Category Archives: The Bad Writing Series

Let’s Make Fun of Blockbusters Together

Let’s celebrate the upcoming summer blockbuster season by making fun of all things summer blockbuster. I found a short action vid on YouTube that goes through all the most common blockbuster mistakes frame by frame. I’m not entirely sure they did it on purpose, so after we make fun of this, go check out their other videos, which are well made and entertaining. These guys are wizards with special effects, which, unfortunately for this video, isn’t the same thing as being a wizard at story telling.

Go make some popcorn, then hit play. Then get your prat hat on and join me in being a jerk. This won’t take ten minutes.

(I can’t embed this vid, so click here and open it in a new tab. Then follow along with the asshattery observations.)

1) Sweeping cityscape. Always good to know where we are.

2) Cheeky dialog. Because we don’t need to know who these characters are or what they care about if the’re cheeky and young. Teenager is a character motivation.

3) I bet he’s evil because he’s talking about a device and not using it’s name. Real creators use a thing’s name. Do you think Steve Jobs called the iPhone a device? No, he called it the iPhone. And when he was alone in his Steve Jobs lair, he stroked it lovingly and called it “My Precious.”

4) Oh that person’s rich? Okay, he’s the evil one. Check. Also, he spent time doing his hair this morning, and any man that spends time on his hair is evil. Unless he’s poor. Then he’s cool.

5) Macguffins. Oh my God. All the macguffins.

6) Look the teenagers being cute and doing teenager things. Do you love them yet? They’re like puppies. How could you not love them?

7) Teleported. Who needs a story when we have special effects? But no really, why write a plot when you can just blow stuff up? Michael Bay agrees with me on this one.

8) If something’s really amazing, you don’t have to tell me that it’s amazing.

9) He got sick because he did a bad thing! This is actually a common writer thing. I can preach about this. Not now, though. Basically, he’s puking because there had to be some consequence to his actions, and the bad guys haven’t shown up yet. Don’t worry, they’re coming. See? There’s an unexplained creepy figure.

10) “I don’t think we should take it.”

“We can’t just give it back.”

“Look, I know we don’t care about taking things, but this is going to get us killed!”

“We freakin’ teleported! Okay? They can’t get us as long as we have it.”

“We don’t even know how to use it.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll figure it out. We’re taking it.”

“I know where we can go. Come on.”

Well. That explains everything.

10) But the bad guys look cool.

11) And the music is catchy. Whoa, punches!

12) Oh no, danger. This doesn’t really make sense because teenagers with no training are kicking the ass out of trained security guards, but danger, okay.

13) It’s really lucky these teenagers, like all  good All-American teenagers, took self-defense classes and learned how to use fancy-shmancy guns. And normal guns. And laser guns.

14) Oh look, poorly timed declarations of love.

15) SPECIAL EFFECTS.

16) Stunts. Special Effects.

17) The leader has a stripe. Derp-derp.

18) Ultimate baddie is rich and white and moves like a dancer. Also, punches have no effect have on him. Double check.

19) Time for our Good Techno Users to battle the Corrupt Evil Techno Users in a Techno Battle, ie: SPECIAL EFFECTS TIME WHAT. I can’t imagine who will win. The man who created it and knows everything about it, or the teenie boppers who just stole it?

20) Even though there are two of you, you’ll take turns fighting him instead of ganging up on him. Your mama taught you well, teeangers.

20) And the winner is…the teenie boppers who just stole it, of course! In the heat of battle, our intrepid teenagers discover new ways to manipulate the macguffin. Because that’s how teeangers react to stressful situations. No panic, just hardcore cleverness.

21) Where is it? You just threw it off a roof, dummy.

22) And we have room for a sequel. Brilliant.

So basically, blockbusters suck because they usually lack interesting character motivation, or motivation at all, rely heavily on overused tropes, and jerry-rig their plots together with a total disregard for storytelling. When something needs to happen, it just does. Or something explodes. But nobody cares because SPECIAL EFFECTS.

*I have the utmost respect for all creators, and especially makers of short films, which are an under explored and under appreciated medium, like the short story. That being said, once something’s out in the world, it’s fair game. And this film managed to so perfectly encapsulate all my personal issues with major blockbusters, I had to use it. The same things that are frustratingly obvious in this short exist in the bigger, weightier blockbusters. Once you know what to look for, you too can annoy your friends with your writer-whining.

To not be a complete ass, go check out this vid by the same guys, It’s pretty cool: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3p2TZ5q9to

The Bad Writing Series: “The 100”

Before we get started, caveat: I liked season 2 of “The 100.” I think it took a lot of risks and made some brave storytelling decisions. Overall, I think it’s written solidly. Go check it out. That being said, let’s move on to what I didn’t like.

There were a lot of questionable leadership moments in season two of “The 100.” Thematically, that season asked probing questions about the tough decisions leaders make in tight spots, and what the consequences are and should be. Despite all of this meaty and valid stuff, there was one scene that stuck out in my mind because it was bad, bad, bad, and it underscored a point I’ve only just begun to realize. Bad writing isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous. Here’s why.

