The Cave's X-Files Commentary Archives: Technical FilesTitle: Dreamlurker's Famous List of Plot Conveniences
EXPLANATION - WHAT IS A PLOT CONVENIENCE? A plot convenience, or PC, is any cheap, cliché trick which TV writers use because a) they wish to boost ratings, b) they don't think we'll notice, and/or c) they're running out of ideas and they still have x-amount of time to fill. In other words, they've written themselves into a corner, and need there to be a door behind them so they can leave.
Now, it has been said that there are only so many stories to be told, and they all have been told in innumerable forms over the centuries. It is the manner in which they are told that makes the difference. If you don't find yourself thinking that you've seen or read this before, then it's a good story. If, on the other hand, you can see the ending coming a mile away, it's not. Plot conveniences are standard plot elements, which are utilized with little to no originality. If you saw it coming half an hour before, it's a plot convenience. If you can say the lines with the characters, and it's your first time watching the show, it's a plot convenience. If the music, the dialogue, the camera angles and such all tell you that you should be on the edge of your seat for a scene, and you're leaning back, rolling your eyes and grumbling derisively, it's a plot convenience. In short: if you notice it, it's a plot convenience.
Due to a fairly minor demand, I felt compelled to complete the listing of plot conveniences I alluded to in my recent rending of One Son. I tried to keep it fairly generic, as The X-Files isn't the only show to employ them. I'm not even saying that they all have appeared in that show… at least, not yet. Here goes…
1. JUST A DREAM! or IT DIDN'T REALLY HAPPEN - A mainstay of the television industry for years, this PC has plagued sci-fi shows practically since Day One. Mainstream TV usually has the character wake up precisely two minutes before the closing credits. Sci-fi programs often elaborate on the theme by allowing that the events did actually occur, but, due to a) a time warp/redundant time line or b) mass memory-wiping, nobody remembers it. Unfortunately, nobody has come up with any such convenience for the viewing public. See also PC #13 (Temporary Memory Loss.)
2. SPONTANEOUS RECHARACTERIZATION - Have a plot that would look darned spiffy on screen, but there's no way in heck that the characters would do what needed to be done for it to work? No problem for a team of TV writers - just rewrite them for the duration of the episode! It is a common belief among creators that characters exist in a liquid state - filling whatever plot container they offer without hesitation or thought. No matter how much effort and care has gone into creating a three-dimensional, complex, stand-alone character, if they suddenly find that they need to alter one of the basic tenets of that character's personality, they can and will do so. Often, the revisions will only last as long as the writers need them to, and then be forgotten about - by the writers and the characters, not (unfortunately) us viewers. See also PC's #12 (Temporary Stupidity) and #13.
3. THE HIDDEN FACT - This is especially common in mystery shows, but it also makes an appearance in every storytelling medium. Characters call for back up and don't mention anything until said back up arrives. Characters suddenly know something or have something - no idea where or how they got it. Research and/or tests are finished in record time. Theories are dismissed or confirmed based on things we are never told about except in passing. Properties of weaponry and/or technology are employed that we've never heard of before, and probably won't hear of since. This is also how characters can have life-altering experiences and/or phobias that are never brought up until suddenly they seem relevant. Sometimes, this can be the fault of editors. Not all the time, though. Not nearly all the time. See also PC #13 (Temporary Memory Loss.)
4. PSYCHIC LAW ENFORCEMENT - Sometimes an extension of PC #3, if the Hidden Fact involved a phone-call or discussion. This explains the presence (or lack of same) and/or actions (or lack of same) of police officers, security guards, military forces, special agents, "bad" armies, and so on. Apparently, they operate on a hive mentality, with a telepathic dispatcher acting as a queen telling them when to arrive (or not arrive), when to patrol dutifully and when to slack off, and so forth. This dispatcher also has some influence over non-human security measures, including dogs, fences, and alarms. The dispatcher is employed by the writers. So, characters can waltz in and out of a top-secret facility with little to no difficulty, yet find themselves surrounded on a deserted highway. Also, nobody will show up until the necessary amount of time for a dramatic scene has passed even in the middle of town, yet back-up units can arrive at a desolate location in the boonies to do the requisite clean-up right on cue, so the credits can roll uninterrupted.
5. DEATH OF A CHARACTER - Okay, so you're the creator of a hit TV show, and you've got a gaggle of new fans from a movie you just made based on the series. Now, the old fans are grumbling, and the new fans are confused as to what is going on. So, to appease both sides, you decided to disclose everything fully in the space of two episodes. However, you know that some of the old fans aren't gonna buy it, since you're basically rehashing what they've already figured out. How do you get them to tune in anyway? Easy - promise to kill of a major character, and they'll come running back to their TV sets! Often, this is employed with PC #2 (Spontaneous Recharacterization) so that a formerly "nothing" character is made suddenly likeable or commendable in some fashion, just before he or she buys the big one.
