What Makes A Story “Bad”?
Do not even try to convince me I am alone in this one, for I have heard it too many times in much mixed company: you are watching a new movie, or perhaps an old favorite, or a television drama, or whathaveyou, and friends or acquaintances are gathered around; at just the moment that perhaps you think, “Oh my, this plotline is amazing!”, someone from the gallery pipes up, “Really? Everything in this story happens too perfectly, it is unbelievable.” Maybe you fume with anger; maybe you voice your own opinion and a debate ensues; maybe you engage in an internal struggle, embarrassed, asking yourself, “Is he right? Am I naive for loving this show?”; maybe you just keep your emotions on the downlow and try to forget this neophyte’s transgression, for he will learn in due time, and besides, you do not care.
Whatever be your reaction, if you are not immediately persuaded by your opponent’s argument (outburst) or else moved to a neutral status where you are ready to convince or be convinced, you do experience some sense that their position is unfounded. This feeling could be based on a vague subterranean emotion or a more matured rationale, but if it cannot be properly identified at first, it can be unearthed and polished to verify if it is good reason or, indeed, naivety.
This sort of conflict does not necessitate some other interlocutor, though, for its conditions can be satisfied by the single individual. You watch your favorite movie, alone; you have seen it a thousand times before; on this viewing it comes to a head that this plotline is just a little too perfectly planned, such that it could never have occurred in real life; suddenly you are playing ping-pong in your mind, and your opinion of the story is the ball. Who will score the final point and win the game? You on this, the pro, side, or you on that, the con, side?
Undoubtedly there must be some range of conditions that vindicates the viewer’s suspension of disbelief; conversely, there must be some other range that justifies the naysayer’s criticism, the shattering of the illusion. So what are these ranges? And are they universal, set in stone? They are most likely not set in stone (after all, I only just now typed this essay on a computer), however, they can be universally applied, tested, and their worth can be argued, certainly.
Though I have employed the term “range” to denote the many conditions that justify either viewpoint, I would rather begin by summing up these conditions in two separate principles. One of these I have already mentioned, which is the principle of the shattered illusion; this is the principle which justifies the con-side, and I will delineate this one secondly. The other is the anthropic principle of storytelling, or else just the anthropic principle, and it is that which justifies the pro-side.
The anthropic principle of storytelling derives its name from a version of the anthropic principle of cosmology and philosophy, which provides an answer to the question, “How is it that the universe is just so finely tuned, with Earth’s orbit bringing the planet neither too near nor too far from the sun, so as to allow life, and especially the human species, to thrive here?” And the cold response: “Because if the constants of the universe were any different, we would not exist here on this Earth to ask such a silly question!” Cold though it may be, the principle in this context is but a truism.
How does this relate to storytelling? A good story, when we question it, is much like this universe, this Earth. We can enjoy it while we are there, inside the mind of a narrator (you, me), living it, eye-deep in the illusion, or we can let awareness of our situation get the better of us and ask, “There is no way this could happen in the real world, so why am I even considering it? It has no bearing on reality. How might I possibly believe it could have come together?” When so interpreted, all great works fall short at some point or another, and one runs the risk of becoming a misostoria, a story-hater! But that argument really fails before it is even out the gate because of this anthropic principle. To reformulate the popular criticism: “How could the events in this story have possibly unfolded in such-and-such a way as to yield such a positively enjoyable result?” And the principle in response: “Because had the story’s events not unfolded in such an interesting way in the realm of possibilities, it would never have been worth writing about, and the author would have just moved on to the next fantastic tale to be recorded.”
A writer (or a storyteller in general) constantly seeks out the interesting, the fantastic, the scintillating, the unbelievable, or, at the very very least, that which is worth writing about. Anything other or less is likely but a test of the writer’s endurance for the sake of testing himself, or else some prescribed story written for a grade or a buck. The writer chooses and writes about the interesting precisely because the interesting is what is worth writing about.
