5 Ways to KILL a Perfectly Good Story

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Over the weekend Hubby and I rested and watched movies and we took turns who could pick the film. Hubby loves dramas and war films. I prefer horror and space aliens. Anyway, Hubby chose the drama Unbroken and that is three hours of my life I will never get back.

Halfway through the movie, I had Hubby pause to check out how much more of this film I would have to endure, and I’m pretty sure I was worse than sitting with a young kid in a dentist’s waiting room.

I’m BORED! *plays with spit*

Though the intentions behind making the movie were noble and the cinematography superb, the fictionalization fell flat. And, since I don’t like wasting my time, I figure we can at least look at what went wrong with the movie and use it as a cautionary tale and example of what not to do.

What bugs me is that Louis Zamperini’s life could have made an excellent film. But, because of these five common rookie errors, the movie fizzled and failed to resonate.

My apologies ahead of time to those who liked the movie. Personally, I think adding some Klingons might have improved it.

Fiction has rules and we ignore those at our own peril. And, since I see these mistakes a LOT (particularly with new writers) we are going to take some time to explore what went wrong with what could have been an excellent movie…

#1 Characters Cannot Randomly Change

I’m sure in life people randomly change all the time. They do random stuff for no reason. This is bad to do in fiction. Fiction hinges on cause and effect and characters can’t do stuff simply because we (the writer) need them to.

In the movie, Louis Zamperini is introduced to us as a young spit-fire kid who is constantly in trouble. Though barely a teen, he checks out girls in church, steals, smokes, drinks and gets into fights. Early in the film, he is dragged home by a police officer and the viewer is told through dialogue that this hothead is bound for jail if he doesn’t straighten up.

Okay, interesting character.

*brakes screech*

Out of seemingly nowhere, Louis Zamperini decides to listen to his older brother and try out for the track team. No dark night of the soul. No sitting in a jail cell and having to make a hard choice. He simply one day apparently says, “You know what? I think I’m going to give up petty crime and go to the Olympics.”

*head desk*

Characters cannot change without a crucible. It’s cheating.

#2 Characters Must Have an Opportunity to FAIL

So yada yada yada, we endure a bunch of pointless flashbacks which seem to only tell us that Zamperini can run really fast and then we are in WWII and Zamperini is fighting in the war. For virtually the ENTIRE movie, Zamperini has no choice in what happens. He’s merely the victim of bad things happening to him.

The ONLY setback Zampirini didn't tun into...

The ONLY setback Zamperini didn’t run into…

He’s in a plane crash, they’re adrift at sea, bad things happen, sharks, more bad things, Japanese, more bad things. Then he and the only other survivor are rescued by the enemy and stuffed into a POW camp. And more bad stuff. And more and…*checks watch* even MORE.

Crappy luck is NOT dramatic tension. Dramatic tension is created by choices. When our protagonist is whisked along by events he cannot control and the only opportunity to fail is suicide? We bore the audience. That is a bad situation, not authentic drama.

Zamperini is far too evolved for the story and he has no opportunities to choose badly. He overcame his poor character before the story problem ever happened. There are no situations that cause him to arc (or for him to help anyone else arc).

He’s always the one who remains calm, the one who is level-headed, the one who does the right thing. He takes the beatings while in captivity and presses on to stay alive. He is the same when the plane crashes as the day when he walks out of the POW camp.


For this to have been true drama, we needed one Zamperini who went to war who was flawed and one who made it home “perfected.” The war situation should have been the crucible to fire away those character imperfections and leave a hero in the protagonist’s place. Yet, we get a sense that Zamperini was already a “hero” before his plane was ever shot down.

Thus, instead of a character journey to become a hero, we are left to endure a chronology of nothing happening. This is an excellent example of why too-perfect characters are BORING. Zamperini is a one-dimensional caricature because, as a human being, he has no place left to arc.

He’s also surrounded by “plot puppets”—characters who serve no purpose. I.e. Why is brother there other than to get Louis to join the track team and riff off a couple of inspirational quotes?

#3 Good Story Goals are ACTIVE

To have a solid story problem, our protagonist must have an active goal. Staying alive is NOT an active goal. It is like “containing Communism.” It’s passive and about as effective.

I don’t know about you guys, but staying alive is probably my top priority every day. It is why I don’t blow-dry my hair in the shower or juggle power tools. My goal pretty much every day is to NOT DIE. Staying alive is not a story-worthy goal.

I run into a lot of new authors who tell me that their story involves “staying alive” “staying hidden” “avoiding” “protecting” etc.

A young peasant boy must protect the princess of the realm from evil forces lest the Black Sorcerer enslave the realm.

Okay, so what’s the book about? A peasant boy stuffing princess in a giant Princess Hamster Ball and putting up round-the-clock security?

What must the protagonist DO in order to triumph?

#4 Flashbacks are a Often Sign of Weak Writing

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Jolie likes to flip back and forth in time, but there is nothing in the flashbacks that tell us anything we couldn’t have learned in dialogue and real-time narrative. We get that Zamperini went to the Olympics. We don’t need to go with him to Berlin understand that.


I’m not a fan of flashbacks. They stop the forward momentum of the story to go and “explain.” If we use a flashback, we have to be careful that we aren’t relaying information that any viewer/reader could have gleaned from the present story. That is being redundant. Flashbacks can also indicate we might be telling the wrong story or starting the story in the wrong spot.

In the case of Zamperini, the better story might have been the WHY behind him trading stealing for running. Why change? What makes a hotheaded hoodlum into an Olympian who later would become a war hero and man of God?

Since Jolie keeps flitting back in time, this might have been the actual story, but would have required better writing. Zamperini being starved and beaten for almost two hours is easier.

#5 The Antagonist MUST Be Defeated By A CHANGED Protagonist

Original cartoon via Hyperbole and a Half

Original cartoon via Hyperbole and a Half

If we pan back and look at all the great stories, power begins in favor of the antagonist. It is through change (arc) that this balance of power shifts. In the beginning of a story, the protagonist would fail (does fail) if pitted against the antagonist.

