Five Ways To Kill Audience Satisfaction

Being a writer tends to taint your experiences of film, TV or novels, albeit in a way which can improve your own work.  While absorbing fiction, I'll inevitably analyse why I'm enjoying, or especially not enjoying, a story.  Finding faults can be brilliantly instructive, in terms of avoiding the same mistakes - provided, of course, that it's not simply an issue of taste.  You don't learn much from not enjoying a gangster film, for instance, if you don't particularly care for the genre.

Here are five of the mental notes I've made over the years, while trying to work out why some stories leave you feeling instinctively dissatisfied.  There's no exact formula for making audiences happy, with that indefinable sense of 'fiction fullness', but we can certainly try to avoid these pitfalls...

I've seen this happen in two horror films in the last three months alone.  The protagonist has been established, then between half and two-thirds of the way through the story, new people turn up.  Key distinction here: these characters aren't newly-introduced incidental characters like gas station attendants or waiters.  No, they're behaving like protagonists.  To all intents and purposes, they are protagonists.  In fact, in both of the films I saw they were Good Guys, on a (rather late) mission to rescue people from Bad Guys.  This feels instinctively wrong, as if the writer has only just arbitrarily decided to throw them into the story - or she's become bored with the protagonist's plight, or even the protagonist themself, since these Newcomers are behaving like heroes.  At the very least, they should have been seeded into Act One.  But even then, there's a potentially fatal snag when...

Yes, if those Newcomers actually do manage to sort stuff out, that's unsatisfying to say the least.  We want to see those Original Protagonist deal directly with the threat they've been facing - it's no good, watching them rescued or helped by magically materialising outside forces.  This is mainly because the OP has had the longest journey.  They've been through the most hardship and are ideally the least equipped to deal with the main problem or threat.  So their eventual triumph over adversity is bound to be the most entertaining.  We're rooting for them to overcome all... so if someone else does it for them, we're deflated like a cheap air-bed.

Sometimes, often in TV drama, the protagonist needs to be instrumental in solving someone else's predicament.  I recently watched an episode of an otherwise good drama series from a few years back, in which our regular protagonist tried to help a guest character overcome their terrible problem.  Come the final scenes, it felt very much as though the guest character would have overcome it anyway, without the protagonist's help.  Needless to say, this was deeply unsatisfying, and could so easily have been fixed.  So here's a good question to ask yourself: if your protagonist was air-lifted clean out of this plot, would the whole story collapse?  If not, you've got real problems and need to carry out some surgery.

Sure, we'll swallow the occasional small coincidence in a story.  Two friends bump into each other in a big city?  Okay, we'll buy that.  Fine.  When coincidence plays a major role in the story later on, though - that's when our brows furrow, we become restless and suddenly we can hear The Wheels Of Plot grinding and creaking (more on that in a moment).  Plot should be a big chain of events, each of which follows logically on from preceding events, so that we understand and sympathise with how this story developed in a logical fashion.  Attempt to serve plot with a great big coincidence and you run the very real risk of that chain's links flying apart.  It's like hurling a basketball at a domino which stubbornly refuses to topple onto the next.  Here's a useful general rule: we're much more likely to accept a coincidence which gets the hero into trouble, than one which gets them out of it.

This is especially dangerous in the more fantastic genre fare.  Real-world drama has an in-built set of rules.  We know that world and so it needs less explanation.  If we're in a heightened, supernatural, fantastic or otherwise unfamiliar world, though, we need to know the rules.  This doesn't mean we have to be force-fed them, Fight Club-style, in the first 10 minutes.  They should be ladled on throughout, with the artfulness also reserved for character detail and general colour.

Why are the rules important?  Because if we don't know the rules, it's likely that we're unclear on the nature of the threat faced by our protagonist.  What are the stakes?  What's the worst thing that can happen in this story and world?  If our protagonist is a ghost, can they actually die in any meaningful sense?  If we don't know what they stand to lose, we're far less engaged and liable to switch off altogether.

