Storytelling Pet Peeve #1: Being Told How to Feel about a Morally Complex Situation

I began this past weekend with a vitally important task: asking a question on Facebook.  Specifically, I inquired into everyone’s pick for the worst movie ever, and by Hephaestus’s hammer did my friends submit some terrible titles!  My own pick was the Peter Weir splendiferous slop-fest Dead Poets Society, a film I regrettably once enjoyed and praised, but came over the years to judge harshly and hatefully and with a vengeance.  What’s my maggot-infested beef with the movie?  It commits the grave cinematic sin of telling me exactly how I should feel about a morally complex and ambiguous situation–or what should have been a morally complex and ambiguous situation.

Those who’ve seen the film may remember its climax and ending: promising student and aspiring actor Neil Perry commits suicide after his oppressive father lays down the law; the school administrators need a scapegoat to avoid scandal and public embarrassment, so they fire the outlandish teacher, John Keating, whose instructions in non-conformity and encouragement of school rule-breaking hadn’t played well with the school’s cartoonishly-authoritarian administrators; and the “good” students, the one’s we’re supposed to like and support, show their solidarity with their mentor by standing on their desks as Keating exits the classroom and their contrived lives.

Keating wasn’t morally responsible for Neil’s death, but he nonetheless deserved to be fired when his teaching methods and lessons in non-conformist “seizing the day” came to light.  He taught his students free-thinking (in between follow the leader on which book pages to tear out and trash) and non-conformity, which in themselves are lessons worth learning, but he recklessly neglected to teach them the responsibility that comes with subversion.  The one moment when it looked as though he was going to set some boundaries between daring and stupid, he undermined his reprimand with a casual joke.  As a teacher, Keating was charismatic, rousing, knowledgeable, passionate, caring, and ethically-idiotic. A mixed bag, an unwitting villain even, with the potential for a tragic fall.

Instead, the cinematic aromatherapists presented him as a heroic victim of caricatured authoritarianism and, with the music especially, told me exactly how I’m supposed to feel about his dismissal.  This kind of ambiguity-blind manipulation ranks among my biggest pet peeves when it comes to storytelling.  Let complexity be complex and ambiguity be ambiguous!  Have triumphant music when the Death Star explodes.  That’s cool.  But when you’re dramatizing morally difficult human conflicts, have the courtesy to respect your characters and your audience.

So, anyway, what storytelling sins drive you nuts?

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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45 Responses

  1. Tod Kelly says:

    I put down the one and only Dan Brown book I ever started, because of clumsy foreshadowing which – and I’m going from memory here – kept looking like this:

    “Mike walked down the street, and as he did he passed a bald man. LIttle did he know that soon that very man would make an attempt on his life!”

    I couldn’t get past it.

    • Burt Likko says:

      That’s a great beginning to Fake Dan Brown Thriller. I’ll write the next paragraph:

      Mike only glanced at the monumental replica of the Liberty Bell on Franklin University’s central quadrangle. Usually he stopped a moment and mediated on the fractal patterns in its famous crack, and the unexplained but often-missed misspelling on the bell’s inscription. Today, he had spent extra time in the gym, so he walked faster than usual and cut across the grass so as not to arrive late to his scheduled lecture on Semiotics of Obscure Symbology. That was when Marcy Lipinscott, his attractive graduate student, flagged him down.

      • Mike Schilling says:

        Sheer brilliance. I suggest, though, that since “fractal” almost makes sense in that context, you replace it with something like “topological”.

    • DensityDuck says:

      Inspired by the recent movie, I’m reading “Gods of Mars”, and Burroughs does that all the time.

  2. karl says:

    Clumsy exposition. Two friends meet and one says “Remember [insert backstory here] five years ago?” followed by “Yes, but what about [more backstory] the following winter?”

  3. Will H. says:

    After having to write a paper on the use of color in The Return of the Native, it is nothing short of amazing that I ever read fiction again at all.
    I’m trying to isolate the more egregious parts of it.
    All I’m coming up with is, “That printed matter that lies between the covers.”
    Wish I could be more specific.

  4. BlaiseP says:

    Deus ex machina. Afflicts all swords ‘n sorcery tomes and most sci-fi. Swords ‘n sorcery is nonsense.

    Bad science. Afflicts all sci-fi. I’ve pretty well given up on the genre entirely.

