Writing Skills – Learning What Not to Do

Lots of writing advice encourages you to read books you love, to break them down and find out what makes them work so well, and why you love the story so much.

But what about stories that drive you up the wall?

You can learn just as much from writing you don’t like as you can from writing you do. Learning what not to do is a critical part of the writing process.

For a while, one of my guilty pleasure TV shows was Teen Wolf. Eventually, I had to quit watching for a number of reasons, but the biggest one was that the writing went from “solid” to “more holes than Swiss cheese.”

I learned a lot about what not to do from watching that show, but the most important thing I learned?

Think your story through.

It seemed like the show’s writers had a tendency to solve plot problems only on the surface, without considering the other in-world implications of their chosen solution. And they do this repeatedly, with both characters and plot points.

Example One

In season three, a new character is introduced: Cora Hale. She’s the younger sister of Derek, one of the show’s main characters. This is all well and good, except for one tiny detail.

Derek’s entire family died in a fire six years before the beginning of season one. This is not only a significant piece of backstory; it’s the major motivation for the villain during this season.

It’s never explained how Cora survived the fire, which happened when she would’ve been only 11 years old. It’s never explained how she was captured by the villains (which is how we meet her), or what she’s been doing for the past six years (aside from a vague, handwavey “she was in South America” line). Cora appears for no reason at the beginning of season 3a, and disappears at the end with the same amount of explanation.

This could have been saved if the writers had just taken half an hour to brainstorm why Cora suddenly reappeared. Just asking a few questions would have made her a much stronger character.

Questions like these:

  • Why was Cora with the villains?
  • If she was in South America, why did she come back to California (where the show is set)?
  • Why did she never try to contact Derek? (He wasn’t at the house when the fire happened.)
  • How did she survive the fire that killed the rest of her family?
  • Why did she leave at the end of the season?

Example 2

A chessboard makes an appearance several times during season three.

  1. First, Stiles puts character names on the chess pieces and uses them to explain the supernatural to his dad.
  2. When four characters are looking for the villain of the season, they find the chessboard with Derek’s name on the king. Derek asks why, and they end up finding the villain hiding at Derek’s loft.
  3. In the next episode, Derek gets out his own chessboard and sets it up like it was in Stiles’s room, trying to decode a meaning from it.

So, was there a meaning? Nope, not at all. The writers later said they needed a way to get the characters to Derek’s loft, so they brought the board back and put Derek’s name on the king. That’s it.

To be honest, I’ve done the same thing. Need to get the characters from point A to point B? All right, let’s do C. I’ve used C before! That works.

But here’s the problem with that mentality: It’s lazy. It doesn’t take into account character motivations, and it implies a deeper connection with the symbolism of this object than what actually exists. When these threads are dropped because the story doesn’t need them anymore, it can leave readers and viewers feeling unsatisfied.

When I was writing the first draft of MGG, I had a few sections where Connor, the main character, is thinking about what the antagonist was intending to do with the book she stole. These sections were essentially brainstorming for him, throwing ideas out based on what he knew and what he’d seen. I knew he was wrong, and I knew none of these sections would ever come to anything, but the amount of time I spent on them made it look like they were plot threads.

So, in the second draft? I cut them all out. And honestly, the story was stronger for it.

Again, this issue would have been easily fixed with half an hour of brainstorming and the writers asking themselves questions like:

  • Why would the villain use the chessboard to send a message?
  • How is Derek’s name on the king supposed to mean “hey, go to his apartment”?
  • How could the villain be sure that was the conclusion those characters would draw?

And a bonus one:

  • If you are going to use an item (like the chessboard) multiple times, how can you tie it in as a method of foreshadowing or a piece of symbolism?

The Takeaways

Every character you add to a story should have a reason for being there. Every story-related decision you make should have a reason for being there beyond “it gets characters from point A to point B.”

Even if you don’t explicitly state those reasons, if you as the writer know the answer, it’ll come through in your story.

What’s one of your least favorite stories (be it movie, TV show, or book)? What can you learn from it about what not to do?

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3 thoughts on “Writing Skills – Learning What Not to Do

  1. Reblogged this on The Barenaked Critic and commented:

    I am still here! 😀

    Life’s kind of hit me over the head these past few months, so I haven’t been around as much as I’d like. But here’s my most recent post for the RRFS blog, wherein I combine two of my favorite things: talking about TV shows and talking about writing.

  2. Once Upon a Time. Ugh. It was such a strong, solid show at the start… but they literally threw all their punches in the first season, and then it got renewed, and while season 2 still held up… it just went down the tube in season 3.

    I didn’t watch past maybe the first episode or two of season 3, and it was just so disjointed, and I think the writers literally went “Let’s throw in as MANY DISNEY CHARACTERS AS POSSIBLE.” without actually having a reason for them to be there. Other than, well, monetary ones.

    They also kept waffling on the two main villains, and about whether or not they were going to be good or bad after all, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. Especially when it was just starting to be minor things that would make them turn one way or the other again.

  3. OH TEEN WOLF how I am so glad I stopped watching you. I could easily double this post in length just in these comments, but I will leave that hot mess of terrible writing well enough alone.

    I occasionally (as much as I do love them) have issues with the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe, for those not in the know). Different writers and directors have better grasp on some characters, while not on others. So even though the movies are all in the same “universe,” these characters can sometimes appear disjointed when watching the movies back-to-back.

    Like Steve Rogers, whenever he moves from the realm of his own movies to that of the Avengers–on the surface, he’s pretty much the same guy, but when you start looking at him from a writing/character standpoint, the little inconsistent details start popping up. (Like, his reaction towards Bucky–nigh all-encompassing in the Winter Soldier, and yet, when he’s shown in Age of Ultron, he seems to have passed the bulk of the work of finding Bucky off on Sam Wilson.)

    Or pretty much anything to do with Thor.

    The MCU is really interesting to study from a writing perspective, because of the difficulties and obstacles that they face and how they overcome them. It’s a series of films, all with different writers and directors, working inside of a world made popular with a LONG, LONG history in comics, with tons of fans both coming in already knowing the characters while simultaneously trying to make the films accessible to people who haven’t read the comics at all…

    For the most part, they do pretty well. But yeah, sometimes they fall flat, and that is where I find I learn the most from them. Their mistakes.

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