Now, this one's interesting, because it certainly isn't always a mistake.  If characters didn't do stupid things, they wouldn't get themselves into the scrapes and conflict demanded by all good drama.  So many stories - so many 'inciting incidents' - are launched by characters doing stupid things.  Drama practically demands foolishness, folly and flaws.  But here's where the Creaking Wheels Of Plot come back into play.  If characters do stupid things because, for instance, the film would be over if they didn't, that's when the writer feels our wrath.  We hear the Creaking Wheels Of Plot and it's a terrible noise, reminding us that this is just a figment of someone's imagination and a clunky figment at that.  The spell is broken.

I've been deliberately vague about the other fiction to which I've alluded, but can give you a precise example of this one, which will give you a mild spoiler for the otherwise excellent horror film Wolf Creek.  About two-thirds of the way through, a protagonist (there are three in this film, which is one of its many strokes of genius) escapes the evil antagonist's house.  She then goes back inside, and for the first time, we hear the infernal din of those Creaking Wheels.  It's the film's sole flaw.  Incidentally, I'm giving you this example because I once interviewed its director Greg McLean as a journalist and put the criticism to him.  Here was his response: "Guilty! Absolutely. Without giving too much away, there's no reason in the world why she'd do that. What the fuck is she doing? I watch it and I go, 'Mmmm... okay'."

Needless to say, I've generalised throughout.  Rules are made to be broken, and all that, but I think it's best to have very good reasons for breaking the majority of the above.

What about you?  What regularly disconnects you from fiction and/or leaves you instinctively dissatisfied?  Tell us about it, in the comments below.

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Iain Coleman said...

Amplifying a little on coincidence: like character stupidity, people will accept this more readily as part of the setup than as part of the later plot (or worst of all the resolution). The story kicks off because two people happen to sit next to each other on the same plane? Fine. I'll go along with that. The central conflict is resolved because two people happen to sit next to each other on the same plane? That DVD's getting chucked out the window.

Guy Lambert said...

Another great read, thanks

Tony Foster said...

Smashing read, thanks. One big killer that never fails to make me shout at the screen is: "Your research is showing!". Lengthy technical discourse between two actors, one desperately trying to ignore the lectern in the room, and the other whose sole existence is to add 'why?' and 'what then?' to the equation is lab-coat laziness in the extreme. Whatever stodgy science-food might be integral to the plot, why not find an original way to deliver it? (take Dickie Attenborough's cheesy theme park ride in Jurassic Park, for example)

Elyse said...

What bugs me on many shows is the lack of research. With Google and cellphones, there's really no excuse for some quick research. It really bugs me when I see medical procedures done horribly wrong - esp. when that procedure is a key point in saving a life. And bad editing, or horrible cuts to commercials before the character can even finish a word. I used to watch a lot of TV but now don't due to bad writing, bad research and well, they keep remaking tv shows and movies. Seen 'em! ;)

Jason the TVaholic said...

I very much agree with the five things you mentioned, but wanted to add something in regards to number four. Even more annoying to me than not having clearly defined rules, is when something happens or a character does something that conflicts with the rules that have been established for a show. As soon as "that would never happen" pops in your head, you are pulled right out of the moment and will soon be left with that less than satisfied feeling.

jouni kekkonen said...

i agree with you. but there's one thing that bothered me; you didn't give any examples except for wolf creek. like you were afraid of a lawsuit or something :) exaples would've helpet because even though i agreed with you, i couldn't think of any examples other than the new freddy movie. the first part apply to that one. actually... i just thought of one. sucker punch. it doesn't really fall under any of those five things you mentioned but the ending is unsatisfying because the movie is about the girls escaping, they fail, so the movie is pointless. an ending like that could work in some other story but not in that one.

Jason Arnopp said...

Thanks all, for your kind words and thoughts on this topic!

