I got this title from a fun little article I read the other day. The writer was pointing out a flaw in a particular television show (not the one you’d think) and it made me think about a somewhat common issue I see pop up a lot of the time.
A long ways back I mentioned the idea of a limited concept story. It’s when the entire plot can be summed up as A to B. I’m here, but I want to be there. I want to get off the island. I want to stop the bad guy. I want a date with the cheerleader. A limited concept is based around achieving a specific goal, and once I’ve reached that goal the story is over.
Now, sometimes, a story will be a limited concept, but for whatever reason it keeps going. Perhaps the network renewed the show for two more seasons. Maybe the publisher wanted more books in the series. Could be the movie did so phenomenally at the box office that it suddenly became the first in a trilogy. And sometimes… it’s just because the writer doesn’t have enough story to fill the space they’re trying to fill.
Whatever the reason, artificially extending a story tends to fall flat really quick. Especially in an A to B story. When my characters have one overriding goal, it’s very hard for them to not achieve it.
Alas, I see this structure again and again in books, comics, and television shows. The name I’ve hung on it (feel free to use your own) is “the obvious problem.” It’s when there’s something stopping the progression from A to B that just… well, it shouldn’t be there. Not because it doesn’t fit the world or the story, but because it’s hard to believe the characters would allow it to stop them.
It’s kind of a silly comparison, but a limited concept is like Gilligan’s Island. The whole point of the show—their single overriding goal—is to get off the island. Getting shipwrecked was A, getting rescued is B. And I can’t keep having stupid things keep them from getting off the island again and again and again or it’s going to look… well, stupid. The professor builds a shortwave radio out of coconuts and Gilligan accidentally smashes it with an oar. Gilligan discovers a natural superglue that could repair the Minnow, but forgets to mention it only lasts a few hours and wrecks the boat even worse. They build a raft from bamboo and coconuts, and Gilligan lets the wild boy escape on it.
The thing is, we can buy this sort of mistake. Once. Maybe, if we’re generous, twice. But let’s face it… after two weeks on the island, the other castaways would’ve tied Gilligan to a tree so he’d stop screwing things up for the rest of them. He’s the obvious problem in all their escape plans, and it’s tough to believe they’d keep including him. Let’s be honest—in a darker version of the story, they might’ve even killed him for the good of their small community.
This is why we all though Gilligan’s Island was high art when we were six, but got frustrated with it when we were older. We couldn’t buy it anymore. There’s just no way to believe the survivors of the Minnow wouldn’t deal with the obvious problem that kept stopping their attempts to get off the island.
If the one thing Wakko wants above all others is to date the cheerleader, there’s only so many times he can spill a drink in his lap, get stopped by her friends, or threatened by the football team. If that’s what he wants, he has to achieve it. That’s basic A to B storytelling.
If he doesn’t achieve it… well, what was the point of this story? It’s A to nothing. That’s not a plot. It’s a plot point.
And nobody reads plot points. They read stories.
Next time, sticking with our island theme, I’d like to talk to you about what’s in this bottle that just washed up on shore. Don’t expect much… it’s got to fit in a bottle.
Until then, go write.