    Snidely Whiplash villainy. Want a villain? Read Richard III, proper complex villainy laid out for aspiring authors. No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.

    Male authors who can’t write women’s voices. Add to that list the smart-alecky kid dialogue.

    • Kimmi says:

      I don’t mind the non-rotating mercury stories. I just suspend disbelief, and keep reading.

      • BlaiseP says:

        BlaiseP’s Corollary to Niven’s Fifth:

        In science fiction, there might be minds that think as well as I do, but the universal language of the aliens seems to be cliches.

        • Kimmi says:

          “That is *funny*. You think you *see* Orz but Orz are not *light reflections*.
          Maybe you think Orz are *many bubbles* too. It is such a joke.
          Orz are not *many bubbles* like *campers*. Orz are just Orz.
          I am Orz. I am one with many *fingers*.
          My *fingers* reach through into *heavy space* and you *see* *Orz bubbles*
          but it is really *fingers*.
          Maybe you do not even *smell*? That is sad.
          *Smelling* *pretty colors* is the best *game*.”

          umm… yeah. cliches. I don’t think the Zot Fot Pik spoke in cliches either. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  5. Patrick Cahalan says:

    In horror fiction: telling me what the thing is that I’ve been afraid of.. up until you told me what it was. Notable sinner: Dean Koontz.

    In science fiction: letting me think the story is about science fiction until the end of the first chapter where I realize it’s about ninjas or pirates in space. Not that there’s anything wrong with ninjas or pirates, in space or otherwise, but it ain’t science fiction.

    In mystery fiction: having the clincher clue be completely unforeseeable, making no sense in the context of the characters as written up until that point, and coming in the last chapter.

    In drama: making unrealistic antagonists who are obviously cut straight from a bolt of Stereotype Cloth, recently purchased at the local craft store.

    • A Teacher says:

      Is that to say that if the Enterprise used their high tech weapons and science-y know how to break up a group preying on Federation space ships that it’s no longer science fiction?

      • Patrick Cahalan says:

        I’m thinking of the distinction between, say, Lensmen or the Miles Vorkosigan books (which are both great fun but not “real” SF but then I knew that going into both) and, say, The Foundation books.

        To me, a SF book is a book where the science advance – the thing that makes society or people or whatever substantially different than what it/they are without it – is the important part of the story. The Forever War, for example, is about the military but it’s mostly about what it would be like to be coming back from The Front when relativistic effects change the world in ways that make it absolutely unfamiliar. Man goes to war, man fights not to change, man comes back, the world isn’t the same.

        The old star trek series was often leaning towards the harder SF, but it went both ways. If you find the Feeders of Vaal, what does it mean to take away Vaal? Do you let a person die to save the world, or a timeline? On the other hand, Balance of Terror is a WWII U-boat movie turned into a SF show on the teevee.

        To be clear, I liked Star Wars just fine and it’s basically a kung-fu movie in space. I don’t have a problem with that.

        What I don’t like is when you trick me into thinking you’re making a hard science fiction movie/book, and then it turns out to be kung fu in space.

  6. Mike Schilling says:

    In a comedy: making the whole thing a broad farce until the climax, when we’re suddenly supposed to care about the main character and have an “awwww” moment when he triumphs.

  7. BSK says:

    I hate when suspense thrillers have endings that were simply incapable of being guessed. A whodunit wherein the guilty party is a character who was not even mentioned up until that point is as bad as it gets.

    I second Blaise’s frustration with deux ex machina. It ruined Harry Potter (though little could save that drivel).

  8. Kimmi says:

    In Science Fiction: Screwing up the Small Stuff. The Obvious Stuff. The “it’s not even science!!!” stuff that should have been researched before you wrote about it.

    Spider Robinson’s coffee machine: wherein you poured in green beans, it roasted them, ground them, brewed a cuppa for you — and it was “the most awesome coffee ever.”

    Stop me when you see the problem with that.

    • BlaiseP says:

      Though there are a few devices I’d like to see invented. Spider Jerusalem’s bowel disruptor, f’rinstance.

  9. Kimmi says:

    Dramatic irony, ala sitcoms. When you the watcher is supposed to guffaw at someone trying their best… except that they’ve already been undermined, which you know about but they don’t. I must change channel when this occurs.

  10. DensityDuck says:

    “what storytelling sins drive you nuts?”