To keep in the same genre, we will look at one of my favorite classic dramas. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn Couch is bullied by her husband and Monster-In-Law. She has no spine and a low self-esteem. It is through stories of Idgy Threadgood (parallel plot line) that Evelyn changes—TOWANDA!–and, in the end is able to stand up to her tormentors.

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In the beginning, Evelyn handles the situation all wrong. She apologizes for her own existence and tries to appease those who enjoy making her a victim. By the END of the story, Evelyn is a changed person (protagonist—>hero). The ingredients for her to stand up for herself were always there, but the story problem is what reveals the gem that was always inside.

Evelyn defeats the antagonist in Act III by finally refusing to be abused.

In Unbroken there is no change. Zamperini takes beating after beating in defiance of his tormentor, The Bird. He doesn’t change. He doesn’t even inspire others to change. He simply outlasts the sadist and we are dragged along for the trip until the Allies can save the POWs (and the audience) from more abuse. We lose the internal development of the character and trade it for the cringe factor of watching Zamperini endure worse and worse torments.

What We Take Away

Characters might begin as victims of fate, but they eventually must take control.

Perfect characters are boring. Bad decisions make excellent fiction.

Characters need ACTIVE goals. “Surviving” is not active and the only way a character can fail is by DYING.

There is no authentic victory unless the protagonist is given opportunities to fail.

Examine flashbacks. What purpose do they serve? Are they necessary or Literary Bond-O to prop up a weak story? Does the story begin in the correct spot?

Does the protagonist change? How? How does the change make the protagonist into a HERO?

What are your thoughts? Am I being too hard on Unbroken? Were you bored too?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Also, for more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.

I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story (series) readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form 😀 .

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook


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  1. An excellent use of the time you hated watching the movie. Thank you!

  2. I didn’t see the movie, but these story tips are great. Now I feel a little better about giving my characters such a hard time. Thank you! 😉

  3. I understand what you’re saying about fiction, but maybe I’m missing something here (it is very possible)…but Unbroken isn’t fiction…it’s a true story, and the movie is based on a bestselling biography. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read the book. It had the crucibles that you are talking about, though, and real dramatic tension.

    1. In order to make a story into a movie (even TRUE events), it must be dramatized, meaning put into three-act structure. The biography did well (I assume) because the real story was actually Zamperini’s journey of FAITH. The crash and then time as a POW developed his trust in GOD and not himself. He survived, dedicated his life to God and then later returned and made peace with his tormentors. Forgiveness was how he triumphed, not just in taking beating after beating. He traveled to Japan and forgave them. But this is reduced to an afterthought in the film.

      But if you go look at movies like “The Right Stuff” even though the events are true, they are overlaid onto dramatic structure.

      1. Ah, I get what you’re saying. See, I told you I was probably missing something.

      • Marie C. Collins on April 13, 2015 at 2:47 pm
      • Reply

      This is the thought that haunted me while reading your post too, Kristen. Life doesn’t always follow the rules of fiction. And the generation that fought in WWII didn’t live by the same rules we did either. I recently lost an uncle who fought in the Battle of Okinawa. Just before he died, he wrote his life story, and I hear some similar themes here to what you are saying about Unbroken (though I have not seen the movie): Plodding along as a youth in poverty. Nearly getting into trouble. Getting straightened out by anything you can find that you are good at (for my uncle it was baseball). Then boom! — being hauled off to war to do unthinkable things — to used what little you know to survive and protect those around you. What these men brought with to war with them mattered: My uncle had been taught to hunt by his father and was such a good marksman that he was assigned to be a sniper on Okinawa. It seems to me the crucibles were the ones “unchosen” (perhaps what you are calling luck), and the miracle that any of these veterans returned “unbroken.” JMO

      1. But that wasn’t zeroed in on either. And real life is NOT fiction. We don’t read novels to get real life. And when filmmakers don’t place a biography on a dramatic three-act structure, we call it a documentary 😉 . “The Right Stuff” is a good example of a true event being made into a memorable dramatic movie.

          • Marie C. Collins on April 13, 2015 at 3:00 pm
          • Reply

          Maybe the fault is in the flatness of the affect. I see other reviewers also saying it wasn’t done justice, no character development, no emotion, etc. I personally find the story dramatic, but perhaps the movie structure killed it. It’s a shame. I think there was a story there to tell.

    • Doug Page on April 13, 2015 at 2:30 pm
    • Reply

    Yup. Boring. It was no “Saving Private Ryan”. I could not articulate why it was boring – but you do – thanks! Doug

  4. Great post.

    • R. A. Meenan on April 13, 2015 at 2:31 pm
    • Reply

    Looking through this has made me examine my own character goals in the WIP I’m working on. I think I actually hit it okay! Not too bad anyway.

    I think you’ve talked about flashbacks before, and for the most part I agree with you. I do write OCCASIONAL flashbacks though… but usually they’re the seamless kind. A character remembers an event of the past, and I make that event feel real, but my flashbacks rarely last more than half a page and the whole purpose of them is NOT for the character, but so we can see how the character sees ANOTHER character, at least usually.

    I do think I’m going to keep those questions though and see if I can answer those questions for every book I do. It’s a good way to check how good my plot is!

    1. This movie could have been shortened by an HOUR if the pointless flashbacks were ditched. It was as if the movie didn’t know what point it was trying to make. Jolie couldn’t decide between being “Chariots of Fire” or “Saving Private Ryan” and the movie suffered because of this indecision.

        • R. A. Meenan on April 13, 2015 at 3:02 pm
        • Reply

        That is quite obviously WAY too many flashbacks. XD

  5. Wow what a succinct, cogent wrap-up of how to construct fiction. And funny – loved ” I think adding some Klingons might have improved it”! I’ll print your points & post on the Wall of Inspiration.

  6. I did not watch unbroken…probobly won’t either, but I’m really tried to absorb your tips they are great. Some of the examples and explanations of characters and the mistakes a writer can make was a real eye opener!

