How writers break their narrative promises

There are MAJOR SPOILERS for an episode of Daredevil and Falling Skies after the “read more” break.

Many writers make the mistake of setting up a joke and then forgetting the punchline. They either spin threads of foreshadowing throughout their plot and then fail to tie up those threads at the end, or they introduce something new to save the day at the last second and wonder why their readers are shocked and disappointed that this saviour was never even hinted at before. (Some writers even do both at the same time!)

There’s an unspoken contract between writers and their readers. There’s all kinds of fancy terminology for it if you want to get technical, but it really just boils down to this:

If you tell your reader something, you damned well better make sure it’s for a reason.

How Daredevil broke the promise

Let’s take a look at one of Netflix’s Daredevil episodes, “Stick”, as an example of a show that made a promise they failed to keep.

A man named Stick comes to Hell’s Kitchen to ask the protagonist of the show, Matt, to help destroy a weapon called Black Sky. Matt later realises the “weapon” is actually a child and stops Stick from killing the boy.

Matt leaves the conflict feeling pretty happy with himself because he thwarted his mentor (after a long line of personal failures) — but then Stick shows up again and gloats (paraphrasing):

“It doesn’t matter, anyway. I doubled back and killed him while you were dealing with the Japanese.”

Like, what? You mean to tell me that the writers set up this potential antagonist, lauded by Matt’s mentor as the most dangerous weapon to ever exist, and then dealt with it off-screen?

Maybe it’s perspective

Daredevil has been quite happy to show us things the protagonist can’t know. Half of the episodes are about what his nemesis is up to, and each episode so far has had at least five minutes watching fairly minor characters have enigmatic conversations (fifty bucks on Miss Gao being an alien).

In other words, Daredevil utilises the omniscient point of view that is common in TV. The audience gets to see far more than the characters, so we know the bad guy’s organisation is falling apart before Matt even gets close.

Because of this omniscient point of view, the writers have no excuse for killing Black Sky off-screen. The opposite is true, actually: showing us Black Sky’s death (especially from Nobu’s perspective) would have fit right in with the other side of the story we’ve already seen, and would have better matched up with Stick’s mysterious meeting at the end of the episode.

If the writers had kept on trend, we should have actually seen Stick doubling back to kill the boy. Doing it off-screen is cheating.

Dropping the ball

I kept waiting for Black Sky to reappear through the rest of Season 1. The writers told me this weapon was important by spending an entire episode on it and forcing a confrontation between Matt and his mentor… but then the weapon… actually isn’t important… because… it’s dead already…?

To keep the promise they made, the weapon should have been used at some point, not only to prove how dangerous it was but to give Matt the promised opportunity to save the day.

Side note: They could have subverted the promise instead, either by proving Stick a liar — the Black Sky wasn’t a dangerous weapon at all — or by having Matt fail to save the day (again). Subverting the promise would have still kept the promise because they would have followed through on the story and characters they set up. They would have made Black Sky important, just not in the way we expected.

It’s possible Stick was lying and the kid will actually show up in a later season — but so far there has been no sign at all that Black Sky is still alive. If anything, subsequent scenes (especially between Fisk and Nobu) have underscored that the weapon is indeed destroyed.

In other words, the entire episode was a gigantic waste of everyone’s time.

Unnecessary reiteration

Something about the episode tells me the writers were trying to reiterate Matt’s growing sense of futility and impotence: they let him think he’d succeeded in saving someone, only to be told once again that he’d failed.

However, this reiteration is completely unnecessary. The entire season has been building to just such a sense of impotency, with many prior (and much more personal) examples to show how bad Matt actually is at being a vigilante. There were also later examples (such as Ben Urich and Elena Cardenas) that do a much better job of driving home how dangerous Matt’s war against crime is to the people he loves.

Yet another instance of failure — that really doesn’t affect Matt personally, outside of the conflict with a mentor he’s already distanced himself from — doesn’t make or break the story either way, and instead brings down the whole house of cards because they fail so badly at it. The only thing this episode did was tell us how Matt learned to fight and “see” so well, and introduce a shady organisation that will probably show up in a later season. (Or not, given how quickly they closed the book on the newly introduced Black Sky.)

Instead of giving us the sense that Matt is feeling impotent, this episode left the viewer feeling impotent because we’re led to believe Black Sky is going to be a major threat, only for him to be killed off-screen without any input from any of the show’s main characters at all.