Jouni: Glad you liked the blog - thanks! I didn't give more examples for two reasons. Firstly, it would be unprofessional of me to criticise other writers' work in a public forum. In the case of Wolf Creek, I'd already put that criticism to the writer/director in person, so it felt okay. Secondly, I think it's the general principles which are important here, rather than exact instances of them.

Mark Ellwood said...

I get tired of finding out that the inside guy has turned bad. The first three Mission Impossible movies had variations of this, as did a number of other action / heist films in recent years.

Are we really to believe that someone who has loyally served the team or organization all these years now decides that he has had enough and is going to get what he is due by cheating the team?

It's a cheap plot twist. We are meant to say, "Wow, who would have thought that he was actually the bad guy?"

Thematically, perhaps it is meant to reflect disillusion with organizations - loyalty is no longer rewarded.

Nonetheless, I see it far too often in films.

Anonymous said...

The Third Man, one of the greatest movies of all time, completely refutes your way #1.

greensville said...

Great artical Mr! Characters doing stupid things always takes me out of the moment too. Surely, with a bit of canny drafting the same result can be achieved by the writer, just with a more credible reason for the character's actions.

Jeff C. said...

I find that horror films break rule #4 the most often, because it usually breaks down like this:
1. Characters meet threat.
2. The threat's weakness is discovered by characters.
3) The characters use the weakness to (seemingly) destroy the threat
4) Turns out that doesn't work and the threat kills everyone right before end credits. Why did I watch?

Jason Arnopp said...

Thanks for these comments, guys!

Anonymous: as I said in the blog, rules are made to be broken. There will always be very notable exceptions.

Beau said...

I agree with you on the rules. Especially in any sort of mystery. When we don't know the rules or when they are changed - it is very tiresome.

rainestorm said...

While I appreciate your not wanting to offend, by not citing specific examples of these issues your reader has no frame of reference for comparison.

Still good info to keep in mind.

Jamie Helton said...

I agree with those who pointed out that more examples are needed to support your opinions. It's not unprofessional to use the work of others to make your point unless you're doing it simply to tear down a competitor's work. Once a movie is made, it is a stand-alone piece that a collaborative effort between writer, director, cast, and crew. Sometimes elements don't work despite the best intentions of all involved. Professional criticism is not just finding fault, but objectively examining the artistic merits and craftsmanship from the point of view of one who is involved in said art and craft. Yes, the principals pointed out here are important and I agree with most of what you said, but it feels like there isn't enough depth to the points simply because I don't have a frame of reference. I can try to fill in the blanks (such as the remake of "Friday the 13th" featured an entire cast that was killed off in the first 20 minutes, only to be replaced with the real protagonists that late in the film), but otherwise I'm left wondering if your points are actually valid because I don't know which films they can be attributed to.

Firstly, it would be unprofessional of me to criticise other writers' work in a public forum. In the case of Wolf Creek, I'd already put that criticism to the writer/director in person, so it felt okay. Secondly, I think it's the general principles which are important here, rather than exact instances of them.

The DRQ said...

I'd like to add/comment on "The Rules of The World" Rule. Personally, it is more frustrating to me when the rules seem to change from the first movie to the sequel. I'm not counting "reboots" or "remakes", the rules are free to change there, but the examples that come to mind are Mission Impossible 2 and Men In Black 2 (I'll give examples because I don't get to interview the directors). In these two movies the main protagonists went from seemingly normal(ish) people to super-powered people. Ethan Hunt spent the first M:I surviving by wits and pure luck, to being Some kind of John Rambo in M:I2. A small quibble in the long run, but it took me out of M:I2 COMPLETELY. As for Men In Black; okay, it's a world where anything can happen, but The MIB were just basically cops with amazing technology, and in The sequel were suddenly able to do "Matrix" style attacks.

Great article by the way; My first read of yours :)

The Former 786 said...

Great list. I roll my eyes when I see most of these examples in a movie.

