Updated: Sep 24, 2020
By Tucker Eastburn
Hello Adventurous Creators!
“When the storytelling goes bad in a society, the result is decadence.” – Aristotle
Stories leave a lasting impact on the culture that they are shown in. If you were around for our post last week, you might have seen how we talked about quality storytelling and what to strive for when creating your own stories. However, this week, we thought it would be interesting to give our take on what NOT to do when it came to the art of storytelling. Over the years, Alexis and I both have seen the best, and worst, storytelling has to offer. In this post, we believe we have narrowed down what makes what we like to call “bad storytelling”. When it comes to storytelling, we who create them should take our jobs very seriously as our stories can influence the hearts and minds of generations in both positive and negative ways. This is why we should treat our craft with the utmost respect and learn which pitfalls to avoid when we are spinning our fantastical tales. If we do not, our stories can become a very divisive force in culture with its negative impact possibly being felt for years after they are released. Sometimes, stories can even outlive their own creators so, before we display our story for the world to see, let’s make sure that we avoid these horrible storytelling methods at all costs.
1. Horribly Written Characters
One of the things that instantly pulls Alexis and I out of a piece of entertainment is when we see characters that were designed poorly. Now when I talk about the design of a character, I don’t mean their physical appearance (although that can ruin a story as well). I’m specifically talking about how the character was written. If characters are written to be perfect people, are horribly unlikable people, or are incredibly shallow and one dimensional, then you can absolutely kill a story because your characters are neither compelling nor believable. You must design characters to have flaws and struggles that they must overcome. If you design characters without these things, the audience is unable to relate to those characters as all people have flaws or struggles that they go through. The true strength in a character lies in their ability to show the viewer how, like them, they struggle with an issue or have the same flaw they do. Then, through the process of their journey as a character, they overcome those setbacks and show the reader how they themselves can do the same thing in their own life. This is also why you should write your characters to be at least somewhat likable or have a few redeeming qualities to them. This may seem a little obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people write characters who are just plain unlikable. Without redeeming qualities built into a character, the audience will end up rooting against them and, as a result, be taken out of the story as they will be disinterested in the events that unfold.
These “storytelling decisions” also impact established characters negatively too. Another way poor storytelling can rear its ugly head is when creators write established characters where they behave, or make decisions, that go completely against how those characters have been established in past stories. Now sometimes, with an incredible amount of care and forethought, established characters can be written to behave differently than they did before through a possible event that happens to them. This method can lead to brilliant storytelling. However, when you choose to have your established character do something that is so blatantly against their character before said event even happens to them, you pull the audience out of the story completely. It does not make sense to have a character behave completely opposite to who they are. You must show what happens to them first, then you can show them making a decision that goes against who they were before as you have illustrated that your character was affected drastically by the event that they went through. Nothing is worse than a story with poorly used or overly simplistic characters.
2. To Tell and Not Show
Another horrible thing that you can do when writing a story is to tell the audience all of the information you’re trying to convey about the world and its characters rather than show it. When possible, a good storyteller conveys as much information as possible through the use of the different characters’ actions, things and places in the world, and through other methods based on how creative they can be. This is the best way to go about telling your audience information instead of having a few characters lined up to spout off a bunch of exposition to detail out to everyone all of the past, present, and future information in a story. A notorious example of this very trope is in Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones when Obi-Wan and Anakin are in the elevator about to meet Senator Padme as they recount a fantastical tale of them encountering a nest of gundarks. In this way, we are just only told that Anakin and Obi-Wan are friends, that they go on adventures together, and that they enjoy one another’s company. Instead, we could have had this very adventure play out on screen in front of us demonstrating their friendship, the history of their friendship, as well as the subtleties of their relationship’s nature in a more dynamic way. Showing, not telling, is how you can create interesting set pieces, world-building, dialogue, and characters who interact with one another. Telling instead of showing is storytelling at its laziest and does not deserve to be shown in any fashion.
