Plotblocking

"What the fuck is up with this statue's toes?" and other questions that you never get to know the answer to.
"Plotblocking" is a new word for describing what's wrong with a lot of television writing.

Delay of audience gratification has been a staple of episodic storytelling for a long time, but no show advanced the practice more than the grandfather of plotblocking, Lost. No matter how well-written the various flashbacks often were, the writers knew that what kept us hooked was the mystery of the island -- and that storyline was illiberally meted out like capfuls of water to a thirsty man. Just enough to keep us alive. I've actually found that the shows that are the most "binge-worthy" are the most narratively stingy. You start each new episode almost out of frustration, hoping it will deliver a morsel of satisfaction, an inch of forward progress.

That paragraph right there nails it. I find the rest of the article to be kind of rambling, partly because I hated Stranger Things, but, that right there.

(I hated Stranger Things because it is composed almost entirely of things that I despise: 1: Steven Spielberg movies; 2: Stephen King movies; 3: Nostalgia.)

A lot of my friends are freaking out about the season premiere of The Walking Dead, and I feel their emotions are misdirected: rather than feeling sad for the fate of characters they liked, they should feel angry at the crass manipulativeness of the writers.

The "who died?" cliffhanger at the end of the last season was forgivable. It's just a cliffhanger. Those are a staple of season-based television. It's a cheap technique, and time-honored, while not in any way honorable.

But the real manipulation came in the followup episode, where, for almost the entire episode, the only people in the dark about what just happened were the audience.

If you are a writing a story and you hide from the audience facts that are well known to all of the characters in the story, you are a hack.

If you are a writer and your viewpoint character is an omniscient narrator, but you made that narrator be more ignorant than literally every character actually participating in the plot, what the fuck is that? That's hack writing, that's what the fuck that is. It's cheap, it's cheating, you are bad at your job and you should feel bad.

Let me be clear: my anger about how bad that writing was is not based on my love of the show. I don't have any emotional investment in The Walking Dead. I watch it, but I think it's mediocre. It's not bad, but I just don't care that much about any of the characters.

Though like I keep saying, Fear The Walking Dead seems to exist solely to remind us of how much worse The Walking Dead could be: a good metric for when you should stop watching a show is if you can't think of a single character where that character's death would leave you with any emotional impact besides, "Yay, I don't have to hear their whining any more, or be angry at their reflexive secrecy, at their stultifying incuriosity, or at their stupid decisions that seemed to exist solely to create bullshit plot problems for the writers to solve."

Some people have accused Mr. Robot of plotblocking, but I don't think that's really true. Mr. Robot is a show that is explicitly about an unreliable narrator. Most of the reveals we get happen when Elliot learns about them, or when Elliot's various mental compartments allows him to know them. Most of the time, he's our viewpoint character and his confusion and ignorance is ours. Or he's directly and explicitly lying to us in the second person.

Previously, previously, previously.

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4 Responses:

  1. Published Name says:

    The master said it: you can do suspense 2 ways. You can show two people sitting at a table and two minutes in a bomb blows up; or you can show a bomb under he table with a 2 minute timer.

    The W. Dead likes to say "There's a bomb somewhere and it will go off but it's pretty random and non-plot specific as to when it does and who dies."

  2. Rodger says:

    It's interesting reading that in light of the main criticism (other than redpill types whining it doesn't spend enough time on teh menz) I've seen of Supergirl (which is well worth a watch) is that it "burns through the plot. Yes, apparently having a season-long arc (as opposed to a Five Year Plan) and minor plots that wrap up in an episode or two is now considered a flaw.

  3. Paucity of long-term plotline is indeed a problem, thank you for naming it. However I must point out that this was not the issue with Lost. They didn't have too little long-term plot, they had zero long-term plot. They were making it up as they went along.

    Anyway, I have deleted season passes for a half dozen shows recently and now I can say why: they were plotblockers.

  4. Westside guy says:

    I liked how Twin Peaks made use of cliffhangers while seemingly also making a mockery of them. Each of the (only two) seasons ended with pretty much each and every main character in some separate, over-the-top sort of perilous situation.