Overused But Effective Plot Tricks
Hans Ness, Jan 13, 2024
Call them tropes, plot devices, plot holes, or lazy cliched hacks, whatever. They are used an awful lot, partly out of laziness, but mostly because they are in fact effective at creating tension and keeping the plot moving without boring logistics. Frankly, I’m surprised at how tolerant audiences are — myself included. I guess it’s like cookie doe — it’s okay to eat a little, but not too much or you’ll puke everywhere.
This is just a partial/growing list. They apply mostly to screenwriting.
- Trip when running away. Can’t remember how to stand up.
- Snag clothes/strap on object when running away; cannot free themselves.
- Frozen in fear when monster appears. Forget how to run away.
- Drop important object, especially when running away.
- Weapon or important object slides under furniture, out of reach.
- Turn back on enemy after knocking them down. Totally surprised when they attack again.
- Car won’t start. Door lock stuck. Everything breaks at worst time.
- Locked keys inside. Stupid mistakes.
- Somehow thieves know exactly how bank alarm works and its vulnerabilities. Or exactly when guards switch shifts. Or shields are down. Or data is transferred. Or in The Rise of Skywalker, rebels know exactly how Sith guidance tower works on planet they’ve never seen before for ships they’ve never seen before.
One Plan Only
- Only one way to break the spell. Only one sword can defeat the monster. No questions asked.
- Only one plan proposed to solve climactic problem. It’s a long shot, but they agree it’s the only way, even though they haven’t even bothered to try to think of better alternatives.
- Friend quits and leaves. Then they return for no apparent reason, just in time to save the day. In Star Wars, Han Solo refuses to go into battle, then returns just in time to save Luke. In Monster’s Inc., Mike argues with Sulley and leaves, then returns just in time to rescue him. In Luca, Alberto argues with Luca and leaves, then returns just in time to help. In Moana, Maui gives up then returns just in time to fight the monster.
- Walking away from explosion in slo-mo. Too cool to look back. This is so cliche, it’s now meta funny, and I’m for it!
- Turning head very slowly when monster makes sound behind them, instead of looking quickly or just running.
- Bad guy suddenly appears five feet away in totally open space without anyone seeing them coming.
- Enemy surprised by combatants and projectiles that somehow jumped through non-linear space.
- Hanging from a cliff, a character falls. Then miraculously they’re caught by someone on the cliff who was 20 feet away.
Maybe this is only me.
- Monsters roaring and growling at their food. Predators only roar/growl at someone they perceive as a threat. A giant monster sees a human as a snack, not a threat. Predators don’t roar while hunting or snacking. (Yes, I know it’s scary. Shut up.)
- Giant monsters. What would they eat? These ginormous beasts would need to eat like 5 elephants a day just to stay alive.
- Blatant favoritism. Fifty crew members just got killed in an explosion — no big deal. Friend in danger? Stop everything and risk every else’s life to save one friend!
- Impulsive astronauts. Astronauts are rigorously trained and vetted to stay calm under pressure and follow orders. So it irks the bleep out of me in near-future realistic sci-fi when astronauts suddenly become emotional and irrational, impulsively risking the mission and everyone’s life. (Yes, I know rational characters are boring. Shut up.)
- Wasting guns. Why does the hero throw their gun away when they’re out of ammo? Not very environmentally friendly. Reduce, reuse, reload.
- Property damage. So many buildings are smashed and cars crushed when superheroes battle villains. Then they cheer their victory like it’s no big deal, but it takes years and millions of dollars to repair that much damage. (I know, smash good.)
- Bystander deaths. With all the crashed cars and collapsed buildings, are we really supposed to believe that no innocent bystanders were killed?
- They’ll live. Just because someone isn’t killed in battle doesn’t mean it’s no big deal. Those injuries may cause pain and limping for the rest of their lives.
- Disappearing wounds. When the hero is shot through the arm or impaled through the shoulder, they wince for ten seconds, then suddenly it’s a mere bandaid-sized scratch.
- Fingertips with superhuman strength when hanging from a cliff.
- Inspirational speech. In a crowded room, everyone worries about hopeless situation. Hero gives speech, and everyone stops to listen without any questions or comments. Then they cheer and close in on hero and pat their shoulder. When have you ever seen that in real life?!
- Talking while driving. These scenes always distract me because the driving keeps taking their eyes on the road, so I’m always worried they’re going to crash.
Yes, I know real science would be way less dramatic, but let me whine.
- Why design laser weapons that somehow shoot way slower than the speed of light, so slow it gives enemies time to dodge out of the way?
- Speaking of lasers, space fights would realistically be fully automated and last only a few seconds. Why wait for slow humans/aliens between each shot?
- Why does the captain need to tell the whole crew how to do their job all the time? Like why not raise shields automatically when attacked instead of sitting around waiting to be told what to do?
- Magic technology like universal translators that learn any language with no training, and somehow make the aliens’ lips appear to move in an English-speaking way. And image “enhancing” that fabricates missing detail.
- Why do spaceships orbit around the equator with their top toward north and bottom toward south? That means they’re actually orbiting on their side.
- When two or more ships meet in space, why do they happen to always be oriented up/down the same way?
- Why doesn’t anyone have jet lag? Not only is there no day/night in space, each planet has totally different length of day.
- Plus the usual defiance of Newtonian physics, visible lasers, dense asteroid belts, opaque nebulas, humanoid aliens, everyone speaking English and telling time in Earth units.