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Marissa Lingen

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Excitement! Suspense! Cliffhangers! Or…not. [Jan. 25th, 2015|11:48 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Further in my watching of ten gajillion cop shows with my workouts, I have noticed an alarming tendency to try to add suspense in all the wrong places. Not every season has to end with a cliffhanger. If people like your show, they will keep watching your show.


I repeat: NOT EVER SEASON HAS TO END WITH A CLIFFHANGER.


But if you do choose to end your season (chapter, whatever piece of your narrative arc) with a cliffhanger, for the love of Pete can you make it one that actually…cliffhangs? Competently?


For example: “Will this be the end for the group of people this story focuses on?” No. No it will not. Everyone knows it will not. Exactly zero cop shows ever have completely disbanded their unit after that kind of cliffhanger, and the ones that have sort of disbanded it (The Wire S1 into S2) did not make it a cliffhanger. They just said: yup, now we are shifting these characters around to do something different. “Will [only female character] perish in a watery grave?” I’m just going to guess no there. “Will [main protagonist] spend his life in jail for a murder he didn’t commit?” Also going with no.


And okay, yes, if you’re doing it right, the suspense is not whether they will get out of something but how–but in the cases above, the “how” looks pretty obvious. How will [only female character] not perish in a watery grave? Well, by swimming or by having one of the others pick her up in a boat, I’m guessing. Haven’t seen that one yet, so we’ll see. And how will [main protag] get out of jail for a murder he didn’t commit? In a cop show–except for The Wire pretty much universally invested in the system working–I’m going to guess exonerating evidence. Wheee. So could you please stop pretending that we don’t know these things?


Putting a secondary character in peril is more effective than putting a protag in peril if you have established a reason for us to be interested in the secondary character–and if we actually believe you’d carry through with it. By the time you’ve watched a season of a show (read several chapters of the book, etc.), you have some idea whether it’s the sort of show that would let a bad guy murder a 4-year-old. That kind of show has to signal its turns pretty early on, or they will put off the people who are watching it to unwind of an evening with a little light mystery. We live in a narrative-savvy age. You have to roll with it.


Also more effective: putting a protag in non-mortal peril of a kind you’d carry through with. Fiction does horrible things to series protags as long as it lets them keep protagging. “Maybe their spouse will leave them or die!” Yep, unless the spouse is seriously major in the show (El in White Collar, for example), that can happen. “Maybe they will be demoted but still able to do the stuff we thought was interesting about them!” Yep. “Maybe they will have an injury they will have to work through in implausible PT episodes!” Wait, that’s a different gripe. (LEGEND OF KORRA PT FAIL ARGH.) You can make them sad. You can make them lonely. You can make them injured. We know these things happen to protags, so we can actually worry that they will happen this time.


Tim and I had a beautiful alternate universe Criminal Minds for the season in which there was an SUV explosion and it was strongly implied one of the team members was in the SUV at the time. In the time between seasons, we lovingly detailed the adventures of Aaron Hotchner after he had recovered from his massive burns and was dealing with trying to run the BAU from a wheelchair while doing actual rehab so the scar tissue wouldn’t cripple his fine motor control and still raise his son. But we knew they would never, ever do it. The question for the beginning of that season was “how will they cheat,” not “who will be killed or maimed.” And really, “how will they cheat” is pretty much always less satisfying suspense. It’s got the viewer/reader thinking about the creator, not the characters. Not what we want.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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[User Picture]From: mamculuna
2015-01-25 06:14 pm (UTC)
I don't know your feelings about Game of Thrones, but since that show does quite often kill off major characters, cliffhangers could work. But they don't use them all that much--I'm thinking especially of the Red Wedding, a season ender that let us know who did and didn't survive.
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2015-01-25 09:38 pm (UTC)
Game of Thrones even tends to put its wham moments like the Red Wedding in episode 9 of a season rather than 10, and then uses that last episode to denoument and tease us about the next season (Neln ba gur fuvc gb Oenibf). It's one of the things I really like about it.

