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The Writer’s Craft #37 – Story Killers

September 12, 2011
Eli Effinger-Weintraub

Eli Effinger-Weintraub

This week’s feature is from Eli Effinger-Weintraub who blogs at The Back Booth (http://backbooth.thesane.net/) Eli is self-described as: “Your average queer, atheistic, bicycle-obssessed, steampunk-lovin’ Pagan writer. Beloved of one wife, owned by two cats. Copyeditor by trade.” Her work appears in Steampunk Tales: Issue 5, edited by G.D. Falksen.


“Why don’t we just shoot the bastard?” –Harrison Ford to Stephen Spielberg during filming of the market scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, originally scripted as an elaborate sword-fight.

The flip side to the “I see story ideas” coin (Writer’s Craft #31, August 1, 2011), is seeing story-killers everywhere–those moments where a story is flowing freely from your brain to the page or screen and suddenly just…stops.

I experience this most often in the “why don’t they just” scenario. I give my characters what I think are layered and labyrinthine plots, crammed with complications–only to realize two pages from the end that the whole mess could’ve been avoided if my protagonist had tied her damned shoes on page three.

I don’t mean the “If only…” lament of tragedy. If only I hadn’t disowned my devoted youngest daughter, I wouldn’t be wandering the heath naked in a storm. I mean the kinds of allegedly complicated plots that the average elementary-school kid can cut through in ten words or less. If my cousin Mara had stayed seven forever, I would never have this problem. I would give her high-level synopses of whatever I was working on, and she would respond, “Well, why don’t they just…” and whack away the Gordian knot of my plot in one sentence.

More recently, in an early scene of my greenpunk novel-in-process, Paper Lily, the protagonists encounter the gun-toting guard of an isolated settlement. In a complex and often hilarious scene, the guard brings them to his boss, which sets into motion the complex and occasionally hilarious machinations of the plot. One of my beta readers took one look at the scene and said, “Yeah, I’m going to need a much better reason for him not to shoot them on the spot.”

My answer was a spluttering, “Because if he does that, there’s no story!”

This is a fairly common authorial response, I think. Things have to happen this way, or there’s no story. But it’s not true. There is a story; it’s just a different one. It may even be a better one, one we perhaps owe it to ourselves and our readers to find.

What story-killers are you prone to as a writer? How do you diagnose or avoid them? As readers, what are your story-killing pet peeves?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Mishell Baker permalink*
    September 12, 2011 6:39 am

    I have that seven year old living inside me, and it makes it next to impossible for me to write an interesting story sometimes. Anything I think of that could be REALLY COOL, that smart-aleck seven-year-old in my head goes, “But that’s not what would really happen.” The only side benefit to having this critic riding piggyback is that if I ever do manage to get something finished, the people in the story at least behave according to realistic motivations and aren’t just puppets doing dumb things to serve my plot. Unfortunately, the stories tend to be pretty boring, too… because stuff that makes sense usually is. 😉

  2. September 12, 2011 6:46 am

    The biggest story killer for me is the “I can’t kill them because I have this strong burning sensation in my loins whenever I look at them.” Or the stupid heroine who can’t do anything without a man holding some portion of her anatomy and even then she’s incompetent.

    Complicated plots are fine as long as the actions fit whoever the characters are. If your protagonist is prone to leaving her shoes untied, the whole plot that follows makes sense. It doesn’t matter how bizarre the story gets as long as the journey there is logical and fits the characters. Daniel Pinkwater is a master of this. He writes very silly SF/F for 3-6 grade boys. One of his books (can’t remember the title and my house is torn apart right now cause we’re working on moving so I have no idea where that particular book is at the moment) starts out with a simple premise – kid lives in an apartment in the city and his weird great-uncle shows up to stay with them. Within three chapters, he’s on an interstellar journey in an old car and stranded at the alien burger joint. He ends up on a quest for the giant popsicle. Bizarre? Definitely. But the plot flows and makes sense. Pinkwater takes you one baby step at a time down the rabbit hole and into weirdness. I love his books.

  3. September 12, 2011 9:50 am

    Hi Eli🙂 I liked your example from your own work, and your response to ‘why not shoot him on the spot’. I did something similar and got like minded feedback (why is this happening?) and ended up dumping the scene altogether because I didn’t have a good reason.

    I realized what I was doing was playing with plot lines too loose to walk across, and in the process of tightening them my ‘great ideas’ fell to the wayside. ah well. It was fun while it lasted.

    Story killers: I hate it when authors stop the action to explain why their characters did something. This is usually via a conversation inside the character’s head, or via a very dull conversation with a pet rock, or worst of all, via an inexcusable conversation with a bland side kick.

    Alright, I’ll add a confession: I”m reading Lolita right now. I determined on page 1 that the protag was a few decades short of a life sentence, but I didn’t need 300 more pages of his internal reasoning.

  4. September 12, 2011 4:02 pm

    As a reader, I get irritated by “misunderstandings”. If your tensions could be relieved by something that simple, they aren’t as interesting as ones springing from real frictions. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, real pride and prejudice stood in the way of Elizabeth and Darcy getting together not a silly misunderstanding about whether he had slighted her or she was a holy than though.🙂

    • September 12, 2011 4:03 pm

      ack, oops. That’s “she was holier than thou”.

      • JohnP permalink
        September 13, 2011 7:44 am

        Don’t you mean “ack rel”?

        I find my worst story killers in setting a resolving/climax/revealing scene in the wrong place. Once the good guy or bad guy sets the driving demons to rest, the story kind of ends for me like watching a cooling steam engine chug out its last revolutions.

  5. September 13, 2011 5:34 pm

    “Ack rel” is always handy to say when in doubt.🙂

    Like the “cooling steam engine” metaphor.

  6. September 14, 2011 2:52 pm

    Very nice post, Eli.🙂

    Story killers for me are definitely when characters (bad guys in particular) don’t kill the other characters (usually the good guys) on the spot, when they’ve been promising/meaning to/trying for pages and pages. If you need the heroes to survive, there needs to be reeeeeally plausible and with well-set-up-circumstances. Otherwise I want to go HULK SMASH on it.

    (Of course this is one that trips me up in my own writing, as I need to be so careful in how to set up plot and motivations so if people do meet, and they need to survive each other, there is good reason no one just shoots the other character and moves on.)

    Misunderstandings, especially in romantic subplots (or main plots, I guess, though I can’t read much regular romance) or incredibly obvious ‘if they actually talked, there would be no story’ are also story killers that induce spasms of irritation from reader!Merc.

    • September 15, 2011 5:08 pm

      ooh, yes, Merc. And the converse. I hate it when the good guy has the bad guy on the ropes and (you just know it’s because the writer isn’t done with bad guy yet!) lets him get away for a dumb reason.

  7. September 26, 2011 9:55 am

    Since I write contemporary fantasy, the elephant that’s always in the room is ‘why didn’t they call the police?’

    The simplest answer is ‘they didn’t think it was that dangerous,’

    to which the riposte is ‘how dumb are they anyway?’

    I’m dealing with it in more recent works by having the police hire some of my characters.

    • Mishell Baker permalink*
      September 26, 2011 10:53 am

      Depending on your situation, one way around the police thing is to inject a Secret the Authorities Aren’t Supposed to Know. So if someone is missing, but you suspect it might involve aliens, the friendly warlock next door, etc., you may not wish to call the earthly authorities because they’ll either blow the whole thing wide open and cause mass panic, or they will lock you in a rubber room for saying “aliens did it.” Etc.

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