Saturday, 1 March 2014

What Ruins a Story? (Part 1?)

This is one of those funny general topics that I've commented on a whole bunch of times in passing on this blog, but I've never actually taken a step back to talk about it as a whole. I thought about making this one big article on what I consider the best/worst characteristics of storytelling, but that's a huge amount to cover in just one sitting, so for now I'm going to focus on what tends to spoil a story just for me personally. This will be a largely subjective exercise, as I'm sure everyone else will value these points slightly differently, but here are some of the cardinal sins that ruin a good story for me.

First and foremost: inconsistent tone. This is something I commented on in detail when I talked about The Final Empire last year, and that book remains one of my prime examples of how fudging your tone can completely take readers out of a story. When I read books, I like to understand what I'm getting into. I don't mean that in an "I want everything to be predictable and boring" sense, but when you enter into a narrative you need to understand certain rules about how the story is going to work. You don't expect a pie-in-the-face gag half way through Schindler's List, and you don't expect disturbingly harrowing drama while watching a Disney movie. That's because those stories have consistent tones; they let you know what to expect, what to feel, and what frame of mind you need to be in to enjoy them. It's as much in the author's interest as the reader's to establish some grounding expectations about their work, and when those expectations start to conflict with story developments further down the line, you start running into big, big problems.
When you find yourself asking questions like "Wait, why did that happen?" or "How does that make any sense now?" then it's often telling of a divergence in tone or internal logic, often caused by a lazy writer throwing ideas out there without much consideration for their impact on the story. This for me is the worst way a story can be ruined, because it doesn't just disappoint the reader or leave them feeling upset; it kills their emotional investment in the narrative entirely.
I talked as well a year ago about my reaction to the ending of The Hunger Games, and how unsatisfied I was with the direction the author chose to go with that story. However, what happens at the end of Mockingjay is infinitely preferable to what turned me off The Final Empire. My reaction to Mockingjay was an emotional one. I had become invested in the characters and the story, and I cared about them enough that the ending made me even more emotional about how it played out, even if it was in an unsatisfying way. I think I mention in that previous post how I didn't think the ending was necessarily bad or poorly done, but that it simply wasn't appropriate for a series like The Hunger Games. If nothing else, that book at least left me with an emotional response when it finished.
The Final Empire turned me off in a very different way. Because the tone shifted so jarringly a few chapters in it caused all of my emotional investment in the story to evaporate. I put down that book and stopped reading because I just didn't care any more. It was some bizarre blend of silly, cheesy action mixed with the grim and gritty trappings of dark fantasy, a combination that did not mesh at all in my mind. I didn't understand the tone or what kind of mindset I had to approach the story with to enjoy it any more, and it ruined the book for me. While Mockingjay left me upset at the direction of the story, all The Final Empire managed was to make me frustrated with the author.

So! Moving on from my number one pet peeve, another thing that bothers me is when a story becomes tedious and predictable, usually be re-using the same tropes and conflicts over and over again. While I love a well-structured story that hits all the points of pacing like it's been planned out on a spreadsheet, what I don't like is when an author employs the exact same emotional tricks repeatedly and assumes they'll still have just as much impact as the first time around. This falls into the same ballpark of killing a story by means of killing the reader's interest in it. One particular book I've been reading recently is a well-polished, interesting, structurally sound novel that hits all of the right points on paper, but falls into the trap of retelling the same series of events over and over again with a slightly different coating of paint and no evolving emotional context to make them meaningful in the larger narrative.
Generally speaking, the hero and heroine run into a problem (almost always bad guys chasing them), panic, and are then helped out by supporting characters appearing out of the blue and assisting them for a handful of chapters, before disappearing and leaving the two protagonists to repeat the same process all over again like clockwork.
The pacing and writing is usually just fine, and these scenes were gripping the first couple of times around, but after a certain point they started to become tedious, because nothing was changing other than the superficial details. It's the same series of events over and over again, and it quickly becomes tiresome.
The reason I'm not the largest fan of the Game of Thrones series stems from a similar logic (although I should add the caveat that I don't consider those books to be bad at all, just not to my tastes). The way viewpoint characters were used to guide certain elements of the story, and the routinely dismal tone, eventually led me to a place where the "unpredictability" of the story became predictable and tedious, and my emotional investment gradually evaporated until I stopped reading part way through book three.

Phew, this post is already turning into a long one, so I think I'll wrap it up for now! Expect a Part 2 to come at some point, since there's still more stuff I can talk about when it comes to "what ruins a story". The two points mentioned above are definitely a couple of the biggies for me, not necessarily because they're the most damning, but because they're the ones that I usually find cropping up a lot in stories that are otherwise well-told and engaging. There's nothing worse than a story that looks pretty at first glance, only for the blemishes to become more and more apparent as you read on until it spoils the whole thing.

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