Another pet peeve of mine is when a problem would be easily solved with communication, but no one is communicating! Characters will say things like "There's no time to explain!" or "I can't tell you what's wrong." even though a simple explanation would help everyone out and probably prevent future problems/confusion.

If there's a genuine reason the character can't divulge information to another character, then that's understandable, but if you're just withholding information so that the plot can continue, it's not a very good plot to begin with.

Sisiutil said...

Regarding anonymous and The Third Man: I would contend that it doesn't break rule #1.


Harry Lime is a central character in the movie long before he eventually appears. His actions (and supposed death) are the central focus for the main characters. This is quite different from a previously unmentioned character showing up out of the blue, deus-ex-machina style, in the final moments.

Thanks for the article, a very good read indeed.

James Ian McKenzie said...

Counter-example for #2: Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Anonymous said...

Wow, great list! I will add a pet peeve of my own. And it's something that has become very popular in the last ten or fifteen years: when a movie begins with a very exciting, suspenseful, or shocking scene, then we see the words "3 Days Earlier" or something to that effect, and we spend most of the movie wondering how things will get to the scene we saw at the beginning. It's done well sometimes, such as in Goodfellas. But often, it's very obviously done as an artificial way to hook an audience. J.J. Abrams is a bastard for this, since practically every episode of Alias and his contribution to the Mission: Impossible series began like this. But to me, the worst culprit is the George Clooney movie "Michael Clayton". Rather than let the story unfold in such a way that we only gradually learn there is an actual threat to this man's life, we immediately see his car getting blown to bits in the opening scene, and we sit through nearly two hours to see it again. The film would have been much better had I not known from the first minute what kind of trouble this guy was getting into. I find it's a cheap, lazy way to grab people's attention. How about learning how to write a good story that doesn't need to rely on such tricks to be entertaining?

Anonymous said...

I typically try to not be too critical but there are two movies that made me want to run screaming from the theater. I won't call them out by name but I think most people will figure it out.

The first being a movie from several years ago with three leads and a remaining cast of average actors. I had figured out who the bad guy was before the intro credits had finished. The legendary star was clearly the hero. The legendary female lead was clearly his support and the third, the only other well known actor, was clearly the villain. My date argued that I was wrong and to watch the whole movie. At the end, when it wrapped up as I had predicted he just groaned. If you are going to make a movie with a hero, damsel and villain, please flesh out the cast with some equally well known people to mask the bad guy or make him/her an unknown. It was too predictable.
The second involves a horror-esque movie that had ADHD. If you want to make a monster movie. Pick A monster, not a squidish thing, a bugish thing, a birdish thing and an alien version of a land strider. Pick one and go with it. I also understand you wanting to make me empathize with the cast who are in peril from your random assortment of monsters; however, having them hold flashlights to the glass when the bugish thing are, as most bugs, attracted to light so that they smash into the glass just makes think the cast gets what it deserves. That is enhanced by the same cast, now being bombarded by these bug things that have broken through the glass because they were attracted to the light, injuring themselves and their surroundings when they attempt to kill the bug things by dunking mops in gas, lighting them on fire and swinging them madly at the bug things in an attempt to kill them. As I sat there glaring at my date (he picked the movie) over dinner afterwards I calmly explained that simple math would have made the desperate protagonists murder/suicide solution at the end more viable instead of watching him cry after he killed his companions and child and had no remaining bullets.

Anonymous said...

These are all great, but some times neither the original protagonist nor the added-later-in-the-film protagonist solve the problem. Just a thought. Not everything has to be a happy ending- sometimes I even prefer a bleaker, more realistic ending.

Anonymous said...

The one thing that is usually a deal breaker for me is when there is not one member of the cast that has any redeeming qualities. It doesn't have to be the main protagonist, but if I can't sympathize or connect with any of the main characters, I couldn't care less what happens to them. If all the characters are unlikable, who are you supposed to root for?

Larry said...

