There are many ways of writing bad fiction, or at least of including elements of bad fiction within otherwise good stories. This essay is a short walk through my encounters with some books and film.
It seems to be a requirement in Hollywood that all characters willing to fight must be able to take roundhouse kicks to the head, repeatedly – and bounce back, unfazed, for ten more minutes of fighting (or if you are Rocky Balboa, forty minutes). In real life, a single contact with that force lays most people out cold. I can let slide the first couple punches landed in a movie, but thirty seconds in, my eyes are starting to roll.
The antagonist wants the hero dead. After a prolonged battle or hunt, the bad-guy has the protagonist in his cross-hairs. Of course, he pauses to tell the hero all the things that led to this momentous occasion, somehow forgetting that this will give the intrepid hero time to turn the tables. Seriously? There are times when a monologue could be realistic, though probably found in one out of a hundred films and books. One of the few realistic examples is found, ironically, in The Incredibles (yes, a cartoon about superheroes), by explicitly drawing attention to the trope. The villain, Syndrome, has the Incredible family in his grasp, but waxes eloquently about his exploits – nearly allowing Mr. Incredible to get the drop on him. At which point Syndrome famously exclaims, “You caught me monologing!”
Over-fixation on killing the protagonist
Even really good authors fall into this trap. Michael Creighton – an amazing writer – serves as a good example. In his otherwise magnificent Jurassic Park story, dinosaurs apparently consider humans to be the most delicious meal imaginable, passing up easier prey out of deference for human flesh. Juicy, human-filled jeeps are chased for miles. Ever watch a cheetah in a failed attempt to catch an antelope? Muscle fatigue, anyone?
The quiet and self-reliant hero stumbles onto a crime ring that is committing unspeakable atrocities. Of course, he decides to take the organization down by himself – perhaps with help only from his old Special Forces buddies – without thinking of calling the police or FBI. Because…?
Overly predictable story lines (or unpredictable because they are illogical)
A little predictability is good. We want good to triumph over evil, justice to be served, wrongs righted, and love discovered. But unexpected pathways toward those objectives are the life-blood of engaging literature. Bad boy meets good girl – boy reformed by her love. Shoot me now.
Action substituted for plot
If you don’t have much of a story to tell, fill the pages with chase scenes or fights that drag on, and on, and on. This is becoming increasingly prevalent in movies, with the plot being mostly how many ways a punch can be thrown or a car can be wrecked. Peter Jackson, riding on the well-deserved laurels of The Lord of the Rings, produced a watered-down version of the Hobbit by insertion of myriad, protracted fight and chase scenes with eye-rolling stunts, unbelievable even for a seasoned warrior-elf.
Suspension of disbelief, abandoned
A critical aspect of speculative fiction is weaving a sufficiently realistic story line that allows readers to unconsciously set aside their knowledge that aliens probably don’t really exist, magic spells don’t actually work, and travel to distant stars may never happen – the suspension of disbelief. The story loses its charm when a writer fails to keep this in mind, allowing, for example, a regular human character to leap from an overpass onto a speeding car, land unharmed, and punch through the windshield. With even the slightest hint of realism, the jumper is a red streak on the pavement.
Christian fiction has its own special flavors of bad story telling.
Sermons masquerading as novels
There are some who believe that a book branded as Christian must have a salvation message clearly articulated. These typically fall into the category of sermons-masquerading-as-novels. When the protagonist starts quoting chapters of scripture – from memory, of course – the story deflates. Not because of the gospel message, but because of the unrealistic trappings built around it.
Too often, religious protagonists in Christian fiction have no observable faults. They are the stable, gentle, compassionate, kind, caring, discerning, saints, who patiently endure hardships and injustices – always. In other words, they are plastic imitations of real people. Yes, there are real people with wonderful, godly character – but every one of them also has faults. If the faults are hidden, the characters are hollow.
Will my own writing dodge these traps? Fingers crossed!