With the exception of GoT I almost never watch shows these days as they air, and I won't start something which seems likely to end on a cliffhanger unless I know that episode 1 of the next season is available. I really don't like unresolved cliffhangers. I've almost never found their resolution satisfying, for all those reasons you describe, but at least I can release the tension.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 12:37 am (UTC)
I find Game of Thrones far more predictable than most people seem to. Yes, it kills major characters, but never the ones who feel "safe." I know this mostly from the books, but I doubt that the TV show has diverged significantly and started killing Arya, Bran, etc.
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[User Picture]From: laurel
2015-01-26 02:35 am (UTC)
TV is weird about cliffhangers as they seem to come in and out of fashion and now they're back in again so people seem to expect them at the end of the season. I think previously when they were "in" they were special events, it wasn't every darn show doing them. And these days, it isn't even just season finale cliffhangers, but we have half-season cliffhangers and the like. If they give us cliffhangers at every major break in the season it's no longer exciting at all, especially when shows take a potentially dramatic event and then do everything they can to return the characters and show to the way it was pre-cliffhanger.

I'm crazy about shows where they don't do the predictable thing though it can be incredibly disconcerting to watch a show like that when you're used to things going a certain way.

I know people that have stopped watching these unusual shows because they were so pissed off or upset when major characters died or the sort of drama they expected didn't happen. (I imagine in some cases if the shows were a movie, in the test screenings the audience would hate it and then the executives would insist they change things around before the movie saw the light of day.)

I think that may be my most favorite thing of all, when a show messes with the expectations of a TV viewer but is super sly about it so you really do not expect it at all. Except they can't be sneaky in a certain way or I'd realize they were being sneaky. They build up a secret and you imagine you'll be seeing scenes of tedious fallout like you would on every other show in the world, but then the secret is revealed and the characters act like actual grown-ups and get along with things and I stand up and cheer.

As for the PT thing you mentioned, that can be maddening. On Homicide they had one character (Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Braugher) have a stroke and it was dramatic and scary and they did a little somewhat realistic follow-up, but then I'm pretty sure the network said "um, we want Frank back to being more like old Frank already, okay" so it was like they fast-forwarded his stroke recovery. Which, well, fine then. It was a primetime network TV series and a lot of meddling did happen in later seasons; I dream of an alternate universe where it aired on HBO or something and they let it play out the way the creative team wanted it to.

I think I stopped watching Criminal Minds after the SUV blowing up cliffhanger-- I watched the episodes that resolved it and maybe occasional others that season, but then stopped. Still downloading out of habit, uncertain if I'll ever bother with the rest. I have some fondness for some of the actors and characters, but the show drove me nuts (and not in a good way) too often.

Your version of what happened post SUVs blowing up is better, of course. One danger of reading fanfic for shows that are still airing is far too often the between-seasons fic is so much better than what they wind up doing when the show comes back. (At this point I kinda want to pretend everything post season 4 or so of White Collar didn't happen and instead embrace a fanfic world.) (See also: fanfic for the wizarding war in Harry Potter from before The Deathly Hallows came out; the imagined war was bleaker and longer in most cases and far more interesting.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 03:34 am (UTC)
I have kept watching Criminal Minds at this point because it remains absolutely perfect pacing for my workouts. It's like the ur-show for that. But it's clearly not the show it was, and there are some things that are actively betrayals of the show it was.

There is a certain degree to which I snap-judge shows on how obvious they are in the pilot. If I can tell you what line of dialog comes next 50% of the time or more, I'm out. This is probably unfair and makes me miss out on blah blah I don't even. Because: 50% or more of the actual dialog, done.

