Plots that Annoy Me: Picaresque

I came to a realization last night while watching some Netflix. (Show of the moment? Money Heist, which I enjoy a lot of, but there are some aspects that bug me which will become clear as you read this post.) There’s a whole vein of storytelling that’s becoming more and more difficult for me to actually enjoy. I’m not saying I totally hate the trope and will never watch or read anything like it, but if a story’s going to pull it off, it’s going to take some very heavy lifting.

I’m talking about the picaresque. Actually just one slice of it, really. I have nothing against first person or realism or satire or criminal behavior by the protagonist. But the “series of events” bugs the living daylights out of me, especially when jammed together with the “little or no character development.”

This is one of the reasons I gave up on House so easily. It was a formula, and they were going to follow that formula again and again and again. This is clearly a successful pattern to follow, especially with serialized television. Matlock or Perry Mason, CSI or Law & Order, pick your poison. Back in the days of reruns, this was a perfect setup for a television show. Establish the characters, and have people come back week after week for the characters doing the same thing as last week, and it doesn’t really matter what happened last week. There’s a new mystery, and you solve that mystery.

For me to want to stick with something like that longer than an episode or two? It’s going to take some awesome storytelling. Some fantastic characters or some intriguing plots or a twist I haven’t seen.

I don’t mean to dismiss a whole swathe of pop culture. I really enjoy murder mysteries, and I’ve watched more than my fair share of Law & Order episodes. Sometimes they scratch an itch that just needs scratching. But what I really dislike is when a story pretends to be something else, but at its core, it’s just serialized fiction. When a story promises character development and sweeping plot developments, and it gives me layer on layer of the same. Me no likey.

What exacerbates the problem is when those series of adventures become too obvious. The skeleton of the plot seems to just unravel, and I no longer really care about who’s doing what, since nothing seems to matter. Some new adventure will always pop up. Money Heist has a favorite trick: point guns at people. It feels like every episode, somebody’s pointing a gun at somebody else. Often multiple people are pointing guns at each other at the same time. This is supposed to increase tension, but they’ve done it so often, the trick’s worn thin. Nobody ever actually gets shot. (Well, once or twice, but very rarely.) It’s just a thing the writers like to do to show just how serious things have gotten.

Not a fan.

In books, this all plays out more or less the same. The hero goes through a series of trials, but none of them really seem to matter. You don’t know what’s coming up next, and so they can’t really plan for anything. It begins to feel like they’re succeeding not because they’re particularly good at what they do, but that they’re lucky. Problems arise due to bad luck. They disappear due to good lucky. In the end, I just stop caring.

If it were up to me (and when I’m writing, it thankfully is), I would prefer stories that have stakes that matter. Where the audience and the protagonist are aware of the challenges they’re going to be facing. Sure, some of it’s up in the air, but they can at least think of a plan to overcome the odds. It can then turn out even worse than they’d planned, but they can then use the smarts and experiences they’ve experienced up to that point to throw a new, meaningful plan together and win the day. The past is connected to the present and the future in a tangible way, and the things we’ve read before feel like they pay off later on in the novel.

Am I asking too much?


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