Friday, January 25, 2013

A Few Things That Kill a Story

There are plenty of things that kill stories and make you put down a book or turn off a movie. Today I'm going to cover just a few based on a film I watched last night (or the half of it I watched before I couldn't take anymore.) I'm not going to outright name the movie, but I'll give examples right from it.

This movie actually had a pretty cool premise, and I was excited to give it a view on Netflix Instant. A man accidentally kills his wife, puts her in his trunk, and drives a sparsely-traveled road to dump her in a lake that she'd loved in life. While he's driving, he's not sure if he's being attacked by supernatural events or if he's losing his mind. Dark, and if done properly, it could be really neat, especially since I enjoy stories where it's a mystery as to if it's all in someone's mind or not. The beginning was actually pretty cool; it drew me in. A few seemingly supernatural events happened that opened my eyes and made me realize I made the right choice in choosing to watch this film. I was invested and wanted to see where it all went. Too bad the storytelling made me realize quickly that my first impressions were wrong. Hopefully my reactions can help others in their writing.

The main character drives down the sparsely-populated rural road, and a few strange occurrences leave him doubting his sanity. Because of this, he speeds through the winding mountain passes. A police officer pulls him over, which is a bad thing because he has his dead wife wrapped in a sheet in his trunk. So far so good. The police officer is quite suspicious, not just because our anti-hero is acting strange due to his wife being in the trunk, but because the officer received a report that he behaved oddly back down the road in another incident. This is still good storytelling; a real-world problem has come prove a real menace to our main character. The scene escalates to the officer wanting to search the car. Our main character obviously does not want the officer to look in the trunk, and the officer has taken note of this. He's about to force the man to open the trunk when he gets a call on his radio. Here's where the scene takes a nose-dive.  The officer tells the dispatcher on the radio that he'll be right there, and he very pleasantly tells our main character that he's free to go, but please slow down next time. And that's it. With how suspicious the cop was, coupled with the main character desperately not wanting the officer to look in the trunk, there's no way that scene would have ended like that. It was unbelievable, and it drew me right out of the story despite the fact that I was all in up to that moment. Take that advice, writers; even if your readers love how the story is going, a blunder can still take them right out of the story. I continued, but with less enjoyment. Some readers (or viewers, in this case) won't.

At one point, our main character was 90 miles away from his destination. A few minutes later, which didn't skip much, if any, time, he was 45 miles away. There was no way he was going that fast, especially on that road. He also calls his mistress (the center of the problem with his wife), and leaves a message for her to call him as soon as possible. He then sets his phone down on the seat next to him and turns on the radio, cranking up the volume. No problem, right? Music, especially loud music, can help calm the nerves. Where this movie goes wrong, however, is that he leaves the radio on only long enough to miss the inevitable call seconds later. Little things like these matter. These again drew me right out of the story, and the great feelings about this movie I had at the beginning were quickly evaporating. I almost gave up right there, but pressed on. The lesson here for you is to make sure all of your details, even the little ones, match up. If your reader stops thinking about the story and instead questions your, the author's, motives/style, you have trouble. Question a character's motives is one thing, but a reader should never question the author's.

The thing that ultimately got me to turn off the movie was not only a cliche I knew was coming, but the way it was handled. The car ran out of gas. Sure, it could happen, but how often does it? I'd have had a better reaction to a flat tire or some other minor malfunction. That simply seems more believable to me. But, ultimately, it wasn't the running out of gas that got me; I could have stuck that out. Once he's stopped, he opens the trunk and whispers to his dead wife that she's not going to make it to the lake, but he's going to have to bury her in these woods because he doesn't want to get caught there with her. Good, good, he's thinking again. But then a car speeds by and he can't flag it down. So he stops and smokes a cigarette. I'm still okay with this, as he's calming his nerves. But then one smoke turns into a half-dozen, which is showing a passage of quite a bit of time. Wait, why did his plan change? He was all hot-to-trot about getting her out of his trunk, but now he's completely abandoned this plan? If he'd given a good reason, maybe, but he doesn't. Sure, you can infer reasons, and I'm sure the screenwriter and/or director was hoping the audience would, but that's a sign of poor writing. There are times when writers need to give the audience credit and let them piece together ideas, but this wasn't one of them; this stank of poor, lazy writing. This did nothing but allow the story to get to the next part of the scene.

Someone finally comes, and he manages to flag them down. When he tells the driver that he ran out of gas, not only was there a gas station not far back, but this guy had actually stopped, put some in a gas canister for his generator, and he's willing to give it to our main character. What luck! My finger went to the stop button on my remote, but I didn't push it yet. I waited until the main character looks back at his car and sees his dead wife's bloody sheet flapping about out of the trunk right by where the gas cap was. The Good Samaritan will see that for sure! The only problem is that there was not only no chance of her sheet getting in that position, but very little chance he wouldn't notice it while he was standing there smoking for the past hour (or however long). This reeked of lazy, desperate writing, and I'd been taken out of the story for the last time. Maybe these problems were something that was explained later in the movie, or maybe they weren't. All I know is that I hit stop and didn't finish watching.

Learn from these mistakes. Don't be a lazy writer. If you need your character to do something, make it believable, not a cliche. Give reasons for your character's actions. Pay attention to little details in your story. Never take your reader out of the moment to wonder if such a thing is possible or plausible. Don't make your reader want to close your book before the end. That's our goal as authors, right?