Friday, June 13, 2014

You Have Been Disqualified

This happens in episodic television enough for me to notice, but it also works with any franchise.

Or maybe I should say doesn't work. Because I'm thinking of a story-killer. Something that takes your reader out of the story, moves him/her to close the book, then throw it out the nearest window.

A friend mentioned a TV series I do not watch and described something the heroes does which is revolting. I won't tell you which show, so I'll describe something similar.

Do you remember in Huckleberry Finn, where Huck is describing a steamship accident? A boiler exploded, but "nobody was killed except for a couple n------s." At that time, using the n-word was as common and as accepted in the South as it is between black people today. However, were I to use that word in this post even for illustrative purposes, it would attach a taint to everything else I might write.

Suppose you're watching a story and the hero sort of cavalierly suggests killing the black guy to advance the plot. You'd be outraged and you'd rightly disqualify everything else the writer had to say. In my friend's case, she's a cat person, and the TV show rather callously dispatched a feline. Now, my friend hates the show.

When you write something that is a disqualifier, you convert your readers from either a fan or someone who's indifferent into an enemy. If you want to turn me from a fan of your TV show into an enemy, dishonestly or ignorantly malign Christianity. For my friend, it is cruelty to cats.

A fan will say "yeah but" when someone points out something stupid in a story. I watched a lot of really crappy Star Trek Next Gen episodes, because I was such a fan of the franchise. And my wife would point out how stupid things were, and I'd say, "yeah but." I had this lingering love for the Star Trek franchise that caused me to make excuses.

My friend, on the other hand, is now an enemy of the show. It can't do anything right. Every weakness in the writing is a glaring omission to her. When you hate something, anything and everything associated with it gets seen in the worst possible light.

Suppose you don't care that Third-World Bohemian Have-Nots hate your story. Then you can go ahead and malign them in your writing.

If they cannot generate sympathy for their cause, they make a great punching bag. That's why Christian businessmen are great villains. Everyone knows, or knows of, a Christian who's been a jerk toward someone. Don't believe me? Three words: Westboro Baptist Church. And nobody feels sympathetic towards businessmen, unless they're the victims of bigger businessmen. (E. g. Old Man Potter in It's a Wonderful Life would be a sympathetic figure if someone opened a Walmart at the edge of Bedford Falls.)

But in the main, you want nobody to hate your story.

Trouble with that is many writers are oblivious to the things they write which disqualify. If you aren't a cat person, you may not appreciate how passionately a reader will react when you feed tabby to a monster. OK, then we'll just feed the black guy to the monster. Right?

Last week I saw a Bollywood movie, Kambakkht Ishq wherein Sylvester Stallone makes a cameo appearance in the 3rd reel. The scene is a satisfying actioner: The guy drives into the wrong neighborhood and is stopped and threatened by toughs. A fight ensues and he tells the girl to run. Despite having done a great job in the first two reels of literally cutting up Akshay Kumar, she runs and screams. The bad guys give chase with bad intent. Until they run into Sly who proceeds to beat the bad guys senseless.

Though the girl's flight and rescue is quite acceptable to an Indian audience, I can imagine my feminist friends' heads exploding. The girl is helpless? She is potential victim in need of rescue? Disqualified!

I know a fellow in my writers' group who is perpetrating a perfect trifecta of suck. He has a story with an unsympathetic protagonist. This guy is a tormented captive, but he responds in a weak and passive way. And then gets rescued. And then he turns into a woman. And then gets captured and tormented again...

Wait. HE TURNS INTO A WOMAN? What's with that? And then gets raped? And doesn't undergo any sort of character development? Oh, and did I say the story has all kinds of vaguely wrong biblical symbology?

What editor in this or any century, in this or any world would say, "I think this will sell."?

There are certain expectations one brings to a protagonist. They don't kill babies or innocent animals. They don't passively go along with victimization.

The story was laughably flawed to begin with, but once the protagonist changed sexes, the ick factor took over. Maybe, a writer who is a transexual could pull this character off, but not a straight white man. Once the author indulges in the shark jumping BS it brings to light all his other other problems. 

I call this category of writing mistakes "disqualifications." They are immediate shark-jumps. You absolutely must avoid them. And the only that you are going to avoid them is by being sensitive to people and how they respond to your prose.

That includes being sensitive to people who are not like you.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Those more worthy than I: