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What’s your pet story peeve?

On Netflix yesterday, I watched an episode of Midsomer Murders, a crime show set in the England. Like most crime shows, the real fun’s in the interaction of the main characters and trying to solve the case yourself.

The mystery part of the story was enjoyable enough, but then, 95 minutes into the 100-minute episode, the writer(s) pulled what I consider to be the most irritating plot cheat used in fiction. I call it ‘The Mystery Telegram Trick,’ because I first saw it used by detectives in old murder mysteries – I’m looking at you, Mrs. Christie.

It's when a surprise plot twist at the very end of the story turns a hitherto unsuspected character into the ideal suspect, if only we'd known.  

Here’s an example of how it works:
The detective character sets out to solve a murder of a rich (and much-disliked) old man called Michael McGillicuddy. Throughout the course of the story our sleuth meets various suspects, many of whom turn out to have both motive and opportunity. As the plot thickens, our enterprising detective uncovers more clues and narrows down the list of likely killers.

Of course, while all this is going on, we readers (or viewers) form our own opinions. Based on the clues offered, we try to figure out for ourselves who ‘done the deed’.

So far so normal, right? But then comes the time to unmask the murderer. Is it the rascally son of the deceased, who was heard promising to kill the old curmudgeon if he carried out his threat to write him out of the will? Is it the jilted femme-fatalle? Is it the old war-buddy who turned up, out of the blue, just days before the deceased was drowned in the dog’s water bowl?

Our heroic detective solves the case. “The murderer is…none of the above.”

Much to everyone’s astonishment (especially those in the audience), the killer turns out to be none other than shy village postman, Ned Wilkins. You know the character. He’s turned up in several scenes, possibly to add comic relief (or deliver a letter).

Wait a minute. Why would Ned want to kill old Michael McGillicuddy? What possible motive could he have?

That’s when the detective pulls out the telegram he received 'just hours ago' which confirms what he’d suspected for some time (but never mentioned). Ned Wilkins is really Charles McGillicuddy, the son and (until now, unheard of) heir of the dearly departed. Turns out dead Michael had a dalliance with a one-legged nun during the last world war. A woman he later married, then abandoned, two weeks before Ned (or Charles as we must now call him) was born.

The police cart Ned/Charles off to prison. Everyone goes home happy, except people like me. It bugs me no end when a last minute plot twist cheats me out of my chance to solve the case. I’m not sure why, though I suspect it’s got something to do with the unspoken contract I believe we get at the start of a murder mystery ie: There’s been a murder. You’ll accompany the detective as he solves the case. If you pay attention as he searches for clues, you’ll be able to figure out who dunnit too.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just old and crochety.

How about you?

What’s your pet story peeve?

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( 72 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 9th, 2011 01:38 pm (UTC)
Deus Ex Machina, pretty much.

Also, pulling in many random elements in the middle of a story. Sometimes it can be done fairly well, sometimes (like in the movie The Stuff, it turns out a bit too giggle-worthy. I think about pulling out this movie, used to have a copy, just for the giggles. I sent my copy to a friend for the giggles too, rest her soul. Starts sort of like an alien version of Beverly Hillbillies, with The Blob elements, up to a Night of the Living Dead thing, with random token army sequence/insertion in the middle of the plot,and everything.
Jul. 9th, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
Too much random is a definite credibilty issue too.
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Jul. 9th, 2011 09:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 9th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC)
You may actually be old and crotchety,
but that's beside the point.
You're right,
that preposterous bit of last-minute information
is hideously cheap-shot, and I hope I avoid it in my own writing,
but, umm...
Jul. 9th, 2011 08:49 pm (UTC)
Hey, watch who you're calling 'old' :P
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Jul. 9th, 2011 09:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Jul. 10th, 2011 11:18 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 9th, 2011 02:17 pm (UTC)
That is a very valid peeve. It comes under the general heading of writing three-quarters of a book about setting/staging and the other quarter about the actual story, which is always at the end. Very similar is the dreaded 'It was all a dream' in the end chapter.

Another peeve of mine is lack of attention to detail or research. Frex, a certain very popular book, which I will not name, starts off with a red-headed boy and by the end of the book, and without the use of hair dye, he has dark brown hair.
Jul. 9th, 2011 02:45 pm (UTC)
it's the same, really, except with a telegram instead of an alarm clock.
(no subject) - darkspires - Jul. 9th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Jul. 9th, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 9th, 2011 08:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 9th, 2011 02:43 pm (UTC)
Yep, Christie pulled that a lot. I understand that she often wrote without knowing who the killer was until she got to the 'drawing room' scene. I jsut saw a recent BBC Poirot that really felt like the solution was completely out of the blue, also.
Jul. 9th, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
If the original was serialized,
or the author was working on a really rigid deadline,
it might be excusable;
but, really, this is why we have first drafts.
If you have to pull a rabbit out of a hat at the end,
you can at least put the hat somewhere in the revision...
(no subject) - rowyn - Jul. 10th, 2011 01:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Jul. 10th, 2011 11:19 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jul. 9th, 2011 02:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - j_cheney - Jul. 9th, 2011 02:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jul. 9th, 2011 03:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 9th, 2011 08:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rowyn - Jul. 10th, 2011 01:51 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jul. 10th, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 9th, 2011 08:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - j_cheney - Jul. 10th, 2011 12:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 9th, 2011 09:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 9th, 2011 02:51 pm (UTC)
That one's up there.