  7. Agreed on flashbacks. Usually, they aren’t as necessary as the writer believes. Flashbacks work best if we’ve built up to them, so they’re like little secret-bombs finally going off. See “Bloodline” for excellent flashback (and flash-forward!) usage.

    • Angel Payne on April 13, 2015 at 2:39 pm
    • Reply

    I love this so much! SO well done. Thank you! For the record, I’ll take James t Kirk in a crucible any day, as well. KAAAAAHHHHNNNNN!

    • Melissa Lewicki on April 13, 2015 at 2:41 pm
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    We watched the “Imitation Game” last night. What did you think of it? It had compound flashbacks. The whole movie is taking place in three different time periods at the same time: childhood, WWII and post WWII.
    I enjoyed your post.

    1. I have it saved to watch. I will let you know. Often what people believe are flashbacks are actually parallel story/plot lines. They complete the three-act arc. Fried Green Tomatoes, The Notebook and Joy Luck Club are all great examples. When teased apart, they all arc.

      1. Aha, thank you. I was going to ask for a more detailed explanation of the difference between a parallel plot and a flashback. This explains it succinctly. Love Fried Green Tomatoes too! In that movie, there is still that sense of being reluctantly dragged from one story to another, even when you’re interested in both plots. When both stories are done well though, and carry equal importance to the eventual conclusion, that tension adds to the drama, rather than detracts.

        Hope that makes sense. Typing on my phone.

        1. I loved the Imitation Game. I’d love to know what you think about this movie. Fried Green Tomatoes, and the Joy Luck Club are two of my favorite movies. The Notebook was the only Nicholas Sparks books that I could tolerate.

  8. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. If you just write about stuff that happens, it isn’t a novel, it’s a travelogue.

    After reading the HUNGER GAMES trilogy and AIN’T SHE SWEET by Susan Elizabeth Phillips all in one week, I developed a new appreciation for flashbacks. In these books, the flashbacks were important to the forward motion of the story. Most of the time, though, readers don’t need backstory to be dramatized as a scene. It can be dropped in as a sentence, a phrase, a paragraph. Give them only what they need to know in the moment. Fill in exposition at the point where readers are dying to know. If readers aren’t dying to know, then chances are, it isn’t necessary.

  9. wonderful post. So true. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve heard similar complaints

  10. I read the book and it was fantastic, and then I saw the movie. From who I have talked to, all my fiends who read the book didn’t like the movie, like me, and everyone who didn’t read it enjoyed the movie. I thought the movie tried way too hard to be impressive and make you feel changed. And so many of the nuances that made the book impressive were overlooked or ignored, I’m pretty sure my husband wanted to gag me and my running commentary of what really happened throughout the movie.

  11. I watched one of “those movies” with my trophy husband last night… don’t even care to remember the name. Unlike you, I can’t muster the interest to go through it again in my head and find out what I disliked about it. I’m just happy it’s over. 🙂 Great post!

  12. I found this helpful and sympathise with your boredom! I am not a fan of flashbacks either, I think what you said about them possibly marking that you should have started your story at another point is very valid. I will try to remember that in my own writings.

  13. I haven’t seen Unbroken but i’d love to read your feelings on Interstellar. Not sure why that movie didn’t work but my whole family feels like we sacrificed too much of our life to it (and my poor Dad bought the movie instead of renting it).

    1. My husband made me watch that one too over the weekend and I am thinking of suspending his movie-choosing privileges.

    2. I watched Interstellar a couple of weeks ago and was deeply disappointed. So much of it was predictable. Early on I had a strong suspicion that it was humans from the future who had created the wormhole, and I spent the whole film hoping I was wrong. Then there was Anne Hathaway’s character’s speech about love being a transcendent force in the universe. It was absurdly out of place as if Christopher Nolan had finished the first draft and thought “Ooh, I’ve not said anything about love, better find somewhere to fit it in”. It was made redundant when they got to the planet and she and Matt Damon’s character barely even acknowledged each other. As for Damon’s character, I was sitting there thinking “Wait for it, wait for it..” and then oops, he turned evil.

      Much too predictable and MUCH to long.

  14. Hooray! I found this movie agonizing to watch- enough with the shipwrecked scene already- on & on, we get it after 10 min and I loved that you said Bad luck does not create tension. I applaud your article Bc I found I was in the minority’s regarding my sentiments about this movie.

    Thank you Prudence

    1. Kristen, again I agree! But I can’t articulate exactly why I didn’t like this movie, beside the fact that the events seemed so random and didn’t make sense to me. Maybe another blog is needed for this?

  15. I don’t write novels but I can see your point. The constant beatings and bad luck were hard to watch but the story did not have an arc at all. I leapt right out of my seat at that shark part. Very sad that it’s all true.

    • kimboorleelee on April 13, 2015 at 3:10 pm
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    Read the book & saw the movie. Was bored by both. So many people have acted like I was heartless because I wasn’t moved by Zampini’s incredible story. (Even though I agree: it IS incredible.)The only way I could articulate til now it has been, “The book reads like journalism, and I kept having to remind myself that this was a real guy in order to make myself care.” Your explanation makes sense. THIS is why it reads like journalism instead of a gripping story.

    1. Would have made a better documentary.

    • Julia Wertin on April 13, 2015 at 3:14 pm
    • Reply

    Hmmm. This is really good, but makes me think that I have to go back to revising my novel yet again (for maybe the 14 millionth time, and I’m sure I will anyway). Thanks for all your advice!

  16. Would your husband be offended if your used your e-reader during dull movies? That’s what I do 😉
    Having said that, congratulations for enduring to the bitter end and figuring out how to make ‘lemonade’ out of the experience.

  17. Also, I thought the title and pic were going to be a Jesus story. Kind Intentional on the marketing team’s part? Looks like someone carrying a cross at first glance. And with that tag-line?

    Weird it’s a Coen brothers screenplay. They’re usually savvier than this.