It is not even the case that a story does always unfold perfectly, especially when by “perfectly” you mean “to the best ends” for the involved characters. What about the great tragedies of past and present? Consider Oedipus Rex. Consider King Macbeth. Consider Walter White. Perfect stories hardly need encompass perfect fates — at least not in that relative sense where the author shows compassion for his own creations. You might object here that the aforementioned cases do not apply because they actually are the more believable stories, but since witches and prophecies and cosmic foreshadowing are concerned, you might have just as quickly said contrawise had I not prompted you against it; besides, many other of the stories from which one may distance himself unfold in the same manner, such that when the distancer criticizes it, he is really only pointing out a flaw in his own mental ordering, namely his bias to overemphasize the order of the story while underemphasizing the entropy. By order, I mean the routes events take to bring the desirable fates together and the energy it takes to make this happen, and by entropy I mean that natural tendency of things to fall apart, for one character or another. Even the reader may be slighted by the author, as he is tantalized with a resolution that by the end is never reached — a withheld climax of the most torturous kind. Our tales, just like life here on Earth, can be cruel, doubly cruel.
For symmetry, far less for want, and hardly out of necessity, I must also touch upon the converse to the anthropic principle, which is that of the shattered illusion. To be clear, this is a self-shattering of an intended illusion; in other words, to support whatever claim one may make that a story is “bad, awful,” or that it “just plain does not work,” it must be that the story falters at some point(s), stumbles over itself, is unintentionally unclear, muddied. If the problems of the reader (such as the aforementioned biases) cannot be blamed on the story, then to have a bad story, the problem must lie on the page and must also not be the result of the author’s intentions — at least. For instance, a work may be discontinuous, peppered with strange temporal rifts throughout, but this may not be indicative of some mistake on the author’s part; Kurt Vonnegut, for example, often used such jumps in time to a purposeful effect. So then, if the shattering of the illusion cannot occur in the reader’s or the author’s mind (actually, this could be so, but it is too relative to consider right now), so as to then be able to call the story “bad,” it has to be that this occurs somewhere on the page.
Yet how can this be? Point out a flaw on the page and the author may choose the defense of “creative license” and claim to have meant to do that, that it conveyed a theme. Ad hoc the writer may recreate his intended meaning so as never to be wrong.
Okay, so let us start small: a book riddled with obvious spelling errors, though perhaps still a good story, is nonetheless mistaken in its orthography. Mistakes were made somewhere in the process of translating the writer’s thoughts onto the page — most likely in the typing stage. This, we can assume, is not some intentional literary device. So this idea can be expanded upon: the writer accidentally makes errors in person and agreement, messing up the most basic of inflectional rules; he moves in and out of present and past tense as if he has not made up his mind on how the narrator ought to be doing his job; getting bigger, plot holes emerge, such as a seemingly important character is introduced only to be forgotten and never mentioned again; story arcs that ought to be tied up are left hanging loose in infinity; characters’ temperaments and the language that they use change without rhyme, reason, or apparent awareness; facts themselves mismatch and hold back the success of the story like a bunch of briars do the writer’s clothes. Though there is no essential way of proving a story to be bad (or good, for that matter, as these are vague, relative words), there are inferences toward that judgment to be made on a case-by-case basis, which seem to amount — again, at least — to the recognition that the writer has accidentally hamstrung himself.
Like I said, this latter principle hardly needs mentioning because it is normally so obvious to the attentive reader. With that said, it really does need to be iterated that just because a story is temporally scattered between past and future or multiple thereof; or the boundary between metaphor and reality is blurred to a point that most casual readers might consider absurd; or any other of those postmodern or fantastical elements, that does not mean that the story should be called “bad” merely because it does not accord to what we know through our personal pinhole views of reality. There is much to be gleaned from these stories and the techniques utilized: after all, Salman Rushdie turned one of his characters into a goat to make (at least partially) a statement about the immigration experience; James Joyce wrote a novel where beginning connects to end ad infinitum; and I cannot count the times that Vonnegut has turned his voice to speak to me directly through the page! In the end, do we not symbolize ourselves and others in some way, as goats, angels, heroes, in our minds? Is not nature in a way very cyclical, repetitive, just this way, from birth to death? When we write any story or essay, or screenplay or script, or whathaveyou, is there not some subtext that you are speaking to or for somebody, perhaps the very person who reads or watches?
As I write this, do not I write as if to speak to you? Do not metaphors work precisely because they break the semantic rules which would lead you to interpret them literally, and thus be confounded? Is not this the way that language breathes?
 My coinage, probably unfaithful to Greek phonology.
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