I used to be a fan of The Walking Dead. I say “used to” because I thought the first 5-ish seasons were pretty good: solid storytelling, good characters, believable drama. But then things started to go off the rails. I decided at the end of last season (season 7) that I wasn’t going to watch it anymore because it had gotten so tedious that watching it felt like a chore. And watching a TV show shouldn’t feel like something I HAVE to do. This pains me because Jeffrey Dean Morgan is one of my favorite actors, and I’m sorry, but I love Negan. However, he was the only bright spot in what had become, at least to me, a mind-numbing, pointless story with way too many characters and far too many wooden actors.
The main problem, however, is that I can no longer suspend disbelief. No, not because of zombies, or a post-apocalyptic world, or even because their CGI has inexplicably gone from awesome to amateurish. It’s because I can no longer accept the character’s motivations. Without spoiling too much, I will tell you that the bad guy (Negan) has the ambiguously good guys by the throat, because he rules all the habitations near his own outpost, and makes everyone bow to him and give him their stuff.
Okay, but…you literally now live in a world without boundaries. Money, borders, and laws no longer exist, nor does 90% of the human population. You could pack your crap in the first working car you find (or just pick up more crap as you go) and drive away. The reason for staying is a weak “but we found a community and a home we can defend!” (from the zombies). Well, why don’t ALL of you just pack your stuff and drive literally 100 miles in any direction, find a new place to live that you can defend, and this problem won’t exist? Just move away from the bad guy. Nothing is stopping you.
That’s why I quit watching. And thus, we come to today’s writing lesson.
If you want to trap your characters in a situation, you better cover all the exits. Ask yourself “Why don’t they just…?” Make a list of why don’t they justs, and make sure you can answer them in a way that would make sense to a reasonable person. The answer to every item on the list should be “Because of very terrible reason.” Peril ramps up the tension in a story and makes the plot, but you have to make sure the person can’t just drive away from that peril.
No matter what kind of mess you drop your characters in–physical danger, a bad relationship, a struggle with themselves–it shouldn’t be easy for them to escape. They can’t stay in the situation for some weak reason, either. If you’re living next door to a maniac, but you live in a world where money doesn’t exist and empty houses fill every street, your reason for staying next door to the maniac can’t be because you like the carpet in the living room too much to leave. Sure, if the maniac kidnaps your kid you’re going to stay and fight, but once you get your kid back, screw the carpet and run for the hills.
As I said above: cover all the exits. Don’t give your characters a way out until they make their own way out. That’s a story. We want to see characters fighting to overcome something and figuring out how to get out of the trap the author has placed them in. Make sure their cell is not like in the old-timey comedies where they could just slip between the bars if they wanted to.
Trap ’em good!