August 1, 2011

failing to impress

Have you ever sat down to read a book, watch a movie or a television show, or play a video game only to find yourself stopping a quarter of the way through (if you made it even that far)? I have had the misfortune of having this happen several times recently.

I heard decent things about Legend of the Seeker, so I tried watching the first season a few months back. I couldn’t get past the second episode. Not sure what exactly turned me off to it—oh, wait: the goofy looking characters, clich├ęd plot, terrible special effects, and so on so forth. Didn’t care to go on.

My mother bought me Epic Mickey for Christmas last year. It was a game that I desperately wanted. All the news leading up to the release, including pre-release play reviews, said that Epic Mickey would be a revolutionary game, unsurpassed in graphics, story, and gameplay. Sorry Epic Mickey, but I couldn’t get past the first few levels. It was so boring and tedious, with no real end objective, and sorry to say, but the graphics were nothing special. Didn’t care to keep playing.

Anyone who is familiar with the steampunk world knows that The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling is a must read. Apparently, it embodies the essence of steampunk. Well, let me be perfectly honest. I stopped reading it. Again, boring, tedious, and without any real end goal. I had no idea where the story was headed, and I had no reason to care about the characters.

Another novel, Mainspring by Jay Lake, had a great premise—a clockwork earth, driven by a mainspring in the center. I suffered through the first few chapters, all the way to the midpoint. Again, boring, tedious, and the end goal is such a lofty, distant thing, it’s likely that the main character will never get there. On top of that, I couldn’t take the book seriously. This clockwork earth comes with a clockwork religion, complete with the Brass Christ and his teachings. That in itself turned me off to the book. Firstly, because I couldn’t decide if the author was trying to be serious or satirical—never good. But, the boringness of it is what initially turned me off to it.

A couple of years ago, I bought the Nintendo DS game Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. I have been a fan of the Kingdom Hearts franchise since the first game came out back in 2002. I figured that 358/2 Days would be just as brilliant as the others. I made it to Day 119 before I put it down and didn’t pick it back up until this weekend. (I was really, really bored, and with nothing else to do, I figured I’d give it another try. I’m pleased to say that the story picked up, and I’m semi-enjoying it now—except for the cramped thumbs, blisters, and tingling pinky fingers. The DS is the worst platform for a button intensive game—358/2 Days doesn’t even use the stylus.) As with my other examples: boring, tedious, no clear end goal.

There is a pattern here.

Stories—media other than books are stories too—should not be boring, tedious, or without a clear end goal. These stories are (in my opinion) bad. There is a reason that publishers, agents, and the like say that you need to hook your readers in the beginning. However, I think that too many writers (for whatever medium they prescribe to) take this to mean: hook your reader and then bore them to death. They’ll stick with the story because you hooked them in the beginning. Wrong.

I have a friend that watched Rio—that movie about birds—and she turned it off like thirty minutes in. (I haven’t seen the movie, so take this with a grain of salt) She said that the basic structure was: Something happened! Nothing happens……….. Something happens! Nothing happens………… Whoever wrote the story had events at the prescribed key moments in a film, but nothing in between.

The rule in film is that something must change within the first fifteen to thirty minutes of a film, at the halfway point, and within the last fifteen to thirty minutes of a film. That doesn’t mean that nothing else should happen in between those points. Stories should always have an end goal—not just the overall end goal, but an end goal for each scene, each chapter, and each act. There must be events through the course of a scene/chapter/act/story leading to each end goal. Without that, you have a meandering story where nothing seems to happen.

As an example: Epic Mickey failed to impress me because after Mickey is sucked into the magical world of paint, thinner, and forgotten things, there is no real goal after that. Yes, we need to escape this place, and we should probably defeat the evil mad scientist that just tried to kill us, but what else? The point of the game was to highlight the controls—painting and thinning objects in the game world. The point was not to tell a great story. The main character was going through the actions with a half-imagined plot (escape) and doing so tediously. There was no reason for me to care about Mickey’s plight.

The Difference Engine also lacked clear, definite goals for the main characters. Even halfway through the novel, I had no idea where the story was going, and not in a oh-I-have-to-keep-reading-to-find-out sort of way, but a god-this-is-really-boring-something-happen-already sort of way. Same with Mainspring, and with 358/2 Days. Nothing happened. There was no escalation toward a goal, no clear purpose to the story.

Yes, the writer hooked me enough to have me by the book, but at what cost. I will tell everyone that I know how terrible of a book The Difference Engine was. Same with Mainspring. Word of mouth spreads fast. The people that read my blog will now know that both these books aren’t very good, and then they’ll turn and tell someone else that they heard it was bad, who will turn and tell someone else… so on so forth.

I did say that 358/2 Days turned out to be a decent game, but you know how many people I’ve told over the past two years what a terrible game it was? A lot.

It just goes to show that no matter how good a story is in the beginning or in the end, if it fails to deliver at any point in the narrative, it’s going to have negative effects.

So the point: when you write, make sure you aren’t concentrating on hooking your readers only. Make sure you write a good book from beginning to end, and with every scene in between. Be sure to give your characters solid goals for each scene/chapter/act, and for gods’ sake, don’t write tedious travel vignettes.

What are some books/movies/games that you stopped reading/watching/playing because there was no reason to continue?


  1. I accidentally started watching Seeker a year or two back when it was on a marathon...I thought it was SUPPOSED to be a campy, corny bit of popcorn cinema. When I figured out it actually took itself relatively seriously, I stopped watching :P GREAT points about losing the reader after the hook!

  2. I agree, especially about Difference Engine because I had to force myself through that one. If it was a must-read, it had to get better, right? (My issues with Difference Engine are issues I have with a lot of hard SF, that the story is designed to show off the science, to the detriment of anything else.)

    I completely understand how something that fails for one person will be fantastic for another, but … yeah, boring fiction is a bad thing. I'll stop reading or watching something when it loses track of the plot, and I'll stop read or watching when it gets predictable too. I want to be surprised!

    You want a list of things I've stopped? Don't have one. I by and large forget the boring stuff because it's … boring.

  3. I think what makes me stop read/watching the quickest is something that's just so boring because it's so cliche or poorly written. You know, the same old, same old. Or on TV, just plan stupid and unrealistic.

    When the reader/viewer has so much to choose from, why waste time on something that's not awesome?

  4. Thanks ladies for the comments :)

    Rowenna, that was my problem. It probably would have been a lot better had it intended to be campy. ;)

    Anassa, I totally agree. I don't mind the uber-detailed science in hard SF, as long as it's balanced with characters and plot. The problem with Difference Engine was the fact that it didn't really focus on the science either. It had all the mumbo jumbo for flavor, but nothing more. It just feels like empty words. "I'm going to talk about sciencey stuff, just because..."

    Susan, I totally agree. Usually the cliche and poorly written aspects go hand in hand.

  5. You kids nowadays. When I was your age, we played video games to get the high score, not to watch an interactive movie!

    *shakes cane*

  6. I read "Wizard's First Rule" a while back, and while it, and the next two books after, were wonderful, but the 4th...totally failed to impress me. Enough so that I don't want to bother with the series. Disappointing, for sure. It's like...once writers give out this bag of tricks (and too early), the story loses its flavor. Ahh well, I can't feel too bad. I just move on to the next one!