Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

Actually, Yes, You Can Overdo It

Some time ago, jongibbs gave some examples of "bad writing advice": advice one has heard from professional or reputable sources which one has chosen not to take to heart. Writers love to write about writing, and the world is full of advice on how to do it. Some of that advice is not particularly good. As is Mr. Gibbs' won't, he solicited his readers for additional examples.

I didn't think of any at the time, but this morning's sythyry reminded me of one the tidbits of advice I don't care for.

For those not following sythyry, why not? Go read it now! Start at the beginning! Or start with today's, it's all good the last few entries had led some readers (or at least, me) to think Horrible Things would happen in this one, and the actual events were less dramatic and doomy than anticipated. I liked this! It was surprising, plausible, and sensible.

It was not an example that followed the writing advice I dislike. That advice goes about like this: "Imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen to your protagonists. Now make it worse! No, even worse than that! Worse still! There, now once you've made it twice as bad as that, it'll be acceptable to write."

I will concede that I, and many other fledgling writers, could benefit from following this advice to some degree. I know I'm too nice to my characters.

But this trope annoys me quite a bit, especially in film and TV shows. There, I'll see these long destructive spirals of "take his job/kill his wife/frame him for the murder/kidnap his daughter/imprison him in a death camp/torture him for months/cook his pet goldfish", etc. Then, when all seems hopeless, the protagonist miraculously rises up against the whole world which has turned against him, and somehow manages to win.

The problem for me is mostly in that "miraculously" and "somehow". Because after a scriptwriter has tormented his protagonist for an hour and a half, I'm not so much buying the miraculous victory any more. Instead, I'm thinking things like "Shouldn't he act, y'know, traumatized by all that trauma?" and "if he could manage to get out of the alligator-ringed acid pool deathtrap with sheets of fire shooting over it, why couldn't he manage not getting caught and thrown into it in the first place?"

When an author does this really well, then I'll be impressed by the cleverness of the protagonist in turning the situation around. But it's far more often that I am rolling my eyes at the massive levels of plot immunity, coincidence, and contrivance needed to get the protagonist into and out of this mess. Even when it's done brilliantly, that Daring Last Second Escape is still a trope of every single action movie ever. It was great the first time! Maybe the first ten or even a hundred times. But I'm on the thousandth iteration now, and I'm quite willing to give it a miss in favor of a Daring Escape from the Guards Before They Get Back to the Impregnable Death Fortress. No, really. You don't have to crank it up to 11. I can hear just fine at 3 or 4.

I don't want to be too hard on this trope, because I'm guilty of it too at times. But I do believe that it's oversold, and that you can craft a good story without constantly upping the amounts of torment and horror that you inflict upon your lead characters.
Tags: writing about writing
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