Frustrating & Disappointing Storytelling Habits Writers Should Avoid

There are some things that can be really annoying to see in stories, whether it's because they're unsatisfying, or leave a bad taste in our mouths, or are just pointlessly irritating. Here are a few of them and what all they entail.

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Glossing/Waving Over Important Developments

As a general rule, anything that changes a major character's status quo in a big way should be shown and not told, particularly if it happens in the middle of a story or plot arc, or if the current status quo has had visible buildup leading up to it. Having important events like this happen off-screen or off-page can make the story feel rushed and forced.

Here's an example: A couple of main characters have been shown dating each other for half the season. Their relationship has been part of a few dramatic plots and/or subplots. We've seen their ups and downs enough that we sympathize with them and have some emotional investment of our own in their relationship - essentially, we're rooting for them. But then a new episode airs and reveals that they've broken up off-screen. That's it. We don't see what it was that drove them to break up, nor do we even see the emotional fallout. We might get a very brief recap of what happened, if we're lucky. But here's the thing: their breakup is something that should be a big emotional deal both for them and for the audience who's had time to get emotionally invested in their relationship. Thus, you don't tell this kind of thing. You show it. And if for any reason you absolutely can't show the actual breakup itself, you have to show the characters reacting to it like it's a big deal, and talking about what happened and how they feel.

For another example, a character in a book series has had a fear of water for three books. This fear has come up through several major plot events, and the audience saw how the character felt and how it impacted the character's life. Then the fourth book rolls along, and we find out in one line that the character "got therapy" and "doesn't have that problem anymore." Done like this, it feels forced and awfully convenient. What should have happened is that we should have seen the character go to therapy and spend some reasonable effort in getting over that fear. Then it would have felt like a natural and organic change to the character, and it would have created a very satisfying character arc unto itself.

Or you have a TV show about a task force. They've been fighting together for awhile, and overall they get along pretty well. They may not always get along perfectly, but we've seen that they have a pretty good bond. Then come along a new episode and the team is disbanded, all of them gone off to do their own things. The episode is about how they get back together. Again, the breakup of the team is another big emotional deal. People need to see what lead up to this breakup or else it's going to feel forced and nonsensical. Plus, whatever tension or discontent rose among the team to the point where they broke up in the first place is dramatic gold, and showing it sets up the audience emotionally to be desperately wanting to see the team get back together. A better way to make this happen is to write a two-parter story, with the first episode leading up to the split and the second episode covering how they get back together.

Again, this is the kind of stuff you should probably be showing, not putting offscreen or offpage, because doing so makes things feel rushed or forced. Keep this rule in mind: people will believe what they see, so if you really want them to believe in it, you'd better make sure they see it.

Not Showing Other Important Or Awesome Things

It's awfully frustrating when a writer leads up to what would be an exciting or interesting moment to watch or read play out, only to skip right over it as if it's as unimportant or banal as making the morning's toast. It's what we've been waiting to see, darn it!

For example, our team of antiheroes needs to break into a vault to steal an important item. We find out that breaking into the vault is going to be a difficult task due to the cutting-edge security features of the vault, plus the guards, motion sensors, etc. in the building. This raises tantalizing questions like how they're going to get into the vault without getting caught, and how they're going actually get the vault open. But we never find out, because what happens is we see them march off on their mission... only to immediately jump to them returning home with their prize in hand.

Or for another example, a story leads up to a main character having a grand epic fight with a long-time enemy. But when it finally happens, we don't get to see it for ourselves because we're stuck in the viewpoint of someone who isn't even there. All we get to see is this character coming back to tell the other one about it.

For a final example, a show teases a romance between two characters. We see them flirt at each other, grow steadily closer, and then... poof, they're suddenly in a relationship. We don't see them open up to each other, let alone share their first kiss. Thus we're deprived of a satisfying emotional moment.

When you build up anticipation for something like this and fail to deliver, you're just shooting yourself in the foot. Not only are you letting people down, you're also passing up a chance to show them something really exciting or interesting. Why would you go and do something like that?

Fake Cliffhangers

This is a kind of bait-and-switch con where writers keep audiences hooked by leaving them with a cliffhanger they have no intention of following up on. The chapter/issue/episode will be written so that it appears to be setting up for some kind of interesting and dramatic scenario - but when we get to the next part of the story, it's completely brushed off in some way.

Here's one example: The protagonists find a treasure map and spend the entire episode following it. Upon reaching the treasure, a dragon appears and snarls at them, and the episode ends. This, of course, implies that the rest of the story will be picked up in the next episode. People spend the week eagerly waiting to find out how the protagonists get past the dragon and get the treasure. Then they tune in and get no answers at all because the next episode shows that they've already slain the dragon and taken the treasure, and now they're ready to embark on a new adventure entirely. So of course, this is going to leave a lot of people feeling disappointed and feeling like they missed out on something awesome.

