Books and films are like meals. Some can be well written by great writers (gourmet chefs) or mediocre writers (short order cooks). While readers may have different tastes, there are many books and stories that are less fulfilling than others. The difference between rich plots and poor ones is like the difference between a twice baked potato and a half empty bag of potato chips.
Below are some indicators of the potato chip plot (aka. plot filler):
1) The snooze button.
In this stage, the brain enters cruise control stage and disengages from the plot. Sometimes the audience falls asleep after the beginning, wakes up for the end, and understands everything that happened. Take for example, the Terminator movies. I did fall asleep to the first two films and woke up for the endings. Yes, everything still made sense.
Of course, there may be some stories where audiences can watch the beginning and the end and understand everything but completely miss the character development in the middle, but said middle should not be all air.
2) Get out of jail free card.
Forget the card. Let’s give the protagonist unlocked doors for no reason and a helicopter to make a great get away. And—by the way—nobody happens to know where it came from. In other words, the protagonists end up in improbable situations with some mysterious advantage that was not built up to. This element is an annoying old technique also known as Deus ex machina.
For example, in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, why did there just happen to be a giant statue of rocks sitting in the throne room for decades with gold that was just waiting to be melted into it? In the Battle of Five Armies, where did the mountain goats come from?
3) The treadmill.
The characters are going, going, going. They’re fighting the enemy! And…they’re not getting anywhere. Similar to the snooze button, except the audience is actually following the plot, which is all fluff. The treadmill is often found in battle scenes of action/adventure movies and is usually found in movie adaptations of books. Such scenes extend or add something the author did not originally intend and should have stayed that way. For example, the final half hour of Desolation of Smaug focused more on excellent graphics and less on plot development.
So with all of the plot filler of potato chip plots, here are just a few ingredients found in many rich, dense plots:
1) Don’t blink!
Okay, you can blink. This isn’t Dr. Who. But you do want to pay attention to what’s happening because it will play an important role later. Such detail is often found in the Sherlock Holmes books and in the Sherlock adaptations. While not all plots have to engage the audience like a detective story, every element, line, and character should be necessary. This makes the story dense, like a fulfilling meal that leaves audiences satisfied.
The counteraction to Deus ex machina, foreshadowing acts as a way to hint at what is to come. While it may not always come in the obvious form of an outright prophecy, it prevents audiences from questioning the author’s motives. Instead, it provides audiences with an aha! moment.
Perhaps one of my preferred elements, character development makes books worth rereading or films re-watching. It’s more than just an added benefit but a necessity to memorable stories. In The Lord of the Rings, such development is abundant from Aragorn to Pippin, and the books themselves have more to offer than the extended film adaptations.
Of course, this list is not an extensive description of plot filler and plot development, but it provides some overview. What are some aspects of plot filler/development that you often notice? Are there any poor/well developed stories that stick out in your mind?
Literary and film references: Orion Pictures’ The Terminator, Warner Bros.’ adaptations of The Hobbit, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes collection, BBC’s Sherlock, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.