Wasted Potential - Introduction

>> Saturday, May 21, 2011

I reread the manga that got me started railing on endings. I'll be writing a review of it over on Unlikely Otaku later (partially to get it off my chest and partially because if I gush about my current favorite manga, I'll have to reread that whole thing and I've read it twice this week already).

But the issue I have with that (bad ending) manga is one common to all kinds of story telling media, from movies to stories to novels to, well, pick one. That problem: wasted potential.

There is nothing I hate more than reading/watching something that should have been good, that had the elements for being good, even great, and turned out disappointing. Even if the end product is "good," if it's only a shadow of what it could have been, I end up feeling let down. Frustrated. Even angry. An example that leaps to mind include the movie 9.

Contrast that to my general pleasure at watching or reading something where I didn't expect much because the idea seemed stupid or uninteresting, and yet I ended up really finding it compelling nonetheless. Something as absurd in conception as say, Edward Scissorhands, by way of superlative acting and careful and clever handling, becomes an unexpected charmer.

If you're going to err, the latter is the way to go. In other words, handling even the silliest notion with care and skill can still be a winner whereas inept or careless treatment of even the best ideas will lead to utter failure. Particularly notable failure, because wasted potential is a broken promise to the customer: I had something that should have been great and didn't deliver. People remember those that have let them down. I sure as hell do.

That doesn't mean everything one writes has to be classic or great literature, but it needs to deliver on its potential. If it's escapist adventure, make sure its exciting and entertaining. Keep the writing crisp, the pace brisk, the humor bright and the pathos to a minimum. Make the characters deep enough so the reader cares about their fates, but not so deep and convoluted to drag the story down. If it's a romance, the characters need to be deeper, their relationship compelling even if the premise or story isn't as as strong.

However, making those secondary elements stronger makes the whole package better and can change a little bit of escapist literature into a favorite book. Make the story stronger, the plot plausible, the humor entertaining, and a romance novel stands out against in a sea of "meh."

Writing a novel is much like making a complex meal. You want the best ingredients, of course, but how you cook them, in what proportions, when you offer them, even how you present them, all matter to making a satisfying eating experience. You can't dump even the best ingredients for a five course meal into a blender, purée then pour into a pan and bake it and expect it to be satisfying, even if you shave black truffle over it.

I suspect many would-be writers get caught by this, falling in love with an idea, thinking it's so cool but not realizing that that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to crafting a satisfying story. They're dazzled by the potential of the idea and can't see that what they've delivered is still raw on the inside or poorly proportioned, because they see the product they wanted it to be.

So, I'll be talking about getting the potential out of my ideas, my stories, my characters, what I do to try make sure I don't break any promises for my readers.

And, yeah, it's another multi-parter.


  • Shakespeare

    That is why an idea for a story--a concept--cannot be copyrighted. The artistry is in the execution, or, better termed, the CRAFT.

    That is why I am an obsessive reviser. The craft is everything.

  • Jeff King

    I am a sinner; I see my work with blinders on… I hope to repent soon though.

    It hard to look objectively at your work, it’s always going to be what I want it to be. Thank goodness for friends who don’t mind telling me the truth.

    I agree I hate when a story, book or movie lets you down… when it had such good potential. I strive everyday to make my story the best it can be. The problem is I don’t know it will ever be good enough!!

  • Stephanie Barr

    Jeff, this isn't an attack aimed at anyone I know. There are plenty of published/cinematically released examples.

    I'm hoping to provide a few guidelines that I use to try to avoid doing this myself over the next few posts.

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