The other is when a character either gains an unusual power that we've had no way of knowing about to make the plot run (i.e. "it's amazing, but apparently despite that it wasn't hinted at until this chapter, Mrs. Smith, a housewife from Idaho, can fly a helicopter. Who would have thought?") or the character does something totally out of character to make the plot work out. (i.e. your kind and gentle character beats someone up, or your noble hero abandons his side kick to die)
Jul. 9th, 2011 03:02 pm (UTC)
Something almost as annoying, but not quite, is when some reference to that incongruous skill is planted early on, as a way to escape the charge of suddenly introducing the skill. So, in Chapter 2, Mr. Jones is overheard talking in conversation and mentioning that Mrs. Smith used to fly helicopters. At the time, reading Chapter 2, you scratch your head and think, why'd this get mentioned? And then in Chapter 7, you're like, "oooh, that's why."

If it's worked into the story in a believable way, like if, in Chapter 2, Mrs. Smith's kid and Mr. Jones's kid are busy taking apart an old engine, and Mr. Jones remarks how great it is that Mrs. Smith encourages them to do stuff like that, and reflects on how it goes along with her exploring, adventurous attitude, and THEN remarks about the helicopter, then, okay. But a one-liner in Chapter 2 doesn't feel like enough groundwork for revealing the talent in Chapter 7--it just feels like a set-up, like Chekhov's gun.
(no subject) - mutive - Jul. 9th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 9th, 2011 09:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 9th, 2011 08:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mutive - Jul. 9th, 2011 09:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 9th, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
The one you describe is one I reeeally hate in mystery shows. It's such a cheat! I much prefer it when you know the villain in advance, and the plot is how the detective reveals that--like in Columbo.
Jul. 9th, 2011 09:00 pm (UTC)
Columbo = :)
Jul. 9th, 2011 02:59 pm (UTC)
I don't like that either. Now, if they have the detective sending a letter to someone or making a hushed phone call that let's me know he's go something up his sleeve...or the REAL person does something that caste a light of suspicion that I may have perceived one way...that's clever. I love that.

My pet peeve is when a story is set in real world, with real world rules, but a character does something that is IMPOSSIBLE. Like cutting rope with a coke can. Or not being able to swimm, but jumping in roaring rapids and saving someone. I'm like, uh...Really? Really? You can't cheat the laws of physics or chemistry or an individual's ability.
Jul. 9th, 2011 03:05 pm (UTC)
I get bummed when I try to do something like cut rope with a coke can, based on seeing something on TV, and then discover that it won't work in real life :-(
(no subject) - tracy_d74 - Jul. 9th, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 9th, 2011 09:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 9th, 2011 03:00 pm (UTC)
this is going to sound petty, but I hate when you are reading (or watching) something that is set in a place you know well and sudenly the chericters go into a tunnel (or something) and come out someplace totaly differnt.

I used to see that all the time - but now it seems like the people who direct in both Boston and Philly actuly know the areas.

I also find it stops me when I am reading something set in the mideavle and a femal cherciter puts on a bra. Or a colonal peice where the chercters talk about how uncomfortable they are in the day to day clothes of the time.

But those two things may just be personal. I mean I know what it is to work (and work hard) in historical clothing.
Jul. 9th, 2011 09:08 pm (UTC)
I agree. Real locations have to be done right. As for historical accuracy, in the age of the internet, there's really no excuse for getting it wrong anymore.
(no subject) - bodgei - Jul. 9th, 2011 09:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 9th, 2011 03:02 pm (UTC)
women characters who aren't portrayed like people. (this is, for instance, why i can't read kerouac.)
Jul. 9th, 2011 09:04 pm (UTC)
'women characters who aren't portrayed like people.'

In spite of the fact that, in many ways, they are.

Just kidding :)
(no subject) - rowyn - Jul. 10th, 2011 02:00 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lyonesse - Jul. 11th, 2011 11:36 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 9th, 2011 04:34 pm (UTC)
"On the other hand, maybe I’m just old and crochety."

Well. There is that. (LOL, just kidding) But I'd say you have a valid point. Although I did use to LOVE me some Agatha Christie. I should have a read now in my adulthood and see how those books translate though. I *think* I used to guess the killer simply by picking the most unlikely, innocent-seeming character. ;-D
Jul. 9th, 2011 09:05 pm (UTC)
The funny thing is, I still enjoy watching the television productions of Poirot and Marple.
Jul. 9th, 2011 07:14 pm (UTC)
I just had to put another book down because it had yet another raven-with-a-broken-wing fey female love object who of course was pale and vulnerable and had a flat tummy.

Male writers can you PLEASE try something else. The thin-girl fetish is so damn boring. Fat ladies have feelings too!
Jul. 9th, 2011 09:06 pm (UTC)
And all the men have a full had of hair too :(
(no subject) - ideealisme - Jul. 9th, 2011 10:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 9th, 2011 07:16 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, and the Present Tense. I GO to the toilet sounds so much more existential and meaningful than I WENT to the toilet. Though I'd be inclined to write I'd had a good damn crap...
Jul. 9th, 2011 09:06 pm (UTC)
Hahahahahahaha :)
Jul. 9th, 2011 11:58 pm (UTC)
A pet peeve of mine, which I see more in movies than books, is when an intelligent character suddenly temporarily turns into an idiot for the sake of the plot.
Jul. 10th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean. It's bad enough when the idiot character goes to check what's making creepy noises in the attic, during a blackout.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 10th, 2011 04:08 am (UTC)
Correction :o)

Richie's older brother Chuck, who appeared in early episodes, vanished completely from the family in later seasons with no explanation. People joke that he went into the witness Witless protection program.

Re: Correction :o) - jongibbs - Jul. 10th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 10th, 2011 06:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 10th, 2011 12:49 pm (UTC)
I agree.
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 10th, 2011 05:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
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