6. RESURRECTION OF A CHARACTER - What gives? The fans didn't really want him or her to die? And after you spent so much time making everyone sympathize with them at last… Fickle public! Maybe there's still something you can do about it. You didn't actually show the body, did you? Oh, good - you can still revive them! Yes, that's right - unless we see the body from at least ten angles and in roughly as many pieces, we can't be sure that the character actually kicked the bucket. Even if there is a visible body, a good/desperate writing team can work their way around it somehow. Another PC held in reserve for an emergency dose of ratings. See also PC # 7.
7. "MIRACLE FADE" or IF YOU DIDN'T SEE IT, IT DIDN'T HAPPEN- Closely linked with PC #6 is the infamous fade to black just before a climatic event, or the cut to a long shot where the character is conveniently out of the frame. A lot can happen in that blackness. A lot of it we viewers wouldn't buy. So, they just don't show us the extremely improbable scenarios that allow the plot to carry on as they intended. This is linked to The Cliffhanger, which is not listed here because it is primarily a ratings-booster, the cause of more Plot conveniences rather than the solution. I guess they figure that we'll buy anything, especially if we're provided with the appropriate audio cues (the gunshot ringing out, the scream, etc.) Often, they're right. Dang it.
8. VIOLENCE AND/OR DESTRUCTION FOR DISTRACTION'S SAKE - Oh, no! You've just been looking over your script and it doesn't make a lick of sense! Time to toss in a firefight, preferably coupled with an explosion and/or something getting nastily and messily demolished. With all the loud noises and fast camera cuts, nobody will notice that the plot isn't quite airtight. This also explains excessive use of gore. Frequently, the telepathic dispatcher (see PC #4) sends in a team of sacrificial drones to facilitate this. See also PC #12 (Temporary Stupidity.)
9. OTHER MAN/WOMAN or THE DISAPPEARING/REAPPEARING OBSTACLE - It happens almost every time. Characters A and B work together. They go through hell and back together. They are shot at together, and they shoot together. Everyone's pretty sure that A and B love each other, but they won't admit it to each other. Finally, though, A is starting to break that last, final wall - when B shows up with Significant Other C, thus driving A back into their shell on the issue to brood, glare and bite their tongue. C will hang around until the writers have filled enough episodes with the distraction, and then the relationship will be allowed to proceed as normal. Earmarks of this PC are a sudden, perhaps uncharacteristic display of personal interest by A, plus the fact that C either has no other reason to be there or has been around in the background but never in this fashion. Also, C will fade into the background and/or leave just as quickly once the writers determine that they have no further need of him or her. Please note that this PC isn't always used to keep a romance from developing. It can also be used to stall an important task or object, or slow down a journey. C doesn't even have to be a person, but rather a very significant distraction, which comes and goes rather conveniently and only A or B - not both - is prone to. Sometimes, C can be both human and obstacle. C is always annoying, and quite often is evil. We viewers are not meant to sympathize with C in the least, and, often through judicious use of Spontaneous Recharacterization (PC # 2), the writers see to it that we don't. Character A will, of course, take the high road and won't rub it in when C breaks B's heart/will/spirit and B comes crying to them. This almost obligatory reconciliation scene can lead to PC #11 with surprising frequency and speed if A and B are of the appropriate genders (and if the writers choose to apply PC # 2.)
10. NUDITY FOR DISTRACTION'S SAKE - The surest way to draw in the voyeuristic (and largely lonely) viewing public is to expose a little flesh. Swimming pools, bathtubs and showers commonly facilitate this. Unfortunately, this is a progressive PC. What boosts the ratings one week won't get the viewers back the next unless the stakes are raised. Usually, it leads to, or is associated with, PC #11.
11. SEX FOR DISTRACTION'S SAKE - After baring all with PC #10 (or sometimes before), the next step is to vicariously satisfy the viewers' carnal urges by giving us a steamy roll in the hay. With surprising frequency, this PC is tied into #2, and sometimes even PC's #1 (Just A Dream) or #12. Frequently, there are smaller, awkward "build-up" scenes, which, like the ultimate act, often take place at inconvenient times (the characters are in imminent danger of death or capture, usually.) Many writers make the mistake of actually building up to this as a major plot point. It rarely is. At best, it is part of a well-developed relationship that is about more than physical attraction, but all too often writers confuse sex with romance… not unlike reality, actually. This PC is commonly used to distract viewers from the fact that the writers have no idea what else to do with their characters and/or plot. Often, once reaching this point, the show only goes downhill, as there's nowhere left to go. Of course, if the writers bothered coming up with a stable universe and good characters, this wouldn't be nearly the problem it seems to be in the industry. We can therefore expect to see this one in TV shows and movies for ages to come.
