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The Opposite of Cardinal Sin #1

Banes at 12:00AM, Aug. 3, 2023

I think many of us who make comics or write stories or are interested in writing can agree that mistake number one in writing is to front-load a story with a long-winded backstory. We've talked about it here on the site plenty of times.

There is an opposite mistake that can be just as damaging - you could call it “Hiding the Ball”.

It's when the plot is built around a secret, or a question, or a hidden twist that the creator or marketing team is trying to hide.

It can work, but if EVERYTHING is built upon this hidden answer, it had better be a REALLY good answer. And there needs to be something else going on in the story in the meantime.

This kind of mistake doesn't show up right on page one or minute one of a story, so it might not be as obvious right away.

- But it can actually show up even earlier than page one or minute one: it shows up in the marketing of the book, or movie, or comic.

If the advertising (whether that's commercials, or the blurb on your webcomic, or whatever) can't tell you enough about what the thing is about, it can be harder to interest people.

Funny enough, no big examples are coming to mind - I'm thinking of exceptions. Like the Matrix, which was marketed on a mystery (“What is the Matrix?”). Or the murky plots, or multiple or minimal plots in popular movies like Pulp Fiction or Napoleon Dynamite. I guess it CAN work. The big twists in The Sixth Sense, Usual Suspects, Seven, and Shawshank Redemption were cultural landmarks, but those movies all had more going on, to some degree, than just the impactful endings.

And the famous JJ Abrams “mystery box” approach certainly worked well enough to make JJ fabulously wealthy throughout various movies and TV shows - in my opinion, the revelation that the Mystery Box is often empty has torpedoed JJ's credibility as a filmmaker, for me at least. I would most likely avoid something with his name on it at this point. But that's beside the point.

The screenwriting book “Save the Cat Strikes Back” mentions ‘Hiding the Ball’ as a big mistake when pitching a screenplay.

Anyway, this was a bit rambly again. I'm gonna take my ball and go home now.

Have a great one! See you next time!


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J_Scarbrough at 9:54PM, Aug. 6, 2023

@Banes One specific example that comes to mind was an experimental film I did several years ago that was very polarizing: some people liked it, some people disliked it, and there was very little middle ground. One of the criticisms I received from those who didn't like it was that the 18-minute film was too long, too dragged out, and too redundant. Basically, the film, called TECHNICOLOR DREAMS was a pseudo-autobiographical look into my creative process of how a lot of my better ideas for projects come to me in my dreams - and the only way I can accurately describe what my dreams are usually like are like Sid & Marty Krofft shows on steroids.

Banes at 5:10PM, Aug. 5, 2023

@Corruption - I think "The Village" would qualify. I know some like that movie, but it definitely fell flat for me...

Corruption at 7:08PM, Aug. 4, 2023

I guess if you showed the "Truman show" via Truman's perspective as he tries to find out what is going on, it would be hiding the ball. Just thought of "The Village" Would that count as one?

Banes at 9:45AM, Aug. 3, 2023

@J_Scarbrough - Interesting! Who are the people making these comments to you? I mean, it seems like it could be constructive. One of my own criticisms of my own stuff is that I cram a lot into the ending of my stories. Especially with webcomics, that might not have been completely planned out and edited enough, once I know my ending I'm trying to set things up toward the end so the payoff works properly. But that's my own critique of my own stuff; nobody else has said that. These days I'm trying to plan further ahead so the setups can come into play earlier...thanks for your thoughts!

Banes at 9:41AM, Aug. 3, 2023

@marcorossi - it might not be exactly the same, but there are similarities (a studio exec or producer wants to know if this product will 'sell' (to the market, or first to talent that will want to make the thing; marketing the final movie is to sell it to an audience. Granted, a screenplay and a finished project can be two very different animals - and a producer/exec is supposed to hear the ending, while a potential audience doesn't. Agreed that hanging everything on a 'big reveal' is often underwhelming. LOST had a huge reveal, and so many people still think of that show as a huge disappointment/cheat. I think of the X-Files, too; they created all these questions that eventually could not possibly be answered (even if the original "answer" about the alien invasion was a pretty cool, and very 'big' answer, it can be really hard to pay that kind of thing off. Thanks for responding to this jumbled Newspost, btw!

J_Scarbrough at 9:37AM, Aug. 3, 2023

One criticism I've faced when it comes to my writing is making stories too long and cramming too much detail into them, and I suppose I can understand why that could be a problem, since a general rule of thumb is that you want a story to be as tight as possible, while still being able to flow smoothly at a decent pace. The only problem is sometimes when you have to start cutting material out to meet such a goal, you really have to agonize over what, exactly, you need to hold onto so you don't lose the audience or end up with any plot holes, and what you can easily live without.

marcorossi at 2:30AM, Aug. 3, 2023

Well, "pitching" a screenplay to a producer is not the same as marketing it to the expected viewers. Speaking for muyself, I like the story that work on the expectation of a big reveal at the end, but very often I've been underwhelmed by the final revelation. In a movie this happens when you watch the movie, but in a TV serie you will see people liking the serie a lot and then sorta slowly ditching it (think Evangelion or Lost). In artistic terms I think this is sort of a cheat, though maybe in marketing terms it works.

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