Lessons From A Bad Story

Posted On: 2021-01-11

By Mark

Recently, I experienced a (fictional) story that was unsatisfying and, to put it bluntly, downright bad. In an effort to get something positive from the experience*, I tried to analyze what went wrong, and turn that into advice for how to avoid repeating the same mistakes. In today's post, I'll share a few of these.

  1. Don't explain everything

    It's important to leave the audience room to figure things out for themselves - not only does it encourage audience engagement by rewarding attention, it also keeps the story's pacing from being needlessly bogged down.

  2. Omit things that aren't relevant

    There is always more that goes into setting up the story's events than can actually appear in the story. This is not something to be spurned or avoided, but instead embraced, as it is an essential tool for staying focused and well-paced.

  3. Comparing villains informs us about the speaker

    When a character verbally compares two (in-universe) villains, that tells you something about that character. Perhaps they are trying to win an argument or speaking hyperbolically in the heat of the moment. Regardless of the cause, such a comparison informs the audience about the speaker - and it says nothing about the villains themselves.

  4. Metaphysical twists should have a long shadow

    Plot twists are a common tool for surprising audiences. While such twists generally work best when foreshadowed in some way, that is particularly important when the twist involves something central to how the story's setting or universe works. Surprising metaphysical reveals (such as "actually it's all a dream" or "this whole world is actually inside a giant whale") can risk the audience's suspension of disbelief, so it's important to clearly set up enough supporting evidence before the reveal, so that audiences can feel the reveal still makes sense based on what they know. (It may also help to subtlely call back to such elements shortly before the reveal, in order to make sure they are top-of-mind.)

I plan to keep these four lessons in mind as I work on my own stories. It's my sincere hope that they are also useful for you as well.

As always, if you have any thoughts or feedback, please let me know.