Feb 28 2012

Rube Goldberging A Story – Please Don’t!

Posted by Mathias in Form and Style, General Things

A Rube Goldberg Device is something that is unnecessarily complex in order to accomplish a fairly simple task. Thus, by it’s complex nature it is clumsy, unwieldy, often breaks and fails to perform the task it was designed to do. Stories, it seems to me, often turn into such monstrosities. Yes, even published stories which get the full backing of a publishing house and make money for an author.

In stories turned Rube Goldberg devices, things tend to just happen. The author gets from point A to point D through events B and C, but those events are clunky and often seem constructed to purposefully drive a story through, even if they tend to make little sense as to why they needed to be taken even after they were taken. Such stories heap unpredictability among improbabilities upon out of character reactions until the story reaches the author’s desired ending. Don’t get me wrong, unpredictability is good because predictability breeds boredom. However, too much unpredictability, and not enough logic, leads to frustration on the part of the reader. A reader can only stand so many “out of the blue” realizations that save a character from certain doom, or plot twists that send the story off in new directions. Too many and the reader becomes dizzy.

There is one example that is most prevalent in my mind of this sort of story telling gone awry; the television series “24”. Although I hear the series “Lost” was the same way, but I can honestly say because I never watched it. The first season of “24” was great. I and many of my friends loved it because there were twists and turns and looking at them in hind sight, once revealed, made sense. The writers struck just the right balance.

Then came season 2, and it was good, though not as good as the first. The sense was that the writers knew that the unpredictability was the draw of the show, so they tried to squeeze in more of it. But some of the twists, even in hindsight, seemed little more than an appeasing grasp at the philosophy that unpredictability for the sake of it was a good thing.

After season 2, things went downhill fast. Some of the following seasons were better than others, but they all suffered from the same flaw of being too much like a Rube Goldberg Device. Characters would have a sudden flash of insight to escape a hopeless situation. Others would mysteriously appear for no other reason than to push on to the next cliff hanger ending each week. Still others would change stripes without any inclination that they were going to despite lots of screen time spent delving into their characters and portraying them in a certain light. Essentially, there series was chaos out of which emerged the ending some many weeks later.

Stories that proceed like this actually bore me more than encourage me to read more. Eventually, too much chaos and it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief.

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