    1. It IS a Christian story, but they took the faith journey out of it and all that was left was melodrama.

      1. Huh. Now I’m doubly confused/dismayed about the Coens’ involvement.

  18. The sad part is, the rest of the story is never told. Our pastor interviewed him, and we found out that he does break. Once he comes come, he suffers from PTSD, becomes abusive, and contemplates suicide. His wife, frustrated and furious, is about to leave him when she comes back from a Billy Graham crusade changed. He goes with her the next night, comes to know the Lord. And eventually, he forgives The Bird and the rest of his captors. It’s a huge story of forgiveness and love. But… alas, Hollywood doesn’t want that part of the story to be known.

    1. Now THAT’S a great story!

  19. I totally agree that Angelina and film crew butchered the story. The book was EXCELLENT. The movie was choppy, made a mockery of his faith, and was a boring mess. Louis deserved so much better.

  20. Have you ever commented on The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner? I’m about three chapters in and it’s heavy in flashback (as well as exposition). I’d be interested in your take on this novel.



  21. Well, that is one movie I won’t watch! I am glad YOU did though, as it inspired such a fabulous advice blog. I am curious though about your thoughts on how to MAKE bad luck equal dramatic tension in a novel. Not that I am in need of this advice now, but ya never know….

    • Marilyn Delson on April 13, 2015 at 3:39 pm
    • Reply

    What! Challenge the great Laura Hillenbrand of “Seabiscuit” fame? Are you crazy? Sometimes stayin’ alive is all the drama one needs.

  22. How do you feel about Stephen King’s novels? Some of them (IT, Gunslinger, and others) are close to 50% flashbacks. I think they are very effective because they create a “story-within-a-story”

    • bettybolte on April 13, 2015 at 3:55 pm
    • Reply

    I haven’t seen the movie, but now I want to watch it to see your analysis at work! Still, your 5 points are awesome, and I agree with each of them. Thanks!

    • steve macdonald on April 13, 2015 at 4:05 pm
    • Reply

    Excellent post! (If you did a “Kristen’s rewrite” synopsis of Unbroken complete with Klingons, we would love it!) 😀

  23. excellent blog – thoroughly enjoyed that. Funny and enlightening – funny how bad art can be as inspiring as the good

  24. Was such a good book, sorry to hear it’s a dog of a flick. The book changed the way I viewed WWII and that generation.

  25. Thanks for this analysis! It explains why I didn’t like “Open Water” (“we’re screwed, let’s have marital bickering until we die” is not a storyline)
    It’s also reminding me to make both my protagonist and antagonist more active in my WIP.

  26. Hi! It kinda looks like you think Jolie wrote the screenplay but it was actually written by the Coen brothers & two others. Just wanted to clarify! For me, the dramatic change of character occurs because they had to summarize the early years of his life in a short period of time. He’s a kid when he starts running with his brother but the next time we see him(if I remember correctly), he’s a teenager. So 7+ years? Plenty of time for him to have grown up, especially if he’s fueled all the frustration and wild nature of his early years into track for all those years. It still feels a little disjointed and rushed but I don’t think that can be blamed on the change of character.

  27. Have forwarded your post on to an author I’m working with who has written a memoir that involves the bombings of Japan in WWII. I have been giving guidance along the lines of what you’ve pursued in your post, but I believe the example of Unbroken will really hit home for this author. Thanks!

    On a side note: does someone else set up your blog posts? I ask because there are typos and word use errors that I know you wouldn’t knowingly allow. Please forgive me mentioning – it’s the editor side of my brain.

    Thanks again for your essential and important thoughts – as always – about writing excellent fiction! 🙂

    1. Ouch, you are right! I STILL had errors. Ugh. I know there was a spelling error on my part because I was looking at a “customer” review of the movie and the reviewer spelled it “Zampirini” and after I hit “Publish” something told me to go back and double-check that. I fixed that typo and a handful of others (I blame allergy medicine 😀 ). *head desk*

      But if there are other mistakes? Sorry about that. I post my own blogs and sometimes don’t catch everything. Unfortunately, with a blog, if I used the same grueling editorial process I apply to my books or paid articles, y’all might never hear from me. So often people will just point out the oops and I fix it. Most of the time my stuff is pretty clean. Today not my day, LOL.

      1. Yikes, and I copied your spelling rather than researching it myself. My bad, definitely.

        1. I copied the spelling from a reviewer who goofed it and have been correcting it ALL DAY, LOL. Eh, we are human *shrugs*

          1. I take comfort from the New York Times. They have a blog on their web site where one of their editors talks about all the mistakes they make (misspelling names, wrong punctuation, bad grammar, overused cliches, etc.).

            Hey, if they New York Times isn’t perfect (and isn’t afraid to admit it), then the rest of us are okay.

      2. Yes, please… a blog post is not a piece of edited lit. Nor should it be.

        This post is not only an excellent (and spot on) critique of the film but it is also some of the most salient and concise story-writing guidance I’ve read in a long time.

        Please don’t angst over the typos.

        1. I was being willful over needing reading glasses. I am NOT olde! *squints* I mean old.

    • Chiara Keren Button on April 13, 2015 at 4:33 pm
    • Reply

    Lovely post!!! I love that you provide a working checklist so one can always check that one is staying on track!

    On flashbacks, I’d be interested to know if you’ve read / what you think of Genette’s theories of order (flashbacks and flashforwards) in fiction? Obviously, he dealt with much more than the simple flashback usually employed, but do you think there is a case for certain kinds of flashbacks in certain situations – e.g. in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, at the end of the story, Lee basically summarises her whole plot in a few sentences. But they’re not redundant, because the flashback adds an element to the first narrative that readers were never aware of before – namely, Boo Radley’s presence throughout the story. Can flashbacks be used to good effect ever? Are there certain kinds of flashbacks that are more useful than others?

    Thanks again for your post- I’m going to stick this list on my writing advice notice board!

  28. I’m 100% with you. I will avoid ‘Unbroken’ like the plague.
    I stopped watching the series ‘Arrow’ because of the endless flashbacks.

