says “amateur” pointing to your head.
Fixing this problem is simple, but not easy. All you need to do is think it through. If this character does this, what’s the natural result? If you don’t like that result, how do you avoid it without breaking the story’s rules? Is there a way you can set up your day-saving surprise in advance? Or, bear with me, does the entire scene need to be rewritten or even scrapped?
Set up rules and follow through with them. As I said, it’s simple in theory, but tricky in practice. But don’t worry, the tool you need is already in your head.
Now go fire that gun! Metaphorically. Please don’t shoot anybody.
4 thoughts on “One Sure Sign of Bad Writing”
I suppose it comes back partly to the difference between fiction and fantasy. Fiction should be true to life but fantasy is fantasy because it isn’t true to life, or at least doesn’t have to be. Yet even within fantasy impossibilities shouldn’t happen without good reason. In other words even fantasy can only stretch your imagination so far before becoming disgusting rather than interesting.
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Quite true. It’s all too easy to say, and then so and so did a magic spell that made all the bad things vanish.
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