I don't even mind so much when PT is on fast-forward. I figure the time frame of TV shows is all weird anyway. What I hate is when it's toxic and wrong no matter when it happens. Like S4 of Legend of Korra, which literally no one appears to have noticed: there is telling the disabled person that it's all in their head. There is telling them that they don't want to get well and are using their disability as an excuse. There is "relearning to walk" without gait correction (GAAAAAAH STOP). There is telling them to relax without providing any assistance for making a painful situation also relaxing. It's like the perfect storm of terrible. And it is so much the cultural narrative of how to handle disability in fiction that the thoughtful, interesting people I read have not been hitting the roof over it, which makes it even more painful.
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[User Picture]From: laurel
2015-01-26 06:14 am (UTC)
That is painful, I haven't watched Korra so. Eep. And yeah, time-frames on TV shows are weird.

Unless a pilot is painfully awful in multiple ways, I usually watch at least one or two more episodes before giving up because shows may change showrunner, writers, or even cast members between the pilot and the next episode. Plus pilots have such heavy lifting to do, they're often clunky. And many more people are involved in tweaking pilots than in future episodes. It's rare I see a good pilot anymore, there are lots of shows I love dearly which I thought were gonna suck based on their pilots (Community is one).

Weirdly, Homicide didn't have a pilot as the show was ordered without one which may be why the first episode is as good as it is and non-pilot-like. Open-ended, even.

I realized that I inadvertently watched the extended version of the Person of Interest pilot rather than the one they aired and this led to some confusion later because things they had to cut from the long version wound up handled in future episodes in slightly different ways. D'oh! (Why is this character getting an apartment when he already has one? Etc.) So now I'm currently obsessing over which is the better version for folks new to the show and the answer should be the aired one and yet some of the stuff in the extended one is truly fine and important. I'd suck at making those creative decisions were I working on a show.

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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 01:39 pm (UTC)
The few shows timprov watches any more, he often started by wandering in while I was watching a non-pilot episode, getting hooked, and going back. Because yeah: pilots. Too many cooks etc. He has said he might not even have watched The Good Wife if he'd had to start with the pilot.
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[User Picture]From: vcmw
2015-01-26 02:55 pm (UTC)
I go as far sometimes as really not caring for a show until season 2 or later. There are several shows I like that I started at season 2 or after, and only eventually backfilled season 1 with much plodding.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 06:28 pm (UTC)
Netflix may allow me to do more of that. Since I don't watch anything but hockey and occasionally baseball on broadcast, even if a trusted friend says, "Just start with S3 and see if you like it," I'm less inclined to invest the money in that. But Netflix! So.

I really appreciated when I was reading a particular mystery series and dd_b said, "They don't get any better from here, so if you weren't thrilled with this last one, it's more of the same." There are lots of TV series for which I could do the same. (Bones. Rizzoli and Isles. Etc.)
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[User Picture]From: laurel
2015-01-26 08:42 pm (UTC)
Yup. It can be really fun to go back and fill things in (unless the show really struggled early). Sometimes if you jump in mid-series, the show can even seem more interesting if you have certain elements of mystery that regular viewers don't.

In a way, I think it was easier for me to find and like shows that way before shows were readily available in their entirety.

Way back when, before shows came out on DVD and we were lucky if they came out on VHS, I fell in love with both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files (after resisting each for years) and I honestly think they might not have worked for me if I'd seen every episode of each show in order from the beginning (especially as they aired).

With both, I think I saw individual episodes (not from their first seasons) on TV which intrigued me. Then when each released three tape VHS collections (each tape had two episodes, each set contained six of their best episodes), I devoured them and was hooked. They'd release additional sets every so often and they were in chronological order, but it was just the best episodes. I'd rent them or buy them as they came out and in the meantime would try to watch new episodes as they aired. Seeing just the best or key episodes in that case made a big different. Ultimately, I did enjoy it when I was able to watch 'em both completely from the beginning, but each show really had some clunker episodes that tried my patience (and still makes it hard for me to revisit them in their entirety) and neither show hit their stride in their first seasons.

When I was doing TV Picks, I tried to highlight good standalone episodes of shows when they were on; I also tried to tell people if a show was going to get better or they could skip a particular episode or season or whatever. This is important useful information!