    When they get to the end of a “(character) visits a Wonderful Far-Off Fantasy World” story and the main character decides to go back to their mundane original existence because That’s Where They Belong.

    Say what you want about Avatar, at least they didn’t pretend like the guy wouldn’t want to stay there.

  11. DensityDuck says:

    Oh, and: Monocultures. “We are the aliens from the Fire Planet. Our world is a fire world full of fire. Therefore we all wear red and yellow, and our spaceships are painted red and yellow inside and out, and we use lots of ‘fire’ and ‘heat’ metaphors in our speech, and we have flame motifs in all our decorations.”

    • BSK says:

      That is another thing that Avatar actually did pretty well. When they showed that their were different “tribes” whose cultures were based in part on where they lived.

    • Patrick Cahalan says:

      That’s a good one.

      I like William Dietz’s writings, from a military SF standpoint, but the SF part he gets wrong very often. The Huadathans are a race that is so paranoid it attempts galactic genocide as a reasonable means of self-defense. But it’s clear that the Huadathans actually don’t trust each other, either. Genetically. There is no way a race like that could achieve minimal cooperation required to get *to* a guild system, let alone past it. How would they achieve space travel? Some Huadathan invents the nuclear bomb… he’s gonna share that? I don’t think so.

      He fudges on this for the sake of the story, but it’s clear he’s trying to do it for the sake of the story.

  12. BSK says:

    This has to do with movies exclusively, but I hate when they have people who can barely move their arms play athletes. Is it that hard to look like your throwing a baseball properly? COME’ON!

  13. Will Truman says:

    1) When a series cannot decide how fictitious it is, or don’t have a good internal timeline. Use real presidents or fictitious ones, I don’t care. But if you’re going fictitious, don’t try to cram real life events that occur after the divergence in there with care. Tom Clancy did this with 9/11, which it should have simply avoided because it didn’t fit in with their timeline (and entirely unnecessary – he could have used the nuke in Denver as the earth-shattering national security event). The West Wing, on the other hand, avoided 9/11 entirely (though did screw up on the election year thing).

    1b) If you’re using a fictitious president, name him (or her). If you’re not going to name the president, then he (or she) shouldn’t be a significant character. I don’t always oppose the use of unnamed characters, but it’s become irritatingly typical with regard to presidents.

    2) The constant use of plot-twists that are no longer twists because they are so regular. 24 did this with “and it’s really the Defense Industry behind it all!!!” and Image/Wildstorm Comics did with “and they were BlackOps under the direction of the government the entire time…” and when there is a Muslim terrorist plot, it’s no longer a surprise when the culprit has blond hair and blue eyes. I have come to expect it.

    3) When politics is used as lazy shorthand (or foreshadowing) for the virtuousness or lack thereof of a character.

    4) Computers in TV and movies. 99% of the time.

    5) Too much TV takes place in very few locations.

    • Kolohe says:

      “The West Wing, on the other hand, avoided 9/11 entirely (though did screw up on the election year thing).”
      How so? It seemed to me to just do everything (including re-election and midterms) two years off.

      • Will Truman says:

        Yeah, but that one change is huge. History up to a certain point (I believe Nixon), everything proceeded as normal. Which means that elections had to take place on the current track. So who served the two-year term? The only thing I can think of is that the Constitution was amended so that unelected presidents only served out until the next congressional election and then the presidential election years would be re-set to off-years. So Nixon resigned earlier from Watergate in their timeline than in ours and his veep was president only for a short period of time before Wire Newman (or his predecessor) became president. Or, alternately, Nixon resigned on time but one of his successors died or was killed before two years was up.

        In any event, TWW was intended to draw heavily on the history of the presidency. So that two year shift is a pretty big deal. They needed to set it ahead (or back) a couple years for consistency.

    • Will Truman says:

      1c) The use of real commentators in very fictional pieces. Bill O’Reilly in Iron Man 2, for example. Dave drew on real political figures, which actually worked and added realism to an incredible plot (though not as incredible a plot as Iron Man). The West Wing shied away from that, because it never needed it (they did have Leno, but that was over Sorkin’s objections).

      I guess I have a bit of a fixation on the line between fact and fiction, deciding what is real and what is not real within the context of the story.

    • MikeSchilling says:

      +1000 about computers. There’s a pretty good list of why at under COMPUTERS & ELECTRONICS, though it leaves out one of my favorites: “When computers are given an impossible problem (e.g. a paradox), they overheat, start to throw sparks, and eventually explode.”