  29. I stayed away from the movie because I kept reading about how close Jolie and Zampirini became, how he was like a father to her, how her kids loved him, etc.

    That’s not the person you should make a movie about, any more than a surgeon should operate on a loved one.

  30. At least watching the movie wasn’t a total waste of time since you were able to plumb such a great post! I just had to tweet, too: https://twitter.com/deb_atwood/status/587743655709913088. I especially agree with your point on the protagonists working toward her own redemption.

  31. This is brilliant. My family has started to watch Xena the Warrior Princess. As much as I love Xena and her ass-kicking abilities, I am waiting to fall in love with it because there is no character development. Xena turned from bad to good before the series!

  32. I’ve been reading the book for weeks now (amid full-time job and new business), so thank you for saving me from the movie. The book is long – I can’t imagine your pain at sitting through a three-hour movie version! (Especially a movie version that doesn’t do the true story justice.)

    I downloaded the book because, as a runner, I thought it was about Louie’s Olympic experience (I was already familiar with him). I quickly discovered that it’s more a war story (war stories aren’t bad; I just thought it was a running story – LOL). I also hate that the faith part of Louie’s story was watered down.

    After reading this, I probably won’t try to see the movie. Thanks for sparing me.

    At the same time, I enjoyed your analysis and the points you made about fiction and flashbacks. You’re right – throw in Worf, Khan and a few other Klingons (maybe some Borg) and you’ve got yourself some drama!

  33. Great post as always. Can I say it one more time? Active, Active, Active.

  34. I have neither read the book nor seen the movie, but your deconstruction is an excellent lesson in story development, or lack of in this case. Thank you!

  35. What an interesting post. Read every comment. I am not a fan of war movies, but because of the relationship Jolie had with Zampiirini I wanted to see it. I wasn’t bored, but felt more could have been done with the story. Learned so much from your post. Agree that your watching the movie wasn’t a total waste — we wouldn’t have had such a great post on the portrayal of biographies/true stories in films .

  36. I remember reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles at university and having to discuss whether it was a tragedy or not. Overwhelmingly the conclusion was “not” as Tess just lets things happen to her and drifts along aimlessly, rather than having her decisions inevitably incur the tragdy. Thank you for the heads up on “Unbroken”. The title reminds me of “Unforgiven” which is a totally superb film. I don’t ever want to have to watch it again – once was quite enough – but it was brilliant. Flashbacks. Have just finished a book that used flashbacks to good effect (Motown Throwdown by K.S,Adkins) but as a way to establish character not plot. The storyline of the flashbacks was established in a couple of lines, but the emotional intensity of the characters’ shared (and mutually misunderstood) past was explored through the flashbacks. Hate them myself: I just let my characters remember; with their take and bias on that memory!

  37. What a relief! I felt unAmerican disliking the movie. At the scene where some hundred other prisoners slammed their fists into his face, I flipped out. So, thanks, Kristin, I am happy it wasn’t just me!

  38. I love weekends spent like that.

  39. I just watched the movie with my book club because we’d all read it and we were disappointed too. I highly recommend the book! The book was my favorite read of 2013. The movie however fell flat. Way too much storytelling in flashbacks and the character development was not there. I hope people give the book a shot because Louie’s story is amazing.

    • Diane Burton on April 13, 2015 at 9:03 pm
    • Reply

    If you were bored by the movie, Kristen, try reading the book. (Don’t) It was a librarian’s choice for my book club. Usually I don’t keep reading something that bores me to tears. I only slogged through it because someone said it got better. It did but not until the last 1/4 of the book, after he comes home from the war–which I understand was not in the movie. How he turned his life around was more amazing than surviving torture. They could have made the movie out of the last 1/4 of the book and it would have been great.

  40. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  41. Whenever I watch CW’s Arrow, I cringe every single time they go to yet another flashback. I don’t care about the guy’s past. Maybe that’s important to some comic book geeks, but honestly, it doesn’t matter. It takes up too much space in the story, and it’s not even that relevant. It serves like an infodump of back story that shows up every now and again. Totally unnecessary.

  42. Reblogged this on writersback and commented:
    This is so interesting to me. I don’t see how Jolie missed so much more story to tell than the time he was tortured as a POW. The POV’s journey to faith, contronting his tormentors, his marriage disentegrating, his finding a purpose and telling other folks his story of finding God are all so powerful. I’m with you; the whole story should have been told and could have been told if less time was spent on his torture. Thank you for the article. Good reminders in my own writing especially with regards to flashblacks.

  43. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    Writing a good story is a fine art…the dream cannot be broken, for that is what a gripping tale is, a beautiful dream we step into because we are mesmerized. Kristen Lamb tells us how easy it is to break this spell…

  44. thank you

  45. Similar problem with the updated “War of the Worlds” (starring Tom Cruise). This man survives the alien invasion by running away until nature takes care of the problem, and suddenly he’s a big damn hero? No, he’s just good at running away, which isn’t exactly heroic.

    1. Good point, LOL.

  46. Great points. I agree for the most part. But I think we need to be careful that we don’t rely on a formula and then “fill in the blanks.” I write Christian fantasy and there are other things that are spiritual that can influence a book greatly that aren’t on this list. But this is an excellent guide.

    1. Yes, but I think a book can show that better than a movie. You have internal thought in a novel. In a film, you MUST be more formulaic and screenwriting is VERY rigid. VERY. So the actual writing would follow screenplay rules anyway. BUt, as a broad stroke analysis, there were some areas that I think—had they been thought through—would have made a far better movie.

      1. Kristin, excellent points on writing in general. I’m editing a screenplay and trying to follow your points. Character development seems to take priority. Same for memoirs, written like fiction. This is my first read of your blog posts. I’m following to read more. I’m a newbie in creative writing and need help to get it right. Christine

  47. By the way, I just picked up your platform book.

  48. These ideas are really good to apply. A story will really be wanted by a reader.

  49. Oh my, this is exactlywhy iI love your blog: even in the darkest moments, while enduring the most boring movie ever, you still manage to entertain me to no end- while being wise and reasonable…
    You’ve got all the points here. 🙂

  50. Reblogged this on Julie Lawford and commented:
    Great advice on some *very* important rules of fiction…

  51. Thanks for this post, Kristen! 🙂 I’ve got one story I’ve been IF’ing on, because I’m not sure I should write the story, because it bares too much of a resemblance, even at a distance, to my own situation. I doubt that I could write my protagonist as perfect, but compared to some relatives, it would be easy to take that attitude, and undo any sense of justice, because she’d come off as some arrogant snot.