3. Poor World-Building and Breaking of Lore
When talking about what makes bad storytelling, another aspect that has to be highlighted is when a storyteller doesn’t spend enough time building an interesting or dynamic world. When building a world for your story to live and breathe in, it is important to fill said world with believably realistic cultures, languages, geography, and everything else that helps to elicit a feeling of authenticity with the viewer of your story. In simple terms, the best storytellers use world-building to help immerse their audience in the story even further by making the world relatedly similar in some ways to our own world and interestingly different in others. Not only that, all of the elements that you create for the world have to all work together to facilitate the characters and story. The world is supposed to be designed to allow the audience to be engrossed in the story by effectively “placing” them in a world that feels believable and grounded. When a storyteller doesn’t think deeply about this aspect of their story, it can completely take the audience out of the story entirely. In this way, your audience will be unable to fully connect themselves to the story and become wrapped up in what you are trying to communicate to them. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you can design and write a story without extensive world-building in it. However, one can only do that by having an absolute understanding of the themes and characters that they are trying to construct their stories with.
The other aspect of this is that, when storytelling in a pre-existing world that has been made through other works, a storyteller should strive to not break the established lore that was set by those who previously created the world your operating in. If there are pre-established rules in the world that you are trying to write a story in, you must follow those rules and be careful to never break them in any way. You can expand upon those previously established rules, but you cannot break them as you will taint the world, the previous stories, and your own story by doing so.
4. Atrociously Written Dialogue
Additionally, it is important to, when writing a story, have dialogue that is written well. This may seem incredibly obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many storytellers get this completely wrong. Dialogue, within a story, should help to tell the story, make sense of the world, and to give further insight into the characters relationships with one another as well as a character’s personality. Good dialogue is also contingent upon having the characters talk in a believable way that also isn’t incredibly clunky. What I mean by this is that, even in a story with the most fantastical world, all the characters need to talk like normal people would in our world today and not with a bunch of jargon and gobbledygook. Dialogue should also be informed on a character’s defining traits like their age, history, profession, and other attributes. All of these aspects, and more, should come into play when writing said character as it is paramount that all the characters in a story feel real, believable, and relatable. This aspect of storytelling is closely tied into writing for characters and world-building as these aspects work alongside dialogue to create a deeply immersive story.
5. Bad Cinematography
The best, and worst, of storytelling has many elements to it from dialogue, characters, plot, and world-building, but one aspect that should not be forgotten is the cinematography that goes into making a story. This pertains to not only how a story is visually communicated but also how we as storytellers choose to communicate our stories to our audiences. There are many different storytellers, including big studios like Disney most recently in the newer Star Wars episodes, that can often times make incredibly poor visual choices for their movies. For example, if you as a storyteller want to have a scene within your story but the shot doesn’t help push the story further, doesn’t develop the characters more, communicate more information about the world the story is set in, and is just there to look cool, then that is a major problem. Visual storytelling is all supposed to be in service of the characters, story, and world that the story is set in. Basically, if a storyteller’s main priority is the visuals of their art rather than the story itself, the whole thing will fall apart. Other aspects of bad storytelling within cinematography is if there are things in a scene that don’t make sense, any inconsistencies at all between shots, and how the overall scene’s composition is laid out. Even though the visuals should not be the main priority of a story, they are a big part of how you tell a story. It’s important that you avoid choices that will ultimately affect your story in a negative way.
Stories That Help Us Be Better
When it comes to down to it, all of these words of advice that we give you we have learned through our own experiences as well as by seeing the stories that a multitude of different artists have done. We do not want to insult or disparage artists and their work as we know the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that the cast and crew of a story put into making a story happen. However, we can also talk about where certain choices hurt the impact and quality of a story overall and help others to hopefully not make those choices themselves. In this way, all of our stories can be the best they possibly could be. In essence, we hope that everyone who reads this post is encouraged, informed, and given even more passion as they continue to create their own stories. We can’t wait to see what you all make and we hope to share our own forays into storytelling with you all very soon. Best of wishes to all and we can’t wait to enter into the storytelling landscape right alongside you!