I'm struggling right now to put together some sort of guide to Person of Interest because many would tell you that its early episodes aren't that great (or are too formulaic) and yet they're all important in the big scheme of things. I suspect my guide may amount to "watch until you get to Enrico Colantoni's first episode and if after that you don't want to stick around, I can't help you." (It's episode seven, I suppose asking people to watch that many may be a lot if they aren't wild about the show, but with 'Rico as incentive-- c'mon!)

I just revisited the long version of the Person of Interest pilot last night and it's really noticeable now to me that it's a pilot-- not merely from the large amount of exposition, but because the characters aren't quite themselves yet and the show isn't really the show exactly. (That's another thing, pilots are often filmed on different sets/locations than they end up using. Wardrobe may be different, other little and big differences that make them seem off.)

I'm especially wordy lately, yikes.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 09:09 pm (UTC)
I can think of several shows that I have actually watched that would have been better that way. DS9 and Bab-5, for example.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2015-01-26 09:32 pm (UTC)
Interesting because I've had exactly the opposite reaction with a couple of shows. For instance, I dropped into a random episode of Burn Notice and could not get past wondering why the central character puts up with his hectoring, obnoxious, interfering mother. I didn't pick up the show at all until I dropped back and saw the pilot and got the answer (because he really doesn't have any other realistic options).
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[User Picture]From: netmouse
2015-01-26 03:22 am (UTC)
Yeah, I'm getting really tired of this with Castle, especially in that after the summer cliffhanger thenext episode I was able to access seemed plotwise to follow the cliffhanger but was missing scenes I had seen previewed, like hulu was missing half an episode or something. I dunno.

And then for the midseason break they threw in another "and this will mess with the whole premise of the show" cliffhanger, and by this point it's tiresome. My ability to care is getting worn down.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 03:23 am (UTC)
Good point--it can be actively counterproductive, not just not actively productive.
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From: sheff_dogs
2015-01-27 09:08 pm (UTC)
I missed the last season cliffhanger of Castle because I've taken to recording shows and watching the cliffhanger just before the new season starts. Foiled this time by my Virgin box dying so it's lost. Alibi over here are re-running all of Castle fron season on so I'll be able to pick it up, but I'm not stressing about it in the meantime.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 01:37 pm (UTC)
I absolutely believed in the peril in Slings and Arrows because it was the sort of show that would totally let its protagonists fail in their play if that was the right thing. In some shows, "will they manage to put on a play?" would get a "duh, of course" answer, because they're just not willing to let the characters hit any kind of bottom. But in S&A there are always new depths to plumb.

Oh, I know! It's partly that I trust Paul Gross at this point. When I watched Passchendaele, I knew that it was not the kind of war movie that would be like, "Well, the Great War was bad, but at least the people who have names came home safely." Because Paul Gross. And the same was true with S&A: I trusted that he was doing something bigger than what I would now think of as a Canadian version of Glee: "oh, those wacky actors and their foibles! but the show must go on." No. No, better than that, much.

He's got a new thing coming out called Hyena Road, and the tagline for it is, "Three different men, three different worlds, three different wars - all stand at the intersection of modern warfare - a murky world of fluid morality where all is not as it seems." I trust this a lot more than I would a random movie of this tagline where all would mostly be as it seemed after all.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2015-01-26 05:39 pm (UTC)
I guess one of the things that I, as a perpetrator of action plots, find tedious about how other people implement them is how fixated both creators and audience members get on death or injury. Was a major character not killed or seriously injured? Pfft, then your jeopardy and stakes weren't real.

