Why I Hate Football Plots

I hate Football Plots.

I hate them with the passion of a thousand suns.

What are Football Plots?

Football Plots are when the whole story centers around a piece of information (or item), and the story is basically about the characters trying to get that “Football” to the other end of the “field” while avoiding the people trying to stop them.

Now when you read that, the first thing that might come to mind (if you’re a geek) is Lord of the Rings (Frodo tries to get a ring to Mount Doom while dodging Orcs) or perhaps even Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Luke tries to get the plans to the Death Star to the Rebels) and while yes, those do fit the criteria I list above, real Football Plots take it to a whole other level.

I first noticed Football Plots when I was watching Korean Historical Dramas, and they are masters of the Football Plot. In a typical Korean Historical Drama, very often a character will find out a piece of information (say X is a spy for the enemy) and then the moment they find out that piece of information the whole world turns against them. Why does the world turn against them? Because if the character were able to say a single sentence to the right person, then the whole plot would end there and then. So, as a result, anything and everything has to happen to keep that character from being able to give that piece of information to the right person until the appointed time (or page count) in the plot.

This commonly includes:

  • Being interrupted before they can speak.
  • People falling sick at bad times.
  • Old enemies being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Friends (temporarily) turning against them for plot-convenient reasons.
  • Family members who have known them their whole lives suddenly not trusting them.
  • The people they need being in hard to reach locations at just that moment.
  • The people they need being distracted by something else at just that moment.
  • Nobody believing them.
  • Doing things that they’d know they shouldn’t do if they just stopped and thought about it for a moment.
  • Accidents happening at just the wrong time.
  • Everything they’ve ever done wrong in their life coming back to haunt them at just that time.
  • Amnesia.
  • Being Kidnapped.
  • Misunderstandings with almost everyone around them.
  • Just missing the people they need to see.
  • And every other possible coincidence you can imagine that would prevent them from being able to pass that one piece of information along.

Now, while a few of these in a story is hardly a cause for annoyance (they’re tricks for building drama, and they work) if you use too many of them, it can quickly turn a dramatic and thrilling plot into a silly soap opera where the audience feels strung along, and when it reaches this level I call it a Football Plot because that’s all it is, an endless series of plays and interceptions as Character B tries to stop Character A from talking to Character C. Of course, in a real Football game, a single goal doesn’t decide the whole game, but here it does, which is part of the problem.

Football Plots are inherently weak, because they’re dependent on a single action. To give an example, I’ve seen Korean Dramas where twenty or more episodes of plot could literally have been skipped or avoided if Character A said “I’m sorry” to Character C. Literally skipped, as in it would have made no difference to the story whatsoever overall, and wouldn’t have changed the characters or their relationships. That was twenty episodes (20 HOURS, give or take) of time and events which didn’t need to happen, but did because the writers wanted to pad the show out, thus a Football Plot was used to fill time and create fake drama.

And this is one of my main problems with them, most of the time they’re used there’s no reason to use them at all, except to create fake drama where it feels like something exciting is happening, but in reality there’s nothing important going on. They just serve as filler to keep a story moving that otherwise should have ended a long time ago. Of course, sometimes they really do have consequences, but even then they can run off the rails and into “Why Does God Hate Me?” territory.

“Why Does God Hate Me?” is a type of Football Plot where the main characters are trying to accomplish a goal that is important to everyone involved, but literally everything that can go wrong goes wrong to ridiculous levels, as though God has a hate-on for the main character(s) and is betting on their opposition to win. This is usually the result of the writer taking the old writer’s adage “Put your characters in trees and throw rocks at them” and turning it into “Put your characters in trees and shoot at them with a 50 calibre minigun”.

And, lest you’re thinking “Oh ho! Those silly Koreans and their crazy Dramas” this whole post was inspired by one of the most beloved of American speculative fiction writers- Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files and Codex Alera series. For at the moment I’m reading his almost 700 page novel The Furies of Calderon (Book One of Codex Alera), and it is one of the most maddening examples of a “Why Does God Hate Me?” Football Plot I’ve ever seen. One that would make the Korean drama writers point fingers and laugh ironically.

How bad it is?

Well, you see that list up there. The list of crazy weekday afternoon soap-opera plot twists that you were probably mocking a moment ago as you read it? Well, Butcher does ALL of those twists in the first 400 pages of the book, and we’ve still got another 300 to go.

Go back and look at that list.

Then think- ALL of it, to the main characters, in 400 pages.

All because if the main characters spoke to the wrong person for five seconds, the whole story would come to a screeching halt and the heroes would win. So he’s pulling out every single trick he can think of to keep that from happening, while at the same time giving his villains every bit of good luck they can handle.

Actual condensed (non-spoiler) scene from the story:

Villain: This sucks. I’m randomly lost in the middle of nowhere, the heroes will win and have no shoes.
(A messenger carrying the information the villain can’t have get out happens to pass that exact spot out of the whole valley at that moment, and the villain kills him.)
Villain: Hurray! Now I have stopped my enemies, know where I am, and have gained shoes!

This is sandwiched next to a scene where the heroes almost reach their goal, and a literal random act of god knocks them back halfway across the story field for no reason except to keep the plot from stopping there and then.

I swear, I nearly threw the book at the wall at that point. But I like my wall.

It’s a decently written book, with interesting characters and ideas, but my god is it one of the most maddening things I have read in a long time. The heroes get almost no breaks (except in ways which don’t threaten to prematurely end the plot), and the villains get all the breaks they need to keep the plot going and people running around. A good story should have a balance between successes and failures that keep the reader interested and make them believe that what they’re reading is there for a reason, not just to keep a weak plot alive.

Which I guess is why I hate Football Plots so much. They’re usually more flash than substance, and aren’t really giving the reader anything new, just stringing them along until the writer can get their payoff. They’re the opposite of creativity, and a cheat.