“The 100” is set in a post-apocalyptic world where survival comes at a high price. Our Leader, Abby, was only just reunited with her daughter, Clarke, before Clarke ran off again to save someone else, leaving the relative safety of the camp. Abby is under duress, stressed from her position as Leader and worried about Clarke.

In this scene, Abby, walks up to her daughter’s friend, Raven, and asks if Raven helped Clarke leave the camp. Raven denies having anything to do with it. They repeat this exchange, Abby asking more forcefully, and Raven denying everything. Here’s where things get dicey.

Abby lashes out and smacks Raven across the face.

But here’s the bad writing: After Abby displays vulnerability and fear (dropping her face to her hands and hiding it), Raven immediately forgives her, symbolically pushing her cup across the table to share.

Abby’s momentary lapse, her split second of power abuse, happens because we need to sympathize with her. The best way to do that is to show her cracking under pressure. She needs to have a reaction to her daughter’s disappearance, so she lashes out at Raven because we care about Raven.

Except this isn’t okay. Abby is the Leader. She’s In Charge of Raven. Raven is not only her subordinate, but her daughter’s friend. What this scene actually shows is an abuse of power made forgivable by extenuating circumstances.

Abuse is never okay. There are no mitigating circumstances that could make it okay.

When shows/books/media/art portray abuse like this as acceptable and forgivable, then viewers/readers/consumers digest it as okay. Television shows affect the way we think and feel about the world. Seeing a character we respect and like get smacked in the face by their superior and then forgive their superior makes us think, Ah, forgiveness trumps abuse. It’s okay if someone I am subordinate to hurts me if they’re under stress. Circumstances make unacceptable actions acceptable. It takes work to step back from the show and realize that it isn’t okay; that the thing we’re being shown is a plot device meant to create sympathy for Abby.

That’s the real danger of this scene, but I want to break it down to show you why it works. There are three beats in this moment: Abby’s escalating frustration, her release (lashing out and smacking), Raven’s forgiveness.

This follows a pattern that we know and expect. A character is frustrated, they react to that frustration, something makes it okay. Because the responses all seem appropriate—Abby’s smack is a response to the frustration, Raven’s forgiveness is a response to the smack, the scene feels complete. It feels done. We aren’t asked whether it’s acceptable. Had the scene ended with the smack and a glare or stare from Raven, it would have asked questions. Was that okay? Can Raven react? Does she have the power to react? The sense of not-doneness created by ] Raven’s lack of response would have encouraged viewers to probe deeper.

Or, the writers could have gone a different direction. There could have been no slap: Abby wantsto smack Raven, but holds back and breaks down, instead. Or Raven doesn’t forgive the slap. She calls Abby out on the inappropriateness. It would be within character for Raven.

***

It’s possible to argue that the second season of “The 100” is all about the dangers of power, leadership, and the ease with which you can abuse that power, and so this moment is thematically appropriate, except for one thing: this moment is never scrutinized. Abby’s misstep is washed away and forgotten. Taken both out of context and in context, it’s wrong for her to have slapped someone under her charge, but it’s more wrong for the writing to forgive her for it. She never realizes that what she did was inappropriate. In a season filled with bad decisions, abuse of power is never put under the microscopic.

Tampons, Bad Writing, and a New Series

I read “Fifty Shades of Grey” in a grocery store. Wouldn’t you know the first scene I opened to was the infamous tampon scene? And hands down, yes, I was turned on, so it did its job (if awkwardly, given that I was standing by my mom and there was a rack of half priced bread nearby). But while “Fifty Shades” may be an effective piece of erotica, it isn’t a well-written piece of erotica. And that’s a plum shame for the really well-written erotica out there.

At least, I thought it was just a plum shame, but now I’m starting to get really angry and really embarrassed about it. It’s good that a piece of erotica got so popular. It’s good for a sex positive world, and it’s probably good for a lot of people, but it’s not good for writing. I’m really pissed that such a poorly written book is selling so well. It isn’t even the only one. So many of the mega hits right now could have been better written by pterodactyls, and they don’t even have thumbs (at least, I don’t think so). And that’s embarrassing for me and every other wielder of the English language–and if you’re reading this, you’re a wielder of the English language.

There’s a serious gap between being able to read and being able to recognize good writing. If you’re wondering why recognizing good writing is important, ask any musician why pop music is bad. Shitty writing lowers the general expectations for writing everywhere. Shitty writing leads to shitty books, shitty readers, and back again to shitty writers. Shitty writing depreciates the art as a whole, and that is a serious shame. So, for that, I’m starting a crusade to try and show you what shitty writing is, how to recognize it, and what to do when you find it (buy something better!). For however long it takes, I’m going to work on a series called “The Bad Writing Series.” (Okay, no points for the title, but it gets the message across.) I’ll take on bad books as whole, and moments of bad writing in otherwise really good books, and I’ll talk about why they’re bad. And you should learn from it because bad writing should matter to everyone who cares about books, stories, and English.