The trouble with this shorthand is that there are a LOT of other ways action can go wrong which everyone then ignores. There are cases where action happening at all is the result of the breakdown of negotiations and certain to cause larger escalations; cases where you're making a moral compromise (or a dozen) to ensure victory; trauma and emotional damage. One really wishes those counted as "real" stakes for more people. (I'm confident that they do in your mind. The larger discourse, though...)
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[User Picture]From: rysmiel
2015-01-27 04:05 pm (UTC)
I think the failure mode of not having "real" stakes for me ties to the reversibility/recoverability issue, and there is a lot of media out there where trauma and emotional damage that could sensibly, realistically, be developed as an ongoing major issue for the people in question, is instead shoved into a convenient cliche notion of how emotional damage works or is fixed, or just ignored after a bit; and that can make it feel like not real stakes.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2015-01-27 05:40 pm (UTC)
There's definitely a lot of cliche-deployment and punch-pulling out there. But on the other hand, people seem to get credit for realism even if their maimings and deaths get reversed as well, so long as the reversal isn't as easy/pleasant as D&D healing. Take GRRM, who has magical resurrection in his toolbox. Or Kameron Hurley, who killed and maimed folks in the Gods War books, but then put most of them back together via bug magic and spare body parts.

I don't know. I still mostly think that "injury or death = permanent consequences = serious arthur" is a shorthand that people should examine far more closely than they do. We seem to have drifted into a place where an aesthetic of brutality is sufficient to earn a reputation for admirable ruthlessness, and in general I'm not that impressed.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2015-01-27 05:48 pm (UTC)
Also, to Marissa's point about not everything needing a cliffhanger, the "injury or death or your stakes aren't real" attitude tends to lead to a quota for maimings and such, which is the exact opposite of good structure, and undermines the supposed motivation of the trope (ie realism over narrative convention). You end up with characters like Quentyn Martell, who get introduced for the sole purpose of being killed off in a grisly fashion, because the author can't kill off too many more established characters or else readers will lose their favorite and the narrative will spin out of control. It all seems very self-defeating, basically.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-28 03:44 am (UTC)
Very this. Designated Dead Guy should not be a thing.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2015-01-26 05:06 pm (UTC)
I'm curious to know whether you have watched any of either Life or Terriers, and if so, what you thought of them.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 06:29 pm (UTC)
DVD log says I bounced off Life very quickly. Terriers no, never seen it.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2015-01-26 06:59 pm (UTC)
Pity you didn't like Life -- it does a number of things with the character relationships that are not at all typical, and actually resolves its long arc in a satisfying way. Or so I thought.



Edited at 2015-01-26 06:59 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: laurel
2015-01-26 09:00 pm (UTC)
It's crazy to me how long ago Life seems now (when it wasn't all that long ago), but then my memory can be particularly awful. I remember liking it a lot when it aired originally and really should revisit it one of these days.

So glad both Damian Lewis and Sarah Shahi have had success in multiple shows since then.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2015-01-26 09:41 pm (UTC)
I have absolutely no sense of when most of what I watch aired because I didn't watch any broadcast television for decades and now we're back to no broadcast tv in the house so everything is timeshifted to one extent or another, if only slightly. (PBS shows we do often watch streaming a day or two after the broadcast date.)

The thing about Life is that it's the only series I've seen Damien Lewis in where the character he plays is likeable to me. While I may feel empathy and understanding for his characters in Homeland and Forsythe Saga, neither is a man I can in any sense like.
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2015-01-27 09:15 pm (UTC)
I bounced off of Terriers after two episodes, and I regretted wasting my time on the second one. I think it was the Eight Deadly Words, though I don't remember for sure at this late date.

I have Life on my "one of these days" list -- I think lsanderson recommended it -- but haven't watched any episodes yet.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2015-01-26 05:22 pm (UTC)
The cliffhanger that annoyed me the most was the end of the 5th season of the Inspector George Gently series, which ends as if it is meant to be the last episode of the series, and then the 6th season picks up largely as if nothing happened. There are enough other betrayals of the prior series throughout that episode that I have to wonder if the series creator wasn't writing under the impression that the series was indeed cancelled and he was so pissed off he was going to leave nothing but a burning wreck at the end of it.