Great list. Really, the article should be expanded with specific examples. Don't be hesitant. You're a professional writer and this is the type of article that neophyte writers need to help them shape their fiction.

One of my biggest movie pet peeves is when the plucky love interest involves herself in dangerous situations, but only serves to make the hero's job all that more difficult. I noticed this recently while re-watching Cliffhanger. Janine Turner decides to assist Sylvester Stallone up on the mountain. Unfortunately, while she's there, she doesn't contribute a damn thing. Mostly, she just makes makes noise and argues with him. And when he suggests that she go for help, she rejects that idea. "I'm going with you." And then she finally gets taken hostage in the most stupid way possible. Why go through all the trouble of creating a strong female character is you're only going to use her as a plot device later. (In other words, if she's going up on the mountain, make her a mountain climber. If she's a helicopter pilot, why not give her a heroic scene in a helicopter.)

Fiona Kelleghan said...

It would be "unprofessional" of you "to criticise other writers' work in a public forum"? Sir, I urge you to become acquainted with writer/reviewer John Clute's manifesto of "Excessive Candor." In that view, it is unprofessional and timorous of you NOT to give examples and call 'em like you see 'em. "Judge not, lest ye be judged" helps writers and their work in no way. We who love fiction and film can only strengthen them with a policy of critical honesty. I enjoyed your column, but the lack of examples ultimately killed my satisfaction.
All best to you!
Fiona Kelleghan
Miami, Florida

Jason Arnopp said...

Thanks for the new comments and suggestions, folks! Thanks to a link from the homepage, this is by far my most-read blog ever.

Lady Kelleghan: I thank you for swinging by, and for your thoughts, but to brand me unprofessional for not publically criticising my peers is ludicrous. Unlike you, I'm neither an academic nor a critic. I'm a scriptwriter. Would you criticise the work of other academics and critics in public?

Furthermore, I maintain that I'm hardly discussing complex algebra here - these are easy enough concepts to grasp without naming and shaming. I thank you, though, because I feel another blogpost brewing on scripters who publicly criticise the work of others! See you back here, same time next week?

Fiona Kelleghan said...

Hi, Jason!
First, let me apologize for my mean-spirited phrase "the lack of examples ultimately killed my satisfaction" - I was being a smart-ass. No, an ass, and not smart.

I also admit that I have known personally only a few scriptwriters (I will be happy to name them, sweetheart!), and now that I've had time to think about it, there may be a big difference between how you and your fiction-and-film peers interact ... and how I interact with the fiction writers whom I interview and review.

I sincerely apologize, as I really don't know the life, acquaintanceships, and stresses of any scriptwriter (except for my boyfriend and a few of his film-maker friends), so, in that view, I was being unkind as well as ignorant.

A glance at the IMDb shows that you are multi-talented. Yay, go you!

I still do urge you to look up John Clute's "excessive candor" manifesto. It's scary! But at the very least, you might get another article out of it.

You asked me, "Would you criticise the work of other academics and critics in public?"

Well, yes, of course, I've done that, and not for payment.

Naturally, I'd rather rave-review the books of friends of mine, but I can't always. And sometimes it hurts! To give an example (I'm really NOT being snarky), I wrote an article on Jack Ketchum, the horror writer. I interviewed him, I quoted him exactly, and when I sent him the finished essay, he said, politely, that I was free to write what I wanted, even though I hadn't exactly captured his own reasons for writing what he writes.

I begged him to clarify, so that I could correct; but he insisted that I write what I thought. It hurts to know that what I wrote will be considered gospel, either because Jack was a gentleman or because he didn't mind if I got in trouble later. Yow!

John Clute, now. He was talking (mostly) about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. And it is in these fields that I am well-known as a reviewer, critic, and interviewer.

Those three sub-genres of fiction and film enjoy a smallish circle of writers, who tend to be friends.

Clute's point was that, just because we might be a friend of the next person's book we review, we should NOT rave about it, unless it deserves a rave.