12. TEMPORARY STUPIDITY - Quite often linked to PC #2 (Spontaneous Recharacterization,) this is a form of mental paralysis inflicted on characters so a particular sequence can take place. Usually, it is something that they should know much better than, but they do it (or don't do it) anyway. Going into the darkened basement alone, opening the creaky attic door in the haunted house, going in after the psychopathic killer before back-up arrives, and actually eating/drinking refreshments provided by a suspicious character are all evidence that the writers screwed up by creating characters who were too intelligent to begin with, so they had to be temporarily hobbled so the plot could proceed. This is also why characters fail to gather evidence or tell others important things at key points - or points that would be key, if the writers didn't have other ideas!
13. TEMPORARY MEMORY LOSS - An extension of PC #12, whereby characters forget about cell phones, guns, or essential information that could get them out of their current situation in a jif. Sometimes, memory is restored just in time for a miraculous escape, but more common is the episode-long amnesia, where they never do realize that they never were as trapped as they seemed. This is also how entire shows fall through the mental cracks of characters. Like #12, this is why cameras, tapes and such are left at home when a character goes on a mission where they could be darned handy.
14. REVISIONIST HISTORY or THE SHIFTING PLOT PREMISE - This is very common in long-running television shows. What sounded good or promising to establish in the first year just isn't holding up to where the writers want to go in the second or third. No problem - who remembers those outdated episodes, anyway? Just rewrite the laws of your little universe and you'll be fine. You can always put them back the way they were later if you want. Now, I am well aware that concepts can evolve in unexpected manners during their life, and what seemed like promising and stable ground during the pilot may be completely unsuitable by midway through the next season. Still, it is a significant alteration to the groundwork of a universe, and writers wouldn't do that if they could actually use what they had already stated was the truth. This also includes alterations to such things as birthdays, ages, and such, which are minor plot points to begin with and have no real reason to be toyed with - unless the writers decide to make it a point, of course.
15. TECHNOBABBLE AS AN ART FORM or USE ENOUGH WORDS AND IT'LL SOUND FINE - This is how the writers like to slip all sorts of PCs and weak plot premises by us. It is especially rampant in sci-fi shows, but another common usage is in medical terms. Often, it is used to cover a lack of knowledge on the part of the writers, or to rewrite known facts in the fields. Use enough big, long, technical-sounding terms, and we viewers will get so lost trying to sort through it all that we'll just give up and buy it. For a while. By the time that realize that what they've said is meaningless or contradictory (such as autopsies listing death by cardiac arrest - all death could be caused by cardiac arrest, as this is just the cessation of a heartbeat!) the next episode is airing, so presumably we'll forget about it. This is closely linked with PC #3 (The Hidden Fact.)
16. SCAPEGOAT PHENOMENON/PEOPLE - This tends to be related to PC #15. The best example I can think of is from the Star Trek universe, where subspace anomalies, transporters and/or holodeck malfunctions form a large portion of the plot devices. It seems highly unlikely that any one phenomenon could cause so many different problems so often, but the writers just can't seem to come up with anything else. Of course none of the solutions they discovered in previous encounters will work, due to judicious use of Temporary Memory Loss (PC #13.) This also applies to any catchall organization, movement, person or thing that is used, often lamely, as a last-minute explanation for the trouble of the previous hour. With surprising frequency, the story would've been just as good, if not better, had the writers just left it as it was, or come up with another cause.
17. ROBOT CHARACTERS - (Credit Sn66py for pointing this one out!) These nonhuman creations behave like wind-up toys, and are used when writers can't or won't be bothered to come up with real characters. Presented with the proper stimulus, they will spout a specified series of lines and react in an extremely limited, predictable manner. They learn or vary their routine, even faced with situations that would break any living human of their habits. Robots are programmed to be immune to such alterations. Sometimes, they substitute for main characters when the writers don't feel like putting much though toward true characterization. Many, of not most, supporting and background characters are robots. They can be confused with consistent characterization. Occasionally, this is associated with #2 (Spontaneous Recharacterization) or #12 (Temporary Stupidity.)
