Before I begin, I would like to thank all of you. This past month has been a trying time for me and it was partially through your understanding and encouragement that I was able to pull through an find my way back to doing what I love. It was rash, foolish and to be honest self-flagellating to even ponder giving up writing. It’s how I cope; how I focus myself.
You all have been amazing and for the most part incredibly patient. In fact, I’ve only gotten three angry emails and two of those were more from the same folks who just read this site to find more reasons to be angry that I don’t hate women or love guns. I wonder if I call the gun Vera if I’m supposed to love her or hate her?
Fair warning: updates will be a little spotty as I finally get to work in the next week or so, and adjust to whatever new schedule I get. But I will still be writing; still be doing what I can to make your world and the worlds of all my other readers just a little better.
Anyway, let’s dive into this week’s topic.
There are a lot of stock plots that TV shows love to recycle over and over. Now normally, I’m not one to knock formulas as long as they’re done cleverly and/or make good use of the characters. Hell, in deference to my love of anime, the Descendants had a Beach Episode.
However, there are a few plots that almost never result in anything interesting. Whether this is because the plot itself is so well trod and entrenched that writers don’t tamper with it enough to make it work, or the fact that the very nature of the plot changes the status quo of the story and must thus be destroyed in order to make things ‘right’.
There are some of these that just need to be trashed and never seen again—and I’ll eventually be writing that article too. However, there are a few that (no matter how much I might loathe at least one in particular) can be salvaged with a little thought and work. Plots like…
The Windfall, or Lottery Plot, is a story where one of the characters comes into a lot of money either by finding it or winning it.
If it’s the former, most of the episode will revolve around deciding what to do with the money until someone returns it, the original owner comes back, the money turns out to be fake, or the money is destroyed in some contrived way.
If the latter, the winning character will become a moron and somehow blow it all in such a way that there will be no evidence of that cash by the next episode.
Variants include a character getting a credit card, not knowing how one works and charging a lot of stuff that’s later repossessed, multiple characters buying or earning a valuable object leading them to fight for custody until it’s destroyed, or a character being convinced they won a lot of money and because of this buying a ton of stuff on credit before they get their reward.
In case it wasn’t abundantly and depressingly clear, the common theme here is that someone gains a windfall that should change their lives and then plot contrivance says they don’t get to keep it or the corresponding change.
Now unlike every other hack who calls themselves a serious thinker on the subject of writing, I don’t think that maintaining a status quo is a bad thing. Having a stable base upon which to build ongoing stories is never a bad thing. It’s just when you have to take aggressive, jarring action to maintain it and never let anything change that it becomes a problem.
And in this case, there’s no other way but overt to set this particular plot back to the status quo. The characters have something and then the universe decides it will stop at nothing to take it from them. Half the time it descends into some Final Destination level shit where fate goes to almost psychotic lengths to ‘correct’ itself.
Probably one of the better (and that’s not saying much) examples of the use of this trope was an episode of The Big Bang Theory (I know, I know. I had a dislike for the idea of the show too, but since I was at places where there’s cable and it’s literally on all the time, I got a ton of exposure to it and… I like it. It’s not without problems, but it’s got more heart than most modern fare and it’s actually funny—again unlike most modern fare.) They used the found object variant where the boys find the prop One Ring from the LotR movies and fight over it. The fun bit here is that each one essentially takes on the traits of a character from the story and it’s not entirely clear whether they’re serious with that part or just goofing. This plot resolves when Leonard, playing the part of Frodo, resists the temptation of the Ring, returns the Ring to where it came from. It’s a decent usage of this plot because it relies on the characters (both the characters in the show and those from LotR) to make jokes.
The absolute worst version of this comes from probably the best show I’ll cite in this segment: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In this rather painful episode, Will, Carlton and Uncle Phil crash their car in the middle of the winter and seek shelter in a cave. While there, Will discovers a bag full of money ($80,000, I believe). Will goes crazy over the money, prompting an argument over whether he should keep it or turn it in since someone is missing that money. Of course then the firewood runs out and the others make Will burn the money to keep them warm, sort of completely forgetting that they’re burning what they assume to be someone else’s money. The next morning, they find out that the money was part of a radio promo and it was Will’s to keep. Cue laugh track at Will sadness.
Okay. Here’s the major problem: THE BANKS FAMILY ARE MILLIONAIRES. They were neighbors with Ronald Reagan. The lived in a mansion with a butler. They had expensive cars and went to society dinners. And it’s not like Will was Cinderella living in their basement and scrubbing the floors. He’s wanted for nothing for a least three years at this point. These people can wipe their asses with $80k, Will included. There’s no reason for Will to be so excited over this money. Yes, $80,000 is life-changing money—but not for him. His life has already been changed by way more money, so a drop in the bucket isn’t going to do much.
