Story Pet Peeve #2: Cheating Your Audience

For those who missed it, I’m sharing a series of pet peeves in novels/stories. I don’t claim these to be guidelines to avoid necessarily, as there are many top-selling novels that are overstuffed with things I find irksome (see The Twilight Effect). Here’s the last pet peeve, if you missed it—now onward to pet peeve #2.

I love action stories—movies, novels, it doesn’t matter. While this pet peeve doesn’t only occur in action, it’s where I’ve seen it most. What drives me nuts is when the writer cheats, and there are three main ways this occurs.

Cheat #1—When the Villain is a Complete Moron

Jennifer Garner in Alias

Jennifer Garner in Alias

Now, if this is a comedy we’re talking about it’s a whole other matter. In an action, however, it just doesn’t work. Take the show, Alias, for example (starring Jennifer Garner). It’s all about a CIA Black Ops Spy who finds herself in one impossible situation after another. While the plot twists are fun and the scenarios are clever, every other scene is completely absurd. For example, I recall one where Garner’s character sneaks (unarmed) down a pathway just outside some fancy, highly secured building with the mindset of breaching it. A guard spots her—one carrying a large, automatic assault rifle—and tells her to freeze. There’s nothing to hide behind and nowhere to run—the guard has her in his scope about twenty paces away—clear shot. She is so screwed. So what does he do? He runs toward her as he tells her to freeze until he’s within arm’s reach, allowing her to kick the gun away and beat the snot out of him. What high end criminal would be so dimwitted?

Another scene had two men making an exchange of some sort. They’re ambushed and one of these men is shot once in the shoulder with a pistol. The other is one of our heroes, and is shot hundreds of times in the chest executioner-style with blood spraying everywhere so to make it clear that this time he’s not wearing a protective vest. Which of these two men do you suppose survived? Why, our beloved hero, of course!

Takeaway:  Don’t give your hero an easy-out by making the villains morons.

Cheat #2—“Stay Tuned Next Week!”

For those who don’t recall the old television mini dramas, they often had a scene where a hero was, say, on a runaway train that was about to fall over a cliff. The audience watches as it falls and then explodes. Then the announcer says, “Stay tuned next week for the exciting conclusion!” Well, next week comes and they reveal what happened, showing the same scene. However, this time around, about twelve or so seconds before the train falls over the cliff and explodes, you see that the hero jumped out of the train to safety. This is cheating, folks; it’s like ending one book with the hero dying and then beginning its sequel with, “Yeah, I was totally kidding about that.” It just doesn’t work.

Takeaway:  If you allude to something occuring in such a direct way, don’t take it back. Your story loses credibility. This is different than, say, one character believing something and then showing from another character’s perspective that something else happened. It’s different because in this case, the reader was told something happened from an omniscient view. The means by which to garner the effect was a cheap and uneffective gimmick.

Cheat #3—Flashing Forward

28 Days Later

28 Days Later

A great example of this can be seen in the movie, 28 Days Later. I know, I know…to any zombie movie fan out there, saying anything negative about this highly popular movie is sacrilege. Yet I have to (I actually preferred the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, but I’m sure I’m in a minority. If you haven’t seen the movie, there’s a spoiler alert ahead.

So what happens is this: the heroes find themselves in an impossible situation, trapped within a building with hordes of frenzied zombies coming at them, blocking their only escape. The perspective changes to a character that’s slipping in and out of consciousness, which is convenient, because that way they can show flashes of their escape without actually showing you how they tackled all the hurdles along the way.

Then when this character comes to, they’re in an entirely new location where there are no zombies at all. I think my jaw dropped and the literal words that spewed from my mouth were: “Who’s a jigga wah?” If this weren’t enough to get the blood boiling in my veins, another character was sewing together giant letters they’d created from fabric. It was clear she had spent some time on this and when she unfolded them, they spelled out, “Hello.” Um, wouldn’t “SOS” be easier? You’d think they’d have been smarter seeing as how they had recently been able to out-maneuver an army of zombies.

Takeaway:  If you don’t know how to move a story along, don’t get lazy and write around it. You’ve made your bed, now lie in it–tough it out and figure it out.

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About authorphilpartington

Phil is a writing enthusiast of many years, having been published in numerous online and national print trade and sports publications over the past decade. He has spent the past five years delving back into the world of fiction writing, focussing on the fantasy, horror and suspense genres. Deshay of the Woods is his first novel.
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6 Responses to Story Pet Peeve #2: Cheating Your Audience

  1. Oh my gosh, YES. Number 3. Kills me every time!!! MAKE IT WORK. 🙂

  2. Dyane says:

    lol Number 1 is the worst. I just saw Austen Powers again and I love how Dr. Evil decides to forgo Scott’s easier, more direct plan for killing the super spy (ie. ‘I’ll take a gun and shoot him! Bam! Over!’) in favour of dipping him into pool of sharks with lasers on their heads, lol At least that movie was a satire. I wonder what those other movies/books excuses are? 🙂

  3. Pingback: Story Pet Peeves #3: Things that irk me in fantasy novels | Phil Partington, author page

  4. RStorey says:

    #2 George R. R. Martin is great at exposing a single event from multiple points of view.

    #3 I kind of like this technique…. When done well. For instance, Rick getting shot and then flashing in and out of consciousness in the first episode of The Walking Dead. This was successful because the audience didn’t miss anything, because we experienced the void along with the character, and also discovering the truth together.

    • George R.R. Martin cannot be used to argue against any of these points, because Martin is a god :).

      You hit the nail on the head. If done right, it works, but my point is when it isn’t done right–when it’s used as a cheap vessel to sidestep having to write a character out of a predicament. That’s just bad writing, IMHO.

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