18. HYPERINTELLIGENT ANIMALS - Whenever we see an animal in a TV show or movie, we can rest assured that it is no coincidence. We can also forget about considering them in the same way that we consider their real-life kin. These animals are highly intelligent life forms who are forced to make all sorts of concessions to point things out to their two-legged co-stars. Often, they know precisely what is going on from the start, and will react in whatever manner is necessary to further the plot and the characters' understanding of it. They invariably react when in the presence of untrustworthy or evil people. They can sense a spirit presence. They will find clues, escape routes and food sources for main characters in distress. Also, they will serve as distractions for either the main characters (to create false suspense) or their enemies (so the good guys can escape detection.) They will conveniently get infected with or attacked by the same things which the main characters must deal with, and serve as a test subject for the cure (or seek the cure out themselves to show the hapless two-leggers.) Further proof that these creatures are not related to their real-life counterparts is the fact that the same cure that works for the animal will always work for the people, despite the biological differences. (Simple aspirin is toxic to cats, while chocolate is a cumulative toxin to dogs.) Occasionally, they will be forced to make the supreme sacrifice to warn main characters that something evil is afoot, though the people will almost invariably ignore such warnings until it is too late. Frequently, these actions will be counter to the behavior and/or tendencies of such creatures in our world. The majority of these animals can perform their functions and escape unharmed, however. Some have speculated that they are under the influence of the same telepathic dispatchers that handle the Psychic Law Enforcement (PC #4), but this is unlikely. Animals behave with more intelligence and originality than the uniformed drones.
19. STORM TROOPER SYNDROME (Credit Hobrock) - Often an extension of PC #4, this is a disorder which affects the amount of damage a character or situation can inflict on another character and/or a place. Bad guys usually suffer from this when trying to shoot the good guys; their equilibrium is thrown off and eyesight affected, so they can never seem to hit the protagonists. The main characters can also suffer bouts of it, so a character who can usually hit an ant at 100 yards can suddenly miss from nearly point-blank range. By extension, this PC can enable characters to survive wounds and traumatic incidents that would kill (or at least permanently disfigure) any normal human being. Apparently, this is a result of special genetic engineering experiments performed on all characters, which allows for amazing healing capabilities and endurance. The occasional (convenient) lapse in form must be an unfortunate (yet also convenient) side-effect. The fact that buildings, computer equipment, artifacts and other inanimate objects also tend to survive relatively unscathed where real-life counterparts would be destroyed is further proof that the laws of physics can be altered to fit the plot. Both of these serve to protect something called a Budget, which is a very special thing for a TV show or Movie, only to be wasted/used at Big Moments. If characters couldn't survive without serious injuries and/or scarring, and equipment didn't have superior endurance, then the Budget would be blown long before the finale.
20. IF IT'S INCOMPREHENSIBLE, IT MUST BE PROFOUND or THE PONDEROUS TRUTH (credit Zuffy) - Sometimes writers get into trouble by creating universes so vast and great that even they can't quite wrap their minds around it. This can become a problem when the time comes to explain what the heck is going on. One sure-fire way to mask this deficiency in knowledge is to have one or more characters exist solely to spout long, pointless and contradictory speeches. The main characters and the audience will have so much trouble following it that we will all assume that it must truly be great and profound, and we are just too dumb to realize it. As a rule, though, the protagonists will claim to understand it. These Truth-Mongers can get extremely annoying, since they seem to be patently incapable of saying anything in plain English, but everyone puts up with them because they know Truths. Often, Truth-Mongers will be killed, frequently just before they get around to making their point. Amazingly, the loss will be perceived as a great blow to the cause of Good. See also PC #15 (Technobabble As An Art Form.)
21. THE MUTUAL ADMIRATION SOCIETY (credit FoxPhile) - Getting people to properly admire a main character isn't always easy. Sometimes, writers fear that we no longer realize just how great or admirable a character is. To remedy this, or to kill time, they arrange for an impromptu meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society. All characters - often even the bad guys - are members. Meetings are devoted to extensive (and often redundant) exhortations of another character's traits, accomplishments and ideas. The converse club, to which all characters are also evidently members, is the Mutual Abhorration Society. At meetings of the latter, characters will recount all the nasty, unlikable and bad stuff about others. Commonly, this is to make sure that we clueless viewers are rooting for the right side (though it sometimes has the converse effect.) Usually, the object of the day's affection or aggravation is not absent, thus forcing bit-players to sit through these tedious get-togethers.
22. PLOT-IN-A-BOX or THE PREDICTABLE CRISIS (credit Zuffy) These ready-to-use plot devices are of immense help when stretching a show to fill the allotted time or filling out that skeletal story. Prepackaged for convenience, they come in all sorts of varieties, and always have but one predictable outcome. Throw in a pregnant woman for instant labor crisis near the show's climax. Have a country redneck for Monster Appetizer. How about a dedicated/cold scientist as an Obligatory Victim? The list goes on and on (and on, and on, and on...) Sadly, many desperate writers become addicted to these all-too-handy crises, and soon their scripts are merely excuses to use as many as they can. If we can ever locate the secret plant where these instant crises are manufactured, we would be doing the industry a great service by eliminating it. As an added bonus, the addicted writers who do not recover would die during the horrific withdrawal.
That's all I have for now. Keep in mind that this list is in no way definitive, nor am I claiming that it is complete. As always, personal identification of incidences of PC's is a matter of opinion.
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