  52. That was great – many thanks. So glad you hated that movie.

  53. Hi Kristen, another great read and perfect advice for my forthcoming psychological thriller. I have not seen the film but I can relate to what you are saying. Especially the ‘flash backs’ bit! I can’t stand them either! I think a story has to remain real all the way through. If I was reading a book or watching a film about a character that I felt I was getting to know personally only for him/her to suddenly change, that would confuse the hell out of me! This is why I like 2 part dramas. Short, sweet but hard hitting and fast paced with a good twist. I’m hoping my novel is an extended version of the 2 part drama! 🙂 thanks again! Mark

    • terrirochenski on April 14, 2015 at 5:37 am
    • Reply

    I’ve printed out your “What we take away” thoughts and have them taped above my desk. While I haven’t seen the movie, I couldn’t agree more with what makes an enjoyable movie – real life or not. Thanks for the great post!

  54. Interesting take. I agree people do not change. I find those who all of a sudden, find Christ, lose a tremendous amount of weight, push the booze away, really moved down a path on the road they were traveling anyway. Their stubborn attitude is still stubborn. They are as rigid in the same way.

    1. awax1217, I think it depends on how strong the commitment to Christ is, and how strong it remains. He has changed me in profound ways, and as I keep following Him he keeps making me new. I am a lot less stubborn and rigid than I used to be because my heart is open to change.

    2. So TRUE. Even if a person finds Christ or manages to push the bottle away, living that life is a process. A.A. will even say “One DAY at a time. Or one HOUR at a time.”

      Whatever the main story is, that aspect of their lives can be used. As long as the person stays a full person. Faults and all. The new life of sobriety and/or their Christianity could affect their choices but neither Christians or sober people are perfect. They just work from a particular perspective. As long as they don’t come off sounding like life is all hunky dory since finding Christ or losing the booze, the character has hope of being REAL.

      Sober people have fallen off the wagon. Christians (and I speak from experience) have been known to use ‘language’ .

  55. I do agree with you! I get so tired of tv shows and movies showing the “backstories.” In my all time favorite show “Walker, Texas Ranger,” Ranger James Trivette tells Ranger Cordell Walker that he is writing their “backstories” for a novel. Walker replied, “No one cares about the back story. All they want is for the good guys to beat up bad guys.” I like stories told that way. I’m not totally opposed to flashbacks as long as they move the plot along, but flashbacks for a flashback’s state is not ideal.

  56. Reblogged this on .

  57. I walked out of Unbroken. I thought it was because I hate to watch violence. And, like you, I found it boring and incredibly depressing. Why would I want to watch someone be tortured for two hours? Your blog revealed the real reason. You nailed it, Kristen! You laid it all out so I understood exactly what was wrong with this story and how it could have been better. You are a great teacher! Thank you again.


    • Rachel Thompson on April 14, 2015 at 8:53 am
    • Reply

    Good one– every story must have a hero that changes…theses days. However, in the old days of sci-fi and even today with James Bond and some thrillers the big idea or plot, ( read that big threat) overshadows character development. (da vinci code) Idea stories aren’t big today but they were once the cat’s meow. Times have changed. Is it romance spreading or the importance of thought provoking ideas declining? It’s an American dumb-down process result. Sci-fi in movies has been reduced to special effects and simple minded characters, but hey, the got arc, right.

  58. I read the book Unbroken, but wasn’t eager to see the movie. Your post on plot hit all the right notes.

  59. First of all, I really enjoy your writing – human and incisive. And a terrific deconstruction to boot. Thanks, Kristen!

  60. Very well done, Kristen. While I read this, I kept my own characters in mind. I certainly hope I avoided those mistakes…

  61. That prison guard war really Khan Noonien Singh.

  62. As several commenters point out, too much needs to be understood in advance or read into the movie to understand its meaning. The flashbacks should provide that information, but instead get in the way of enjoying the film.

  63. So, Jolie can’t direct? Finally, a flaw in her perfect image. A good director can save any script.

  64. This is so well articulated, Kristen. May I share this article with my high school fiction writing class?


    1. Share away. That’s what I do this for 😀 . Just appreciate attribution but y’all are always welcome to use my content.

      1. Attribution, always. I like my writer students (and there are some) to know about helpful websites. Thank you so much! Advice from working writers is always the best.

  65. Having just watched this movie this past weekend, I am thrilled to know I am not alone with being less than enthused by the movie adaptation of the book. I sat there wanting to know where the character development was. Surely someone who survived such torture had much more to develop than what we were shown. Once again, I was taught the valuable lesson of never watch a movie that was adapted from a book.

  66. Question, what about something like Hunger Games? First book, the goal for Katniss really is to Not Die. Except in the Hunger Games, it seems like that’s a pretty active goal since regardless of where she goes, death is more looming threat than it is for you or I. Or horror films where there’s a killer or monster or haunting or whatever and again, the goal is to Not Die for long enough that the threat is not a threat? Yes, usually there’s something else like Solve The Mystery – but there are those horror stories where at the end it’s Survive Until The Help Arrives. What about those?

    I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think you’re right but I was wondering about your thoughts on something like that, where a passive goal is…less passive.

    In other thoughts, I always get intrigued when people say “rules of fiction” because as we know, rules of fiction can usually be broken once you know what you’re doing. You’d already proven to me in past posts that you can lay down rules that no, really, can’t be broken…and once again, I was pleased to see you do so again. Except with flashbacks. That’s a rule I’m certain could be broken tastefully, even, if I myself have become disenchanted with flashbacks and probably would not try to use them. They were my favorite as a kid, but I’ve come to feel about them basically the same way you do. Usually not necessary, information could be delivered better. Still think that’s a rule meant to be broken by masters and could be used appropriately.

