the Bullshit Reversal, how and why to avoid it
I am an extraordinarily negative person, and I have a huge list of things I hate, both in fan and in professional fiction. Interestingly, there's not a lot of overlap in terms of things I hate between the two. Fan and pro fiction have different crutches, and thus when they irritate me they do so for very different reasons. I gripe a lot about fanfic, so today I am going to bitch about something I hate more than almost anything in professional writing: the Bullshit Reversal.
The Bullshit Reversal is ubiquitous in movies and is fairly common in novels. It may even have a trope name on TV Tropes, but I don't know and I'm not wading in there. This is what the Bullshit Reversal is, and how it goes down:
CAPTAIN EXPOSITION. "I want you to do something that the audience will find entertaining."
HERO. "I'm not going to do that."
CAPTAIN EXPOSITION. *some bullshit*
HERO. "Okay, I'll do it."
A prominent recent example is Ken Watanabe's declined-then-accepted job offer to Leonardo DiCaprio in INCEPTION. This is also a rare case in which the hero actually has a compelling reason for the initial rejection. Usually, it's just that the hero doesn't want to. This is annoying from an audience perspective, because most of the time the hero is rejecting the basic premise of the movie. I have put down my money to see the hero do something, only to learn that the hero doesn't want to do it. To make this particularly vexing, a lot of the time it is something *I would give my left nut to be able to do.* So right off the bat, the movie is making its main character the enemy of the audience: I want to see awesomeness happen, and the hero is STANDING IN MY WAY.
(This problem is not confined to the Bullshit Reversal. In a lot of martial arts flicks, the hero is the one who doesn't want to fight, does everything to avoid a fight, when we're there to watch him have some fucking fights. In NEVER BACK DOWN, for example, the hero literally does nothin' but.)
The good news is that the Bullshit Reversal usually is resolved quickly. There are two ways this happens. Captain Exposition either offers the hero an incentive or threatens the hero. Either way, the hero grudgingly agrees to do what we have paid our good money to see him do, and the movie goes on from there. (Sometimes the hero has to Go Home and Think About It first.)
The biggest problem with the Bullshit Reversal is that most of the time there is no good reason for it. As an effort to create false suspense, it's pretty ineffective. I think more of its ubiquity may be a desire to hang a lampshade on the fact that the hero is nuts to get involved in a problem that is not directly in their bailiwick. Also, one should never discount the DIE HARD factor: one reason the original DIE HARD is so compelling is that its hero is panicked, desperate, terrified, and would rather be literally *anywhere else* than in that movie. So a lot of folks making movies think, hey, you know what would make this movie better? If our hero doesn't want to be in it! The problem is, of course, just because that's a great idea for DIE HARD doesn't mean it's a great idea in your movie, especially if you're making a movie about a protagonist who does have a choice to take up the cause he's offered. Because here is a paradox: if your hero is unexpectedly dropped into a situation and deals with it, that makes your hero look awesome. If your hero decides to enter a situation and deals with it, that makes your hero look awesome. If your hero decides not to enter a situation and gets dropped into it anyway, that makes your hero look *ineffectual.* Why would I want to watch this asshole try to stop the Villain, when he can't even outmaneuver the guy who fucking hired him?
The Bullshit Reversal is one of those things that it's painfully easy to write, just because it happens so often that you can trick yourself into assuming that this is how things are supposed to go. I hate this trope, and still I caught myself writing it in an original story I am puttering on: the protagonist is asked to do something, and initially demurs, then reconsiders. This is a Bullshit Reversal, and wastes the audience's and story's time. I dealt with this by realizing that the person who should be reversing is Captain Exposition. My Captain Exposition is a decent person who desperately needs help of the sort my untrustworthy and frightening Protagonist could provide, but for those very reasons would never in a million years ask Protagonist to help. So in the revised opening of the story, Protagonist sniffs out that Captain Exposition is in a jam, and then sets out to discover the problem and help Captain Exposition to the best of Protagonist's alarming ability, *whether Captain Exposition wants Protagonist to be helping or not.* Bullshit Reversal: avoided!
ETA: wordweaverlynn points out that this is probably due to the overuse of Joseph Campbell's "Hero With a Thousand Faces." And I don't know how I missed it. It's amazing how many folks are treating it as a ticky box, without understanding why or when to use it.
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