We were prepping ourselves for a bad-ass antagonist that never actually came. It’s a waste of excitement.

Have some integrity

If we’d actually seen Stick “double back” and kill Black Sky, I would not be using Daredevil as an example of how to break a promise. It would still have felt like cheating — because they set up a bad-ass antagonist that wouldn’t actually become a bad-ass antagonist — but at least the audience would get to see Stick deal with the threat. We could have focused on what Stick meant to Matt as a person.

Instead, Stick mentions in passing and while they’re fighting each other that “oh bee-tee-dubs, that kid you thought you saved? Yeah, not so much”. That’s like slapping someone as you pass them and acting like you didn’t just slap them. You just don’t do it.

How Falling Skies became a failboat

Since John Pope’s introduction in the second episode of Season 1 of Falling Skies, he’s been on track to become the protagonist’s personal nemesis. Things came to a head in Season 5’s “Hatchlings” when Pope’s girlfriend was killed by a recently introduced carnivorous insect. Pope blamed Tom Mason for her death and went off the rails, turning half of the 2nd Mass against the leadership and abandoning the war effort to set up his own group. Along with him went Anthony, who had a personal grudge against Mason’s wife for “grounding” him for medical reasons.

At first, Pope’s nemesis arc was shaping up to fulfill its promise. Pope threatened Mason’s wife and then kidnapped one of Mason’s sons, forcing him to confront Pope on Pope’s terms. Both were badly injured in the fight, but Pope thought Mason died when he was dragged off by one of the alien beasties.

But here’s where things fell apart: Pope discovers Mason is still alive and invades the 2nd Mass camp. Mason realises Pope is standing next to a stack of barrels full of fuel and blows the guy sky high. Not only does this not make sense within their world (they need that fuel and there’s no one left to make more), a conflict the show had been building for five whole seasons was over in ten seconds. (Pope did return for the final episode, but it was mostly to gloat over Mason’s dead wife — who was quickly resurrected — so there was no confrontation there, either.)

We’ve also got the broken promise of the swarming insects, and of Anthony’s sudden and unsatisfying change of heart. (He literally goes from making uncertain faces at Pope’s antics but still hating Anne and enthusiastically following Pope’s every command, to jumping in front of several bullets for her with a throwaway line to explain his behaviour: “I didn’t realise [how nutso Pope was] until it was too late”.)

I’m fairly sure the insects were only introduced to trigger Pope’s nemesis arc, anyway. They show up a few times early in Season 5 as foreshadowing, but as soon as Pope’s girlfriend is dead we only see them one more time (just long enough to kill someone and “prove” what Pope’s been saying about Mason all along). They keep the promise they made that they’d kill someone, but there’s no resolution with them. They don’t show up periodically to remind people of their existence the way the other aliens do. They’re not defeated the way the mechs were. They just simply cease to exist and are never mentioned again.

At the time I wrote this, there was one episode left to win Earth back from the alien threat, and somehow in that time the 2nd Mass had to fend off another Skitter attack, travel to the rendezvous to meet up with other militia, locate the alien queen and kill her (and supposedly the rest of the Espheni in the process). In one single hour (45 minutes minus the ads), they had to tie up all the loose threads still dangling. While this was entirely possible, it wasn’t likely they could do it well. (Anthony’s quick “resolution” was cheap and completely undermined the growing conflict between he and Anne.)

As it turned out, the finale was everything I imagined it would be: rushed to the point of introducing an entirely new group of characters just to rescue the 2nd Mass and take the heat of the main battle. (Saving on your CGI budget, Mr. Spielberg?) I also had to wonder how in the merry hell an 8-legged spider creature could birth a bunch of fish-headed bipeds, but that’s more a world-building issue than a problem with the plot.

So remember:

  • If you’re going to tell your reader something, make sure it means something.
  • If you set up an antagonist, make sure your protagonist gets to deal with them (and that said resolution isn’t rushed or cheap).
  • Don’t make a promise you can’t or won’t keep.

How do you feel about broken promises?

Have you seen or read anything lately that left you feeling like the rug had been swept out from under you? Have you gotten attached to a potential storyline or antagonist that’s been buried alive before it could bud?

Let me know in the comments so I can commiserate!

How writers break their narrative promises
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