    1. In the case of Unbroken, we are dealing with a drama, so that character arc (like literary fiction) is superlative to the plot. For instance, in “The Road” the plot goal is to make it to the ocean, BUT HOW they make it is actually far more important. If Man and Boy resort to cannibalism to survive and get to the ocean, they fail. In this story, escaping the POW camp needs to happen, but rather it is how the character leaves that is important.

      What you are describing is a familiar plot for a horror and Blake Snyder refers to this as the Monster in the House scenario. But, even in these plots eventually the hero must take control and reverse the tables. If they are merely the victim of events until help arrives, that is a bad movie and the protagonist is never a hero. But as you mentioned, they eventually need to “solve the mystery” “Find an escape” “turn the tables” so eventually the plot goal IS active.

      One of my favorite horror movies is “Silent Hill.” The protagonist follows her daughter into a realm of nightmares. For a large chunk of the movie she is reacting. But, eventually she gains enough information and the stakes become high enough for her to take the elevator and face her fear in order to possibly escape. If she just spent 90 minuets being chased by Triangle Head and the creepy nurses, we would eventually grow weary of the story. There comes a turning point where she must rise to the call.

      Does that make sense? Help at all?

      1. Yes, it does. Still curious about the Hunger Games specifically.

        1. In Hunger Games her goal initially is to survive, but by the end of Book One it is to beat the Capitol at its own game. She uses their rules against them and the emotions of the crowd to control the Capitol and put them in check. That is why she and Peeta are the first “double tributes” ever. She turns the propaganda machine on itself. If they kill off Peeta, they will have a mass riot. They have to play to the popular opinion, but they are not driving the agenda, Katniss is and in that she wins. This is the first crack in the system that breathes new fire into the idea of rebellion which we get by Book Three.

          And series are a tad different. As Larry Brooks points out, the three acts are essentially Running (Act One)—the protagonist is surviving and reactionary, Warrior (Act Two)—the protagonist gets an idea of what he/she is up against and fights back, and Hero (Act Three)—the protagonist transitions into a hero and presses on past the point most would give up. Trilogies often mirror this three act structure so in Book One, she IS running. BUT, the entire story isn’t just surviving. She is playing chess and outwits the Capitol at their own game.

          Does that help?

          1. Yes! Thank you very much.

          • BayLeaves on April 14, 2015 at 7:58 pm
          • Reply

          My interpretation of The Hunger Games is that Katniss’s goal is not to merely survive. Her goal is to win The Hunger Games.

          Firstly, she made an active decision to enter The Hunger Games. Her name wasn’t pulled out of a bowl; she volunteered.
          After she gets whisked off to the Capitol, she mostly just passively endures the pre-game rituals and when she enters the arena she at first takes a very passive survival strategy – she hides in the trees and waits for everyone else to die. Then the game-makers attack her with raging balls of fire and force her into the path of the vicious career pack. Katniss again tries to hide in the trees until they leave, passively waiting for her mentor to send her medicine. BUT THEN Katniss starts to become more active. She actively drops the trackerjacker nest onto the career pack – killing one. She and Rue actively come up with a plan to blow up the career pack’s food, weakening their chances of survival. After the rules are changed to allow two victors from the same district, she actively searches the river for Peeta, actively pursues a fake romance strategy with him to win over sponsors and then actively retrieves the medicine he needs. She becomes reactive again when the game-makers release the dogs and Cato attacks her on top of the cornucopia. But her final trick with the poison berries is totally active.

          If Katniss only entered The Hunger Games because her name got pulled from a bowl and if she only survived by hiding, running and waiting for everyone else to die, she would be a very passive character. But because she pursues several strategies to win the games – even forcing the game-makers to change the rules so the games end on her terms – she actively ensures her own victory.

          1. Excellent breakdown and YES.

          2. You have an excellent point. Survival – passive – becomes win – active.

  67. My favorite take away was: bad decisions make a good story. How true. I would add, good people making bad decisions makes a great story. You gotta have someone to root for.

  68. Sounds like the script was written in a rush. A writer needs to know what motivates his characters before writing. Everyone has motivations.

  69. Reblogged this on The Writer on Wheels.

    • Sean P Carlin on April 14, 2015 at 2:45 pm
    • Reply

    Great analysis, Kristen. I haven’t seen UNBROKEN yet, but character arcs are one of the most crucial (and least understood) components of storytelling, and they seem to be especially problematic with respect to biopics about people historically regarded as heroic — as though depicting them in an unflattering light might somehow diminish their heroism. If a protagonist isn’t pushing through a transformational arc — if the action isn’t forcing him/her to grow emotionally and overcome some character flaw — then, as you said, it’s all just a chronology of events that have no meaning, no stakes, no emotional weight. If Zamperini was “unbroken” from the start, then all the external conflicts in the world aren’t fanning the flames of an INTERNAL conflict, so who cares less?

    Again: Terrific, incisive deconstruction. There is always more to learn from stories that got it WRONG than those that get it right.

  70. Your take on flashbacks really has me thinking about my own writing. I certainly agree that flashbacks have a potential of being unneeded, a pretty large chance when you can just as easily convey what you need to get across without breaking the flow of your narrative. There are a few flashbacks in the novel I’m currently writing and up until reading this blog post I have felt pretty confident about them, especially as they center around a protagonist who is gradually losing his memories, but after reading your take on them I think I may go back and re-examine them and see iff they are really needed or if they are just distracting from the ‘current’ events. Thanks so much for your insight and I’m echoing a few other comments when I say it’s good to see you were able to come out with some good, constructive insights into good writing out of the few hours you had to spend watching that movie.