And if the novel is sub-par, it behooves everybody in the field to call those shots, even if it means you don't get to share a dinner at the next convention or conference, or whatever.

Jason, I would love to chat with you more, because after your reply, you seem like a brave guy who has a lot of great ideas, principles, and ... you seem like a man who would be fun to chat with over the dinner table.
Fiona Kelleghan
South Miami

Jason Arnopp said...

Hello again Fiona! Thanks for your kind and gracious reply. Apology fully accepted, and no offence was taken in the first place. No harm in a bit of playful debate! And yes, perhaps we may one day get to continue it in person. Have a great day.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right - but my pet peeve, is setting the mood in a horror/thriller movie, by having everything dark. man walks into room switches on lights - multiple lamps are lit but the room is still dark. Just watched a movie Where he had 7 count em 7 lamps in a small room all with 5 watt light bulbs. Really!!! If your story is not good enough to set the mood, making the house dark does not help. One of the scariest things I've ever seen happened in full daylight (Sept 11).

The Liz said...

I think there's a point where you strain a persons 'suspense of disbelief' too far. The Movie i'm thinking of is Wanted. I don't know if it's based off a comic or book, it definitely had the FEEL of a poor movie adaptation of a more fully fleshed out world.
I was willing to accept, okay, they can defy physics by curving bullets and surviving otherwise lethal car accidents, and they never get arrested despite causing massive destruction to civilians and property. (That's pretty much standard in any action movie now) but when they explained WHY they did it, (spoilers redacted) I found myself completely unable to keep enjoying the film. They strained my credibility too far, and left too many logical questions unexplained. (Who developed the code? How did they prove it was omnipotent?)
Ultimately what disappointed me as a writer is that they had this HUGE opportunity to explore the conflict between the fact that just because someone is allied with Fate does not make them immune to it. Instead, no, they just kept going with the 'I gotta get revenge on this guy' bluh, no additional noble intentions, boring same old plot line.
I still LIKE the movie, but I hate seeing so much wasted potential. I feel that way a LOT with movies lately. they run out of time and we're RUSHED to a climax that feels neither natural nor paced. Just BOOM! Go kill stuffz naow! I miss films that tell an actual story.

Unknown said...

I'm finding it harder to like films these days, as you say, since becoming a writer. I remember thoroughly enjoying Con-Air when it first came out, it was what I thought was a quality action movie, a cut above the norm. It had John Cusack for a start, as well as a beefed-up Cage, John Malkovich, and then there's Buscemi, Gainey, Trejo, Meaney, Rhames; all people who rarely disappoint. Then I watched it a few days ago. Las Vegas is a small city surrounded by desert, with an international airport with several runways. There is no reason Swamp Thing (Gainey) had to 'land on the strip'. The inside guy had to be given a gun by Colm Meaney's character after the pat-down; a pat-down that didn't reveal the rather chunky tape-recorder he carried. Then there's Meaney's car landing right next to him. And the number plate being to hand for the punchline. Then there's two police motorbikes being left pointing the right way, with keys, and both male leads sharing an unspoken bond and leaping on them, because both knew motorbikes were the best way to stop a fire engine... and where did Swamp Thing get his WWII army helmet???
Watching it again made me think "This script got approved, and millions of dollars were thrown at it to make the film." People in charge of incredible sums of money read THAT and said "They'll like that" and as a younger man I did. It made me wonder what I was doing, when I iron out the parts of my scripts I think people will shake their heads at in disbelief. When I carefully think through a situation to come up with a sequence of events both entertaining and realistic. Is there any point, when the biggest films in terms of sales are the ones that appeal to shall we say 'less-discerning people'? Or is there a genius in Con-Air, beyond the casting, that I can't tap into? Should I keep trying to write the perfect story or churn out a bunch of improbably-plotted explosion-fests and see if they float? Actually, dreading finding out that that's what I write anyway.