I’ve been reading slush lately (God help me), and I’ve noticed a frequent pattern in bad stories: pointless interpersonal conflict.
Suppose – to use actual examples – some sort of horrible disaster has stranded a group of people in a church, convenience store, or hotel, who may or may not be strangers, and they need to cope with a clear and immediate threat to their survival, if not to the survival of the entire human race. What’s the first thing they do? Start to fight verbally or even violently among themselves over old disagreements or because one or more of them is racist, sexist, or otherwise abusive or mentally unstable, or wants to take advantage of the situation at the expense of others, or can’t control his or her sexual tension, or demands special treatment or non-existent information....
These stories fail in a variety of ways. The interpersonal conflicts bear no relationship to the actual conflict (death and disaster!) but merely attempt to inject “tension” to a plot that is unfolding too slowly or has too little tension on its own. Worse, these kinds of fights offer little suspense because people that stupid are bound to fail anyway, and I wind up hoping they die sooner rather than later because they bore me. Finally, these conflicts can feel forced because in real life, people tend to behave much more reasonably when death is looming. Despite what you might suspect if you’ve ever read comments on the internet, most people aren’t idiots.
In fact, I think this kind of story failure ranks as a subset of what the Turkey City Lexicon
calls an Idiot Plot:
“A plot which functions only because all the characters involved are idiots. They behave in a way that suits the author’s convenience, rather than through any rational motivation of their own. (Attributed to James Blish)”
By contrast, consider The Martian
by Andy Weir. In it, an astronaut is accidentally left behind on Mars with insufficient food and no way to communicate. He does everything he can to survive. Meanwhile, on Earth, NASA discovers he’s there and sets about rescuing him. Do the people at NASA waste their time insulting and fighting with each other? No, all of them try to do their jobs as best they can. Even when they disagree, they do so professionally.
There’s enough tension and drama in The Martian
to carry the plot without pointless bickering – as there would be if an alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, or WWIII had just begun. But the author needs the skill to move that drama forward. Not everyone has it, as I’m learning.
— Sue Burke