  71. I haven’t seen the movie, but I did read the book. I think it’s kind of unfair to say that there wasn’t enough drama in Zamperini’s life because it’s a biography and the author’s ability to manipulate the facts to make a better story is limited. You can focus on the interesting parts that help the character to arc, but you can’t invent things that would make the arc better or add characters and events that weren’t there or didn’t happen.

    I wonder what you would think of the book. I’m a bit hesitant to see the movie now, though I did love the book.

    1. I didn’t say that. I said his life was EXCELLENT drama but it wasn’t plotted correctly so instead of getting authentic tension we simply were left with shock treatment. I heard Zamperini’s story and thought it would make an AWESOME movie, but the screenwriters failed to do his journey justice. And he DID arc in life. He came home, had terrible PTSD, depression, alienated friends and family and it was through his relationship with God and learning to forgive that he finally was victorious.

    • PinkLed5 on April 14, 2015 at 4:40 pm
    • Reply

    I find myself making the same analysis of movies and wondering why fimmakers (particularly script writers) so often fail to understand the basic elements of storytelling. Bravo to you and your excellent insights!

  72. During the read of this post, my mind went back to that one sentence that an author must have to loosely describe the story being written. I’ve known that my story has a goal to reach but I’ve been having trouble finding it. I finally found that one sentence for my book while I read the part about defeating the antagonist. Thanks for the inspiration, Kristen.

    • jorgekafkazar on April 14, 2015 at 9:39 pm
    • Reply

    Not every great book makes a great movie. Novels have a lot more latitude in plot and structure. The better the book, the greater the chance the producer will fool himself into thinking the movie can break all the rules and still succeed.

    • Angela Crocker on April 14, 2015 at 10:21 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you! I haven’t seen Unbroken, so i can’t comment specifically about my take of the movie , but the examples were so helpful in illustrating your 5 points. I’m definitely pinning this for future reference and am looking forward to checking out your blog.

  73. this got me laughing.

  74. Found this through DIY Author. Great points about active vs. passive protagonists. I especially liked the part about “surviving” not being a story-worthy goal – the examples made me laugh. 😀

    • L. E. Carmichael on April 15, 2015 at 8:16 am
    • Reply

    I had the same problem with Lone Survivor, which was also based on a true story. It would have made a wonderfully compelling documentary, but as a fictionalized drama, left me totally cold. Captain Phillips too, come to think of it. And it’s really unfortunate, because these are important stories that deserve to be told, and they’re being told in the wrong format.

    • Mike Burnat on April 15, 2015 at 9:29 am
    • Reply

    Great advice, thanks for sharing. The info on active goals was particularly helpful.

    • sarlens on April 16, 2015 at 9:53 am
    • Reply

    Terrible movie. Great critique!

  75. I haven’t seen the movie, but these are some very helpful tips. I am still a fairly new writer, with two self published books, and will definitely be putting some of these into action! My third is almost finished, although I am considering polishing up some query letters for this one. Thanks for this very helpful post! I agree with the others, this is some good “lemonade” from the “lemon” of a boring movie made from a story which could have been better told. That said, I had just finished reading “The Longest Ride” by Nicholas Sparks just before my husband and I went to see the movie. I loved the book and “Luke” definitely fits the bill here, as early on, he made some bad decisions, and I thought it was very cleverly written as to what he and Sophie learned from the older couple, thus, the change/arc you are talking about, but I was very disappointed with the movie. I didn’t think it was much like the book at all. There were a lot of things changed and a lot of things left out. Nevertheless, (sigh), as for myself as a writer, there is always room for change. Great info, thanks again!

    1. Flossie, the book is almost ALWAYS better than the movie. I used to have two examples but can think of only one right now: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Wouldn’t you agree that the movie version was outstanding?) Other than that, I will choose the book over the movie every time! Good luck on your third book. 🙂

  76. Oops, meant to say “Sophia”.

  77. Well written post, Kristen. I haven”t seen the movie but I truly enjoyed the book. Perhaps it’s because I know what war is, I bet your friend Bob would enjoy the book as well.

  78. I understand what you are saying about flashbacks, but what about backstory in narration? Some information for world building needs to be told and putting it in dialogue only works for certain things. Other times it makes the dialoge is unrealistic and stiff.
    Great post. I took a lot away that I can use. You are always very helpful.

    1. That is different from a true flashback. I can blog about this so maybe you can see the difference.

  79. Great blog post Kristen – thanks for the clearly articulated tips on some of the pitfalls of storytelling… I will certainly keep them in mind as I complete my current book 🙂

  80. Reblogged this on Emily Arden, author and commented:
    This blog provides great insights into what will make or break a story

  81. I am placing this quote in my Don’t write like anyone else notebook: “Characters cannot change without a crucible. It’s cheating.” Love this! Also, in response about Fogiven, have read the book and seen the movie; and I would have preferred to have seen more on how did his faith help him overcome horrible circumstances. I do not need an “over dumping” of tragedy to appreciate the change. I rather experience with the character the struggle in changing. And for me that is true with real life and fictional characters.

  82. Reblogged this on Tracy O. Morgan.

  83. Reblogged this on AWriterWrites_ALWAYS and commented:
    Something I NEED for future reference.

  84. The B-24 on the cover of “Unbroken” is what got me into the book. After the crash, I would have bailed out if it hadn’t been written by Laura Hillenbrand. She is the author of “Seabiscuit,” which I loved.

    Both “Seabiscuit” and “Unbroken” are stories of courage and endurance.A major differences is in the challenges the protagonists faced. Seabiscuit triumphed by winning against staggering odds. Zampirini triumphed by resisting his torturers and surviving against staggering odds. But the biggest difference for me is that I have seen more than enough evil, both real and fictional, and I don’t care to see more: especially not torture in a prison camp.

    After reading the book, I had no desire to see the movie. I thought the ending of the movie “Help” was better than the ending in the book, but for me “Unbroken” is beyond help.

    • Christine Bunker on February 27, 2017 at 5:55 am
    • Reply

    100% agree with this all. I felt flat and uninspired and I love WW1-2 films, particularly centred around people who did great things while facing opposition. This left me feeling sorry for Louis’ memory.

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