What would make this scenario even worse is starting the next story in medias res. For example, not only does the story skip over the dragon slaying and treasure snatching, but the next time we see the heroes, they're in the middle of fighting a huge battle that we're not shown how or why they got there. Not only can this leave people feeling like they've missed out on something epic, but they might wonder if they actually missed part of the story somehow.

Here's another example: One of the protagonists does something that by all rights ought to be impossible. The story never explains or shows how it's done. The episode ends with the protagonist promising to explain everything later, so of course, people will watch the next episode just to find out what happened. But when the next episode occurs, the audience gets nothing. The character in question might just decide not to explain it after all, or the story might move onto something else entirely. Audiences are very likely to feel cheated out of getting the explanation that the show implied they would get.

However this kind of thing goes down, it's a cruel way to manipulate people into continuing your story. You're building up their hopes by promising them something you have no intention of actually giving them. It makes for a frustrating and unfulfilling experience, and is that really what you want to give people?

Nullifying Positive Developments & Resolutions

This one seems to happen a lot when writers just want to inject some cheap drama, or have done a really bad job of planning their story arcs. Essentially, something good that just happened (usually in the last story) is abruptly reversed or negated.

For example, a story arc focused on the growth and development of a villainous character into a less villainous, and maybe even somewhat heroic one. It was a difficult journey with twists and turns that left the audience on the edge of their seats, and the moment that the villain earns redemption was incredibly touching. But then the next arc rolls around... and for some flimsy reason (or no reason at all), the redeemed villain falls right back into full-on villainy again. This kind of thing is incredibly disappointing, even hurtful, for everyone who was invested in the redemption plot.

For another example, a story focuses on saving a small village from total annihilation. The main characters put everything on the line to save it. Someone even dies. The story itself is used to deliver a message about hope and perseverance in the face of danger. At the end of the story the village is saved... but in the next installment, we find out that as soon as the main characters' backs were turned, the village was destroyed anyway. Not only was all of that effort for nothing, but that whole message about hope and perseverance was just set on fire and thrown off a cliff. Not only is that disappointing, it's also just depressing.

Another problem with pulling this kind of thing is that it makes the previous story feel pointless, and most people don't enjoy reading or watching (let alone re-reading or re-watching) pointless stories. So before you go and throw in a development somewhere, stop and ask yourself if you really plan (or want) to commit to it and all that entails. If you're collaborating with other people, try to talk things out so you don't end up messing each other up with conflicting visions of what should happen and what the overall message should be.

Teasing Forever, Delivering Never.

This one happens with romantic subplots a lot. A TV show might tease two characters as relationship material: they have chemistry, they flirt with each other, and a few times they even go on a date. But they never get into a steady relationship.

Sometimes the story will do one meaner: It'll let the characters get into a relationship after a long period of teasing, only to demolish the whole thing before everyone's eyes by having one of them die, or having them break up for some contrived reason, or by simply having the plot rip them apart.

Sometimes writers will only get two characters together simply because they plan to kill one of them off soon. You know, for maximum drama!

Here's a problem with this: It's become a cliche unto itself! Whether it's queerbaiting, killing off superheroes or action heroes just to stop them from settling down with someone, or trying to drag out a romantic subplot as long as it can possibly go, it's predictable. There's no point in getting invested in something we know will never amount to anything, and a subplot that people aren't investing in is worthless. And besides this, knowing that there's just no hope for something that would be nice to have happen can be pretty disheartening.

In addition, letting characters actually get into relationships can be good for your story. It's a way to let the story grow along with your audience and stay relatable to them (some of them may be teens or young adults just getting into relationships themselves), and it can offer new potential for character and story development.

Of course, endless teasing doesn't always involve romance. Other things that might be teased but never delivered might be character development, solving a mystery, or a character finally obtaining a personal goal.

While this kind of thing might keep your audience paying attention for now, eventually some of them are going to realize you're never going to deliver and may lose interest in the subplot, if not the whole story. Those that do stick with it to the end will likely be forever annoyed that you never delivered.

And A Few Quick Ones

Relying on contrivances to move the plot forward. Not only is this lazy storytelling, but it strains people's willing suspension of disbelief. See How To Avoid Making Your Story And Characters Feel Contrived for more information.

Not knowing where to quit. Some ideas only work well in moderation, and overdoing them will ruin everything. See Dramatic Hyperinflation: Why It's A Problem, And How To Avoid It.

Doing dirty to minor or supporting characters for no reason. People empathize with these characters more than you might think - and sometimes they even relate to them more than the main characters. When they do, they'll notice if your main characters are treating them badly and they won't be pleased. Unless that's the whole point, put a little more thought into how your main characters treat others. Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It and How To Make The Nameless, Faceless, & Minor Characters In Your Story Feel Human To You have more information.

In Summary!

Also take a look at:

How Good Story & Character Ideas Can Go Bad
On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast

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