The most recent episode I've seen of Endeavor also ends on an obnoxiously un-cliffhangery cliffhanger, especially since the whole series is a prequel to the Inspector Morse series, there are a whole bunch of things that we know cannot possibly happen to the title character.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 06:31 pm (UTC)
I think we must have seen the same most recent episode of Endeavor, because yah: no. Not even a little suspenseful, honestly.

I haven't tried Inspector George Gently yet. Is it good up to that point?
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2015-01-26 07:32 pm (UTC)
Well, I think it has a lot going for it, and I'd put it a cut above several 'competing' series, such as Midsomer Murders. The series is interesting to me because it's set in the 1960s and moves up through the era taking in various issues of the day as it goes. It's not as well done as Foyle's War -- but what is? -- but there is some similarity in the way the lead is written and the way contemporary events interact with the policing. Gently's consistently liberal/modern attitudes are perhaps not totally period, but we do get a foil in DS Bacchus whose reliably troglodytic views seem more plausible in the mouth of a working class cop of the era. I do get frustrated with Bacchus in that he doesn't grow noticeably more enlightened over time, but I'm not sure that's implausible.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 09:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks, that's useful for me to know, and it'll go on the list.
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From: sheff_dogs
2015-01-27 09:20 pm (UTC)
Gently isn't all that liberal or modern, he's not above roughing people up from time to time. Baachus does grow a bit, but seems unable to generalise from specific instances where he accepts his prejudices are wrong to questioning all of his prejudices. Dramatically that is probably necessary and is realistic, the classic 'gays/blacks/whatever are all suspect, but x, who I know, is alright'. I certainly encountered that growing up in the 60s and 70s. I like the series, but I was surprised they didn't end it all at the end of season five.
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[User Picture]From: laurel
2015-01-26 08:49 pm (UTC)
I haven't yet watched Inspector Morse, but was thinking of watching Endeavor (I admit, primarily because Roger Allam is in it). How is it? Good without having seen Inspector Morse first or better without? Prequels are weird.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-26 09:06 pm (UTC)
I watched S1 of Endeavor before I watched any of Inspector Morse, and I still haven't watched all of Inspector Morse, though I'm going through it a bit at a time as I'm in the mood. I'm okay with Morse, but I really really like Endeavor, even with the stupid pointless cliffhanger.

I have, however, seen all of Inspector Lewis. I doubt that matters much, though.
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[User Picture]From: akirlu
2015-01-26 09:48 pm (UTC)
I've not seen more than an episode or two of the Inspector Morse series and I'd say Endeavor is perfectly fine without. I suppose there may be forward references I'm missing, but if so it's not distracting me. Like Mris, despite the annoyance of the recent cliffhanger, I like the series overall quite a lot. In fact, it was feeling a little bereft about having run out of seasons of Endeavor and The Bletchley Circle (nevermind GRRM,why, oh why do they not make more series of Bletchley Circle faster?) that brought me stumbling upon the George Gently series.
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-01-27 03:58 am (UTC)
I find even episode-to-episode cliffhangers maddening, let alone season finale ones. I don't mind overarching story arcs (in fact, I like them very much), but I like the episode-specific plot to resolve within the episode. As a means of trying to carry over excitement to the next season, cliffhangers don't work for me. If anything, they make me more likely to drop a show, because I hate feeling jerked around. Then too, cliffhangers often use the plot element of the Hollywood Betrayal, which I haaate. (This is where something from the past comes up to cause one character to feel completely lied to or betrayed by another character, almost always wrongly. We know it's a big mistake but we have to hang around and wait while the characters figure it out. These are often romantic in nature, and the romantic ones are the worst of the worst.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-01-27 04:44 pm (UTC)
I think one of the things I find particularly upsetting about the Hollywood Betrayal is that it seems to assume that everything your partner ever said, did, or thought before they know you must be disclosed immediately. When really, while there are some things you should disclose right away, part of the joy of being in a relationship long-term--or even a non-romantic friendship--is finding out things about this person you know so well that you never knew before.
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