It’s like the show forgot that their basic premise wasn’t already a rag-to-riches story slash fish out of water tale to start with.
Also, they spend half the time in the cave worrying about how the money could be long to someone, but once they realize it was a prize, that’s okay. Totally ignoring that they just robbed someone who needed it more of the opportunity to do so. While I’m sure the writers never thought about this, it certainly paints a damning picture of One Per-centers being the disconnected alien lizard people who don’t know how basic human decency works and who will say with a straight face that starving children and depriving elderly shut-ins of what might be their only source of human contact is worth it if it saves a few taxpayer dollars twenty years early.
So how to salvage this trope?
Well a couple of ways. First of all, use the gained wealth better than showing how having money makes you a raging asshole? Even Kim Possible, a show that’s usually smarter than this, had an episode, Ron Millionaire, where Ron gets a nine digit royalty payoff and becomes a jackass who loses it all instantly. Also, he apparently never sees another dime of royalties ever again. Which is not how royalties work.
No, instead, why not take a page from Castle. In one episode about the murder of a lottery winner, Castle tells Becket that wealth doesn’t change you; it just magnifies parts of your personality. As an example, he explains that he was a big, immature kid before he made millions and now he spends his money buying toys and experiences and indulging his daughter.
I don’t know the specifics of whether or not this is a real piece of psychology, but it’s an interesting thing to do with a character. Give them this wealth and instead of making them just go spend crazy or become a jerk, actually dive into what this character would do with the money after they buy the ISO standard rich people things. Hell, I’d bet your list of what to do would be way different from mine. For example, I wouldn’t buy a house of more than five or six rooms, I’ve have a used SUV—but I would have a wall of movies, boxed sets and anime and the world’s most badass home theater and a fully stocked kitchen so I can cook damn near anything.
But yeah. Even if you don’t use this plot, it’s a nice exercise to think about what your characters would do with a ton of money.
The other option? Let them keep it and use it to make changes that don’t do too much damage to the status quo.
It can be done! The show Two Broke Girls has turned this into the entire plot of their show. The characters are constantly and slowly improving their business and lives but in a more or less realistic way: they get money and have to spend it on costs for their business, making sacrifices in their personal lives to keep their dream afloat. Businesses are expensive beasts to feed and the show is usually pretty good about making the effective losses in wealth the titular girls suffer pretty believable.
This doesn’t have to be a series-wide thing. A TV show can sink a lot of a character’s money into an excuse to change the set dressing; giving the characters new furniture and such. Or they can use that money as a cushion to justify getting a new job. Or just quit their job—most sitcom characters’ jobs serve not purpose besides justify them having money in the first place.
The key thing is to actually make use of the resources that come from this plot. There’s as many things you can do in a story with fictional money as you can in the real world with our… also… fictional money… so there’s no good reason every Windfall plot has to go out of its way to try to get rid of it as quickly as possible.
And an entirely different problem comes with…
Okay let’s get my usual spiel out of the way: I hate love potions. I hate the somehow mind control in the form of date rape is so okay it’s comedy, I hate that it trivializes love and affection into something you can just turn on or off, and I hate that pretty much no protagonist even bats an eye before trying to use on on someone they profess to love. The whole thing disgusts me in a way that even people who use the word ‘cuck’ fail to.
That said, this isn’t about the morality of love potions, but the deployment of the plot that surrounds them. So yes, this article could also count as a Writing What I Hate entry.
So the love potion plot. Usually it kicks off with the protagonist or a side character infatuated with someone. Usually the target is a newly introduced love interest, but sometimes it’s someone more long term. A variant is one where a character wants someone—anyone to love them. Somehow they get a hold of a real working love potion, pheromone solution or other aphrodisiac (weirdly enough even stories completely grounded in reality will take a sharp right directly into Fantasy to bring this one to bear) and use it on the target.
Sometimes it actually works as advertised at first. The object of the character’s affection falls for them and starts lavishing them with stereotypical loving attention. They invariably completely lose any previous personality as if ‘in love’ was a personality trait and also mutually exclusive to any others.
Most often, this either escalates of is skipped in favor of the target becoming stiflingly obsessive over the character in question until they become actually physically dangerous toward anyone of the character’s preferred sex, seeing them as a threat to their relationship that must be eliminated.
