Common Story Flaws and Plot Devices to Avoid

Randall Landers

Outside of Star Trek, I have several other interests, including the NFL, Braves baseball, NASCAR racing, Godzilla and other kaiju, science fiction and movies..."bad" science fiction movies, in particular. I peruse the channel guide on our satellite to find these films. On any given night, there's usually one or more for me to enjoy. It might be the underrated "The Flesh Eaters" or even "Frankenstein VS the Space Monster," but I sit back and enjoy them.

Recently, while scouring the Internet for a particularly bad movie I was looking for, I came across Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension website. On it, was his "Glossary of Specialized Terms" which contained a number of plot devices that bad movies often resort to. Sadly, I noticed that the same glossary could be modified and applied to any number of Star Trek stories I've read and/or edited over the years, and I thought I'd share some of them with you, even though I can't take credit for any of these.

These are things that should be avoided, and potential contributors would do well to look through these to see if they can be applied to their stories:

Antimatter Grenade
Any explosive device that results in an explosion far out of proportion to its apparent capabilities.
EXAMPLE: "You’re telling me that whatever was in that little purse blew up that entire building?! She must have been carrying an Antimatter Grenade!" We actually saw this in an episode of ENTERPRISE when a terrorist blew up the Federation embassy.

Canon/Continuity Error-Prone Writers' Credo
"Come on, these dummies (i.e. your readers) can’t remember what they saw/read in that episode/story!" Uh, yes, they can, and your story needs to make sure it doesn't ignore canon or continuity.
EXAMPLE: The writers, producers and staff behind "Spock's Brain" couldn't remember whether they were on Sigma Draconis VI or VII.

The Coincidence Story
In order for the story to take place, there must be an amazing series of coincidences. In other words, if it weren't for an amazing happenstance, none of this would have ever happened. The 2009 Star Trek movie is the biggest offender in this arena.

Designated Hero
A character who the story regards as its ‘hero,’ even though he or she is not, in any objective sense, all that heroic. "Designated Heroes" usually get a ‘free from responsibility’ pass from the writers, even if their actions result in mass deaths. This character is accepted as heroic, yet he is far from it.
EXAMPLE: Rather than performing his duties as a Starfleet captain and ambassador-at-large for the Federation, Captain Archer chose to stay in Sickbay because his dog was dying. Can you imagine a US Navy officer doing this? Then why accept that a Starfleet officer would?

Deus Ex Machina
The resolving of some improbable glitch in the plot line by some sort of gadget/alien/starship whipped up out of nowhere, one that is not foreshadowed in the story, and just pops up when needed to save the day.

Hero’s Death Battle Exemption
This rule stipulates that a monster/alien/murderer will have to spend at least ten times the amount of time and effort killing a hero/heroine (or his/her significant other) than anyone else in the story.
EXAMPLES: In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk makes short work of everyone. Not all that unbelievable since if you look in its eyes, you turn to stone. Yet this immense monster (and it was huge) cannot manage to stop a teenaged boy who doesn't even have his magic wand. You can also argue the same is true for Ripley in both Alien and Aliens.

Hidden Knowledge
The resolving of an impossible conundrum by some sort of factoid/bit of knowledge that is not foreshadowed in the story, and that only one character possesses who reveals it just in the nick of time.
EXAMPLE: One of the worst examples of this is in Evil Under the Sun wherein Hercules Poirot reveals a previously unknown bit of knowledge in order to prove the villains were in fact murderers.

I.I.T.S. (‘It’s in the Story’)
Explanation for actions taken by any character that make, in context, absolutely no sense, but serve merely to advance the plot.
EXAMPLE: Perplexed Reader: "Why is she wandering around when there’s a killer on the loose?" Knowledgeable Reader: "I.I.T.S.!"
See also "The Coincidence Story"

The Idiot Story
In order for the story to take place, a major character or several major characters must each act like an idiot. In other words, if the hero or heroes have any sense at all, none of this would have ever happened.
EXAMPLE: Several characters are trapped on a planet's surface until daybreak. One character is known or discovered to be a murdering monster. Knowing this, all the characters decide to split up rather than stay together as a group. Voila! An idiot story.

Idiot World
The setting of any story which portrays a world that the readers feel they could immediately wrest power over.
EXAMPLES: "That doofus is the Evil Overlord?! Man, I could seize control of this Idiot World in about ten minutes!" Also, the entire planetary council on the planet Gideon. They couldn't figure out how to control their population, so they decide to kidnap Captain Kirk and use a virus in his blood to kill their own people. Truly, an idiot world.
Also applicable to starships, space stations and moonbases.

Informed Attributes
When a character displays a mediocre or even inept level of skill in some discipline (anything from dancing to writing to fighting), yet we are shown other characters lauding their talents. This is to signal the reader that, at least in the universe presented in the story, these people are to be considered as highly proficient at their craft. This is one of the key characteristics of the "Mary Sue."

Light Bulb Moment
When a character is enacted in such a way as to indicate that he or she is getting a big idea of some sort.
EXAMPLES: In "The Immunity Syndrome," Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy are discussing the possibility that the Enterprise and crew are antibodies for their galaxy, trying to fight off an infection. Kirk pats McCoy and says, "An-ti-bo-dies!" Then orders up an antimatter bomb. It also happens in "Operation: Annihilate!" when Kirk is flashing the computer light on and off in his quarters when it suddenly hits him that "Light!" would destroy the flying parasites.