      • Will Truman says:

        In The Practice, Alan Shore had a hacker that could hack into any computer (not even knowing where the computer was, IIRC) using only an email address. My wife looked at me and I said “no,” to her great relief.

        • BSK says:

 has some FANTASTIC articles on what is wrong with the portrayal of computers in movies. Movies, in general, get technology horribly wrong.

          Something I hate is that people can’t find creative ways to update stories to account for new technology. For instance, a number of movies have plots that would be solved in minutes with a cell phone. Of course, these stories were all written before cell phones. Rather than adapt the plot or come up with a new story, they simply have everyone’s phone conveniently run out of batteries or get no service or otherwise pretend the technology doesn’t exist. The latter wouldn’t be an issue if the story was simply set in a nondescript time pre-cell phones, but they’ll incorporate other tech or social or political developments that make it clear we are living in a cell phone world but no one is using them in spite of the fact that they would solve EVERYGODDAMNTHING!

        • MikeSchilling says:

          Now I’m wondering if you and your wife watch House (though even I can spot huge holes in that.)

          • Will Truman says:

            We watched about half a season before she wanted to move on to other things. Some episodes were better than others. She would explain to me the various problems, and to a computer geek it sort of came across like…

            … in a best-case scenario, the computer doesn’t boot up when you press the “On” button, so rather than checking the IO switch or to see if it’s plugged in, they tear apart the computer to look at the jumper pins. Failing that, they replace the power supply. After that, they check to make sure that the power supply (which they just replaced?) is actually plugged in to the motherboard. So you have a lot of the right steps, just in the wrong order.

            … in the bad episodes, it turns out it was a Trojan virus (that was preventing it from powering on?) and they fix it by putting in a Linux LiveCD (okay, well props to them for knowing the terminology) and eradicate the virus using super-special virus-eradicating software.

            They obviously had physicians on staff to advise them, but they didn’t necessarily always take the advice. My wife wanted to stop watching it partly because of the clinic stuff (which was funny on the one hand, but also reminded her of why outpatient clinic is one of the least favorite parts of her job), and the fact that when she was already at a hospital/clinic for 80 hours a week (she was a resident) she was less inclined to want to watch a show about a hospital.

            We might go back to it after she retires a few decades from now. She enjoyed House the character quite a bit.

    • Kimmi says:

      That’s Not Iowa. X-files trying to make someplace in BC look like Iowa.

    • Will H. says:

      I thought it was odd in Independence Day when they had a floppy formatted for the system and the OS and it took off right away.

  14. Kolohe says:

    (I think this is the right video, at work so can’t actually see it, just the google hit)

  15. Burt Likko says:

    Ham-handed, obviously-grafted-on analogies and references to Christian sybmology and/or mythos. I’m looking dead at you, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, although another egregious offender was Pink Floyd’s The Wall. (At least Harry was a messianic figure, something Pink was most definitely not.) Chronicles of Narnia gets a pass because analogizing the Christian mythos was the author’s purpose.

    • BSK says:

      How often do you think writers do this without realizing it? I could easily see someone describing the plot of their story and, upon completion, being told, “You know that is the story of the Bible/Romeo & Juliet/The Odyssey, right?” At which point the author stares blankly, says, “Oh…” and makes just enough changes to make it seem as if that was explicit instead of an accidental regurgitation of an archetypal story.

      Joseph Cambell looms large…

      • BlaiseP says:

        I had a writing teacher who said all fiction had the Odyssey and Iliad at their cores. Yeats:

        Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
        Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
        The golden smithies of the Emperor!
        Marbles of the dancing floor
        Break bitter furies of complexity,
        Those images that yet
        Fresh images beget,
        That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

      • Burt Likko says:

        I’m sure they do, and the storytelling archetypes Campbell identified are hard to deviate from, at least in broad strokes.

        But you are aware of the ending of Deathly Hallows, aren’t you? The richer-than-the-Quen Ms. Rowling couldn’t help but have been conscious of the fact that she was cribbing from the Gospels; to suggest otherwise would be a grave insult to her intelligence.

        • MikeSchilling says:

          I’m sure it was quite deliberate. The story logic that made it necessary was prepared all the way back in the beginning of the first book.

  16. Kyle Cupp says:

    I am very much enjoying this thread.