In more extreme cases, the love potion becomes a love contagion that effects a large number of people, all of whom immediately fall in obsessive love with the user, becoming a band of ax-crazy psychos. In this case the intended love interest or a character who will be come the real love interest will be unaffected (usually with the excuse that the love potion can’t effect someone feeling true love) and help the idiot—I mean user of the potion—to escape justice… I mean a terrible fate. This version is a little better as they usually use the evasion portion of the episode to actually build a few relationship beats.
Eventually it ends and everyone either doesn’t remember, laughs it off, or comically chases the perpetrator off camera.
One variant is having the wrong person get the potion and now the main character has to deal with an admirer who they don’t want to be with for one reason or another. Another is having the characters stand in for Cupid and screw things up royal.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer went the Love Plague route, having Xander ask for a love spell that goes wildly out of control, leaving him and Cordy to flee for their lives and have a few moments along the way. Unusual for this trope, Cordy and Xander both recognize after the fact that not only was this an immoral thing to do, but also stupid because they’re both genre savvy enough to know that love potions never turn out well.
Which is another thing. Clearly the writers know the moral and philosophical problems with this. Often, the potion is thwarted by literal true love and the psycho side effect is clearly punishment. Because of this, love potions never work the way they’re meant to because if they did, there would be even more unfortunate implications. They fail so consistently that no viewer ever is going to expect anything but miserable failure.
So how to fix this plot? Obviously for me, I’d like to see the characters really dig in on the morality vs desperation and the true love vs love based on lies and coercion issues. Actually have them think about what they’re about to do. If Charles Xavier can think on reading the mind of world-threatening monsters like Juggernaut or Greydon Creed, Joe Blow Protagonist can stop and wonder if forcing Lillieanne Love Interest to care for him is the right thing to do.
Or have it be another outside force that uses the potion on their behalf—and have the potion work perfectly. No obsession, no loss of personality—the love interest now feels genuine (manufactured) affection toward the other character. But have the intended know that it’s the result of a love potion. Now they’re stuck in a real moral quandary: they have what they want, but they know it’s forced and that it’s against their loved one’s will.
Now there’s some drama. Forcing the hero to destroy their own desires for the good of another? It’s a mature, thoughtful choice that can be understood and appreciated by pretty much any demographic. Forget life or death consequences or ‘taking over the world’; that’s real quality stakes and pathos.
He show that’s come closest to this was the one that failed at the Windfall plot so hard: Kim Possible. In the episode ‘Emotion Sickness’, Kim unbeknownst to Ron is fitted with a device that alters her emotions. It eventually gets stuck on ‘love’ and she immediately starts hitting on Ron in the most over the top aggressive (but not psycho) ways possible. Without knowing what’s going on, Ron actually spends an appreciable amount of time thinking about how this could effect his relationship with Kim. It’s actually an interesting take on the whole concept.
Or if you want to go for comedy, let the character realize the terrible consequences and repercussions of such a potion… then accidentally ingest it themselves. So they know it’s all a mind whammy on them, but can’t help how they now feel. And over the course of dealing with their artificial feelings and in the process getting closer to the person they’re made to be attracted to, they get to know them better. Maybe they don’t actually fall in love, but in seeing them in a new light, giving them a chance and treating them better, they gain a better appreciation of them.
Maybe the ‘target’ of the affection actually enjoys the attention and when it stops they have an attraction of their own, making the potion a catalyst for new kinds of character interactions and plots.
Finally, how about a character who is already in love but can’t bring themselves to admit it uses the love potion to force themselves to act. Either their love is reciprocated and it was a good idea, or it’s not and they have the convenient excuse of a love potion to hit the reset button with. Hell, if you still want to play ‘will they won’t they’, you can have mixed messages make them think the other doesn’t have any feelings for them when they actually do, the user’s antics while under the effects of the potion being the thing they needed to realize how much they enjoy being closer while the user now gives up, switching up the dynamic.
When I first thought of this article a few weeks ago, it inspired a fanfiction where I played with this very idea.
And then there’s…
The Camping Episode
While I hate love potions, camping episodes are just a special level of bland and annoying you don’t get every day. Not only is it usually kind of a miserable experience, but it always feels like it should have never happened in the first place except in a story with a writer.
See one of the conceits we all have to live with when it comes to fiction is that most characters rarely have more than a handful of friends. One side effect of this is that these small groups of three to seven share everything.
You know how you have your work friends who you have a bond with based on work and maybe going for drinks after, but with whom you’d never discuss say what webserial novels you read? Then you have your casual friends, who you hang out with just in general and maybe your gym friends who you work out with, and friends from a hobby who you really only know in the setting and then your significant other’s casual friends who you have reluctantly promised not to bring to harm out of devotion?
