Story Development, Character Arcs, and Offending the Audience

The greatest stories immerse viewers or readers in worlds that they either choose not to leave or simply cannot escape. Strong storytelling captivates the thoughts, emotions, and imagination of the audience. There are many facets to this experience: strong characters, original stories, the right pace, and believable performances in the case of film or television.

But over the years I’ve found that even the strongest stories can be undermined by certain mistakes or bad choices. In 2013 alone I’ve encountered this multiple times, including Star Trek Into Darkness (still a stupid title) and Season 8 of Dexter. One minute you’re completely immersed in the story that is unfolding in front of you, and the next you’re completely pulled out of it.

In the case of movies, I call this change “seeing the edges of the screen.”

A great movie narrows your field of vision to only what’s happening on the screen you’re watching, no matter how large or small it is. But when you’ve been repulsed enough by a turn of events, you are equally aware of your surroundings and the film. It’s difficult for a viewer or reader to get completely back into the story when he or she has been pushed so far out. It can be done, but the story’s effectiveness may never fully recover.

So what are some of the worst decisions that can repulse the audience? Some of this is personal preference, but I feel as though many will share my same general consensus. Let’s look at the two most important areas: story and character development.

Warning: Spoilers New and Old Ahead.

Crappy Story Developments

There is no single story development that is always bad. No, not even “they were dead the whole time!”

It’s all about keeping the audience along for the ride and making sure they go with the twists and turns you put them through. You don’t want people on your roller coaster falling off when your track makes a loop. You don’t want the audience to stop believing your story at any point.

This includes creating solid rules for your world and then making sure you do not break those rules. The Deus Ex Machina development is a tricky story telling device. If your characters are saved at the last minute, it had better be believable and planted somewhere within your story already. Otherwise, the audience will know that you painted yourself into a corner and had to make something up to get out of it. The last thing you want your audience asking in the middle of seeing a story for the first time is “Why the hell did the writer do this?”

The term “Deus Ex Machina” means “God from the machine” in Latin. It ties back to ancient plays in which stories would be resolved by a god or other heavenly being descending to the stage lowered by a mechanical pulley. The god would then enlighten the characters and save them from their inescapable situation. Audiences were a lot more forgiving back then.

Here’s another pothole in story development: the plot twist.

Often, it seems as though plot twists are thrown into a story simply to catch the audience off guard. But there doesn’t always need to be a twist in every story. Plots can simply progress in unique ways that aren’t always predictable.

The Dark Knight Rises is a great example of forcing a plot twist that actually hurts the story. Why did Miranda Tate have to be Talia al Ghul? Why didn’t they show the truth at the beginning and let it be dramatic irony for Batman? By leaving out the twist, the story would have been stronger as a whole.

Also, if the twist is easily foreseeable, it taints everything leading up to it. A lot of informed moviegoers knew that Khan was in Star Trek Into Darkness. It didn’t make that development any better, but it showed that all the deception was completely unnecessary.

If the twist goes against everything else that has been set up in the movie, it’s easy for an audience member to call it out in the moment and permanently disconnect with the story. This often happens with characters that suddenly reveal themselves to be evil. These characters often act completely “good” until then, making everything they have done nonsensical and cheapening the experience.

Characters Acting Out of Character

The best stories set up their characters as solid, thoroughly-formed people and let their characteristics inform their actions. The longer a character exists, the more complete he or she is in the minds of viewers/readers. A character should always make actions that line up with who he or she is, and this will inform the direction of the story.

If the writer forces the character to do something for the sake of the story going in a specific direction, that character is no longer a person. He or she is a plot point. Want to make a film where the character betrays someone else? Make him or her into a person that would believably take such action.

Keep in mind that changes in personality and motivations are good; this is part of a story arc. However, outside forces or inner changes are needed in or to reshape the character. Therefore, actions that were once out of character are now in character and are stronger in the context of the story.

Let’s compare two TV shows that just ended: Breaking Bad and Dexter.

Breaking Bad is a show devoted to the corruption of its main character, Walter White. As the seasons progress, Walter’s motivations and personality change due to the life he is pursuing. We cannot believe that he would order a hit on someone in the first season, but it is almost natural to expect that by season five. And the show never violates these rules. Characters change, but their actions are in line with the person they are at that moment. The audience is shocked by what is happening, but they are never in disbelief.

On the other hand, Dexter was filled to the brim with characters who were only plot points or obstacles or that strangely acted out of character. I cannot count how many police officers, U.S. Marshals, relatives, and hapless Miami citizens were brought in just to complicate the plot.

Seasons one through four of the show had a strong focus on lead character Dexter’s struggles and changes as his serial killer desires clashed with his growing emotions. Afterward, the direction for his character lost its way along with the focus and quality of the show.

The series finale is a pinnacle of storytelling that does not understand its own characters. Dexter’s motivations and beliefs flip-flop at a rapid pace until the writers make him choose a path that is both out of character and utter nonsense in the context of the show as a whole. Why (and how) would a character who decides to commit suicide decide to save himself from inescapable death? Why would a sociopathic serial killer with a career in forensic pathology and a son decide to abandon his family and become a sad lumberjack? None of it makes sense. The audience isn’t left devastated by this sad turn of events; they are left saying, “That’s stupid.”

If you’re going to make a movie/TV show/novel that is focused on character progression instead of action, stay true to the characters. If you lose them, no amount of crazy action or plot twists will keep your audience committed.

There are many other ways to lose/offend/repulse the audience. But these two are probably the most grievous. I’ll talk about more later.

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One thought on “Story Development, Character Arcs, and Offending the Audience

  1. Pingback: Bad Special Effects, Offensive Violence, and More Pitfalls in Storytelling – Crisis on Infinite Thoughts

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