Mary Sue
When a character is regarded as being a poorly developed, too perfect, and lacking in three-dimensionality to be accepted as realistic or interesting. Often a "Mary Sue" (or "Gary Lou") will be regarded as the smartest, luckiest, most capable character aboard a starship, and at least one person (or more) of the opposite sex (and even a few of the same sex) come to regard her (or him) as the only true love of their lives. Often, they become the crux of the drama, and are almost always involved in resolving it.
EXAMPLE: Lieutenant Mira Romaine of "The Lights of Zetar" and Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

McGuffin
Term for whatever generic thingamajig is driving the plot of an action or suspense picture.
EXAMPLE: In "Mudd's Women," it's both the Venus drug and the lithium crystals the Enterprise needs.

Misdirected Answering
The habit of a writer to spend time answering little questions you’ve probably not even thought of, usually while ignoring plot holes.
EXAMPLE: Any time a character explains how some piece of technology, such as a phaser, works.

The Misleading Masculine Moniker Rule
This stipulates that any incoming/visiting scientific expert who sports an androgynous or downright mannish first name (or be referred to by initials) like Pat or Steve, only to turn out to be a woman. This will set up a ‘cute’ "Why, you’re a girl!" meeting scene between her and the film’s hero, which in turn will establish her as the film’s obligatory love Interest.
EXAMPLE: K.C. "Casey" Johnson who becomes Sulu's lover in "Ad Astra Per Aspera"

Monster Death Trap Proviso
This stipulates that any stratagem to destroy a monster, once it has failed, may not be attempted again, even if it only failed because of some bizarre fluke. Nor can the same plan be refined and tried again. Instead, a completely different plan must be formulated. Norman Spinrad managed to avoid this in "The Doomsday Machine" when Kirk models his stratagem based on Commodore Decker's failed attempt.

Out-of-Sight, Out-of-Mind
The inability of the characters in a story to realize that just because they can no longer see the monster or hostile alien that they're still in terrible danger. Usually, "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" leads to either an attempt at a "comedic" scene or a sex scene between characters, one of whom will probably say, "I'm scared."

Out-of-Sight Teleportation
The ability that allows a monster to materialize anywhere it pleases once the intended victim loses sight of it.

One Radio Rule
No matter how large a ship or secluded base or compound is, it’ll only come equipped with one radio. Once something’s happened to that, they’re on their own.
EXAMPLE: In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, in order to alert Starfleet, Kirk must get to the Enterprise’s only emergency radio, located near the very front of the ship where it's hardest to get at. This on a vessel, mind you, with voice-controlled computers, making you think that Kirk should be able to access a computer anywhere on the ship and send out an emergency distress signal to Starfleet even from the nearest bathroom.

Only Ship in the Quadrant Fallacy
It's a big galaxy, to be sure, but to claim that, while en route to a star system within a few hundred lightyears of Sol, there are "no other ships in the quadrant" is just plain silly. There are always ships available; they may not be suitable for the mission.
EXAMPLE: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. At least they made fun of this very fallacy in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Rule of Plot Holes
This rule stipulates that if a reader is forced to construct (or attempt to construct) an elaborate framework of suppositions in order to cover over some hole in a story’s plot, then the writers and editors haven’t been doing their job.

Spring-Loaded Tribble Clich
The ubiquitous kitty that invariably jet propels itself out of closets and cabinets during a story, creating a false scare.
EXAMPLES: The mean ol' kitty in "The Wreck of the Aurora Borealis" and another in "Encounters and Countermoves." It's dramatic, but needs to be kept to a minimum.

The Stealth Monster Rule
This provides that any monster, no matter how gigantic, awkward or noisy, will be able to sneak up right behind victims at will.

Villain Exposition Rule
Convention that dictates that a supervillain isn’t allowed to kill the hero until he has meticulously revealed his master plan, including vital data regarding time elements and such. Traditionally, this takes so much time that the villain must leave before personally seeing to it that the hero is taken care of. Inevitably, his goofball assistants then mess up the job, allowing to hero to exploit his newly gained knowledge and disrupt the villain’s plan. In reality, true villains don't take time to explain their villainy to their victims.
EXAMPLES: Practically any James Bond movie, but it even happens in "Mark of Gideon" and to some extent "A Taste of Armageddon." in Star Trek, usually Spock rushes in to save the day only to find that Captain Kirk has already taken control of the situation.

Vulcans Are Immune Concept
Time and time again, Spock and other Vulcans manage to get a reprieve from certain death because Vulcans are simply superior physically in some way or another to all other Federation races.
EXAMPLES: Too numerous to mention, but the salt & cloud vampires not liking Spock's blood, the nictitating membranes in his eyes, etc.

Wandering Monster
This is any time a monster or alien or some other hostile lifeform wanders around killing characters. It kills, wanders around, kills someone else, wanders around, kills another person or two (usually while they're having sex), wanders around, kills again, and so on ad nauseum.
EXAMPLE: The salt vampire from "Man Trap" is probably the finest Star Trek example of the wandering monster.

Many of the stories we review for consideration for publication often have these traits. Read through yours and make sure it doesn't use these plot devices. And if you see one missing, be sure and let us know!


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