Yeah, fictional people typically don’t have that. Giving every person the number of friends, acquaintances and niche pals would destroy the mind of basically any writer. Most of them stick to a small group because even if you do have the time and capacity, you generally don’t have that much pages space and audience enthusiasm for ‘guy I nod to every day as I walk to my car’.
The point of all this is, most camping episode-like situations don’t happen in real life because if you like to camp, you will usually have some people out of those you know who want to camp with you and will enjoy it. Nowadays, even if you don’t you can find them via the internet—for any interest you want. Hell, if there’s any readers in Central Ohio that want to play form RPGs, board games, read some comics or talk writing, I will hang out with you tonight. Not camping though.
And that’s the point. When my more outdoors-oriented friends decide to hike or camp or outdoor anything besides grill, they don’t invite me and I don’t mind. If there’s fun stories, they’ll tell me after. And if they do decide to invite me, I can politely decline and there’s no bad blood or hurt feelings. That’s what you do when you’re someone whose very soul isn’t bound to just five other human beings.
But they are, so it’s a bit more understandable then that these characters end up going along for the camping trip with minimal convincing from the one or two characters who actually want to go camping. What’s less understandable is how they behave during the trip.
Despite the fact that they ostensibly agreed to the trip with people we’ve been led to believe are their friends, these people will complain nonstop, making every moment of the trip both insufferable for everyone and more difficult as they don’t follow basic instructions and fail at things like putting up a tent or gathering wood. They’ll likely also endanger everyone by leaving food out that attracts wild animals.
Even if they do try, they’ll invariably fail and have a terrible time… until such time as things go so far off the rails that they enjoy themselves… while the characters who really wanted to go camping just plain have their weekend ruined. Sometimes they just skip anyone enjoying themselves and it’s just a disaster. Sometimes the focus is on the ones who want to go camping proving how ‘manly’ or outdoorsy they are and sucking and failing.
Variations abound as to just what event is being ruined by whiny failures, opera and the legitimate stage are frequent targets, as are pretty much any kind of geek activity from conventions to any sort of gaming. The key seems to be lots of whining and making sure the people who know what they’re doing and are just hoping for some enjoyment suffer.
It’s also by rote that just hearing they’re going camping tells you the whole story.
Feel free to give me examples in the comments, but I can’t think of one camping episode that didn’t go this way. There was an episode of Futurama where they started out camping and everyone having a pretty good time, but that was just a set-up to get Fry abducted by aliens so they could harvest his human horn (it makes sense in context).
How to fix this one? Especially when the group isn’t like a family with kids you can expect to be whiny, but a bunch of grown-ass adults?
Well for one, why not let them go and have an average or even good time? It’s not like every other venture in a given show has to end in misery, it just seems to be camping where it’s universal. So why not break tradition and actually have some fun camping and use the new situation and local to build character and relationships?
Have a character who the others wouldn’t expect to be into it turn out to be an old hand at camping, revealing hidden depths and making themselves useful to the group. Have someone normally highly capable in the main setting be bad at the basics here and require help from someone they either don’t normally interact with, don’t get along with, or are normally the ones they help out. Use the typical tasks of camping be split up so characters that don’t normally interact spend time together. Being isolated together is prime time for some opening up and showing different sides of themselves.
But I understand that sometimes you need some good old fashioned conflict. But why create it by driving an out of character wedge between friends? Let me ask you a question: why is it that whenever one of these camping trip episodes happens, the group seems to just wander into some random woods? Writers do know that there are these things called ‘campgrounds’, which are places in parks where people can camp within reach of park rangers, showers and toilets—and other campers.
Those other campers are a good source of conflict of any type with the bonus of being new one-shot characters who it doesn’t matter if they’re jerks. Have them compete with the cast for good spots, or steal their food. Have them brag about their prowess at the kinds of activities the whiners usually ruin and have the group, including complainers, come together in the face of this or come into conflict with each other over whether or not to rise to the bait.
Really there’s so much more that could be done with this concept that just isn’t.
And just by digging a little bit deeper, more and better stories can be produced even using some of the most worn out tropes. Remember: it’s not the trope of the cliché that’s a problem: it’s how you use them.
Anyway, I’ve actually covered more pages in this article than I have in a long time. So I’m going to leave it to you this week. Also, check out my new YouTube show Writing Write where I’ll be doing on video what I do here. The introductory episode is up now and I hope to make it weekly.