Cheap Storytelling Part 1: Character

CC image by Raymond Bryson

I want to talk about cheap storytelling. Here’s the thing. Some people know that what they are doing is cheap storytelling, but they do it anyway because they know they can not only get away with it, but be extremely profitable doing it. We’re going to ignore those lazy bums and Hollywood executives and pretend that all of us have the same goal—all of us want to tell a lasting story that resonates with people rather than giving them a cheap thrill. We want a truly well-made, meaningful experience, not something that will be short-lived and forgotten.

Some people may not realize that what they’re doing is cheap storytelling. So let’s talk about it. Let’s go over what cheap storytelling means and how to avoid it so that your story carries weight and has a lasting impact. First of all, what does cheap storytelling mean?

CC image by Norm Lanier

CC image by Norm Lanier

Cheap storytelling is using gimmicks or short cuts to elicit a response from the reader, usually to drag them through your story from start to finish. It is drama for drama’s sake. It is the easy way out for writers. This concept is easily understood in films because we see it all the time. Most sequels, reboots, and franchises flirt with cheap storytelling. Think about things like the Fast and Furious movies. It’s like a formula. Cars + explosions + women + muscles = millions of dollars. That’s why they’ve made seven of them (and there’s another coming). No plot or depth of character necessary.

When it comes to books, cheap storytelling can be more difficult to identify. I knew how I felt about it, could even come up with a few examples, but I needed the perspective of others. So I sent out a question to friends and family asking what they thought of when they heard the phrase cheap storytelling. The common thread throughout all of my discussions was the element of predictability. It’s been done before; there was no effort put into the story; you’ve seen it again and again and again. Predictability is a tricky thing—it can be your ally or your worst enemy. If you understand it, you can use it in your favor by turning it on its head.

Thanks to everyone’s input, I was able to come up with specific examples of these gimmicks and tricks that I continue to see recycled in stories. They are there to elicit a response. It generally works, but I would argue that it is far from quality storytelling. I’ll start with the lazy writing I see involving character. I’ve given all of these tricks cheesy titles for further deprecation.

CC image by Celine Nadeau

CC image by Celine Nadeau

The Heartstrings
I am trying to start a story, and I think to myself, how can I make the readers care about my character enough that they will follow them through the entirety of my story? Oh, I know—tragedy! I’m going to tug on their heartstrings by making them feel bad for my character. Let’s kill off the entire family in a tragic accident forcing them to grow up in an orphanage, later to be adopted by abusive parents. Okay, it’s typically not that over the top, but if the only character development you can come up with to elicit interest is something to make you pity the character, you probably need to try a little harder. You can’t tug on your readers’ heartstrings until you connect them to your character by tying the rope around their hearts. I’ll be honest, I think about Katniss Everdeen when I think of The Heartstrings. I seriously know nothing about her except that something bad happens to her every other page. I’m sorry to say that I have been completely desensitized to this technique.

The Wounded Stud
This is occasionally the main character, but often The Wounded Stud goes to a side character, often the love interest. Once again, the writer foregoes any of that time-consuming character development and thinks, how do I get people to care about this character? You give them a flaw. This is similar to The Heartstrings as it once again involves pity. Typically, I see it as a drug or alcohol addiction. Or maybe they’re slightly abusive. Maybe they fought in a war and have PTSD. “Oh, but I can change them!” says the main character who, by the way, fell in love with them by page thirteen. If you read the Divergent series, you’ll see this in Four. He was abused by his father and is afraid of becoming just like him. The end. Romanticizing these serious issues is something done all too often in fiction.

I am Controversy
Maybe I don’t trust that my plot and main characters are good enough to keep people interested. Maybe I want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. So what do I do? I tack on characters that are not plot related but are hotbeds of current social controversy. There’s the random LGBTQ character. The out-of-nowhere girl considering an abortion. The female president on the news. The mental illness. The co-dependent, possibly abusive relationship. The oncoming divorce. Writers often use this to get a rise out of people, portraying them in the most extreme way to elicit interest or drama and to even show their standpoint on the issue, that they’re relevant even though they’re not doing the topic justice. Unless your story centers on this topic, leave your politics out of your writing and don’t make every character’s situation the worst it could possibly be. If you’re at all a fan of The Lord of the Rings, you’ve probably heard about the theory that Frodo and Sam were gay. People have written pages and pages to justify this idea. Those caught up in the debate one way or the other are completely blinded by it. You see, controversy has a way of taking center stage, distracting from the entire point of the story.

The Plot Bot
You’re kind of stuck. You really need something to kick-start what happens next. Enter The Plot Bot. This character has no purpose other than to further the plot. This is the damsel in distress that must be rescued, the character that was on the fence but ultimately chooses to betray everyone, the character that just wants to be like the rest of you and goes out to prove himself and gets into trouble (damsel in distress part two), or the character who is a bully for the sake of being a bully and distracts the readers from the real antagonist (this means you Draco Malfoy). The list goes on. If you have a hollow character that you brought in merely to serve a plot purpose, you are using a gimmick. It also could happen that you have a well-developed character that suddenly does something completely out of character just so something happens in the story. The perfectly human human you created just got mechanized.

This isn’t to say you can’t have your character endure a tragedy, a character addicted to alcohol, a character questioning their sexuality, etc. But if you do, don’t do it for drama. I would argue that it must be centrally related to the plot. It should have implications that resonate through the entirety of the story, not a one-time blurb to try and get feelsies out of your reader. If you are writing and everything feels easy, that could be an implication that the solutions to your problems are cheap cop-outs. Guess what. Crafting a story can be hard. Take the time. Develop your story. Develop your plot. It’s worth it. Next blog I’ll continue by talking about cheap plot devices. Should be fun. If you can think of other gimmicks related to character that I missed, feel free to chime in!

By Rachelle Clifford