Now, as I said before, there’s nothing wrong with using some dramatic twists to keep the reader interested and make the main character’s life interesting, in fact you need to throw a few in, but like a good chef, you need to know just the right amount of spice to use to make the dish nourishing and tasty at the same time. A Football Plot is all icing and no cake, and that makes Rob an unhappy boy.

Rob

3 thoughts on “Why I Hate Football Plots

  1. >I hate Football Plots.

    I think this is gonna be one of them things where I totally agree with you while completely disagreeing with everything you say.

    I can understand your displeasure, but I don’t think the problem is the device itself. Like the Inevitable McGuffin, or CGI, the technique seems to be one of the standard repitoire that EVERYBODY draws from with little regard for usage or understanding of effect.

    >if you use too many of them, it can quickly turn a dramatic and thrilling plot into a silly soap opera where the audience feels strung along,

    But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, IF it’s the effect you’re looking for. The problem arises when someone just throws more circumstance in for the sake of padding, or ‘cos they couldn’t think of anything better. THEN it’s a problem. But that sort of directionless canoodling is a problem for any technique. Too many folks write stuff with no concept of why they’re doing the things they’re doing. (Curse you, creative writing class!!!!)

    The other big problem is that the endless stream of complications only works as long as you can keep them interesting. As soon as you repeat, or fall back to an old standby it all becomes familiar for the audience, and gets swished in with “everything else” for them. The third series of “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure” was an almost endless “football plot,” but the complications…. the bad guys…. were weird and interesting enough it didn’t matter.

    Which plays to another consideration: does your story serve the characters, or the characters serve the story? That is; are you writing to demonstrate/facilitate the characters, plot, setting…. or are you writing to facilitate your own writing. So…. that’s a pretty inelegant way of putting it…. but the best example would be you and me. You write ‘cos you’re a writer; THAT’S the important part. You have ideas and characters but the drive for you is perfecting your art and technique. Everything you do is another step along that path. On the other hand is me. I never wanted to be a writer, or cartoonist, or designer…. but I ended up with a story, and everything I do is done to improve (or rather, express) THAT story.

    So you would create a “football plot” and upon further review seek a better way of progressing the story without a hackneyed technique. I’d look at it and ask if that’s what “really” happened or not. (Like I said; being a skilled writer isn’t a big priority for me.)

    Hmmmm…. did that help, or did I make things worse?

    >“Why Does God Hate Me?” is a type of Football Plot

    ….and the story of my life….

    >where the main characters are trying to accomplish a goal that is important to everyone involved, but literally everything that can go wrong goes wrong to ridiculous levels, as though God has a hate-on for the main character(s)

    I’m okay with that (Maybe ‘cos I can empathise) IF you can keep the escalation going. The point of this sort of plot ISN’T that the character is failing, it’s the failures themselves. The trick is MAKING them the focus. It’s giving the audience the in that says “yeah, buddy ‘aint gonna make it but Holee Smokes lookit ‘em fail!” I think that’s what makes Monty Python so funny: no matter how mundane the situation you KNOW it’s leading to epic fail, and you’re waiting to see how surreal said failure is gonna be.

    >All because if the main characters spoke to the wrong person for five seconds, the whole story would come to a screeching halt and the heroes would win. So he’s pulling out every single trick he can think of to keep that from happening, while at the same time giving his villains every bit of good luck they can handle.

    Which to me sounds more like bad writing than a flaw with the technique. (Or underlying plot structure.) He’s not selling the idea of epic fail and is instead trying for straight up drama.

    “Will Batman escape? Tune in next week!” Yes, yes he will. If you’re the ‘66 Batman tv show you play it for yuks ‘cos we KNOW he’s gonna get out next week. (“Good thing I had my Bat Shark Repellant!) If you’re “Knightfall” you play it straight and groanworthy. (Bruce Wayne got his back broken! Good thing he was COINCIDENTALLY dating the world’s greatest neurosurgeon!”)

    >A good story should have a balance between successes and failures that keep the reader interested and make them believe that what they’re reading is there for a reason, not just to keep a weak plot alive.

    Which is of course why “Peanuts” was one of the world’s most beloved comics for so long.

    ….wait….

    But that goes to show the technique itself isn’t the problem, it’s the execution. If you’re gonna do it, do it. Don’t pretend you’re not, don’t half-ass it with pseudo tension…. go big or go home.

    Don C.

    • >>I hate Football Plots.

      >I think this is gonna be one of them things where I totally agree with you while completely disagreeing with everything you say.

      The story of our friendship. 😉

      >>if you use too many of them, it can quickly turn a dramatic and thrilling plot into a silly soap opera where the audience feels strung along,

      >But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, IF it’s the effect you’re looking for. The problem arises when someone just throws more circumstance in for the sake of padding, or ‘cos they >couldn’t think of anything better. THEN it’s a problem. But that sort of directionless canoodling is a problem for any technique. Too many folks write stuff with no concept of why >they’re doing the things they’re doing. (Curse you, creative writing class!!!!)

      And I agree with that. You’re exactly right that it’s a technique that most (almost all, really) writers use. It’s a pacing and dramatic technique and used properly it can really help to add a lot to a story. Unfortunately, it also often gets misused, and that’s what I’m complaining about with the term Football Plots. When the use of the technique seems to serve no real purpose except padding out the story for the sake of padding out the story. When it’s used right, it’s a great spice, but like every spice if you use too much of it your dish will taste like crap.

      >The other big problem is that the endless stream of complications only works as long as you can keep them interesting. As soon as you repeat, or fall back to an old standby it all >becomes familiar for the audience, and gets swished in with “everything else” for them. The third series of “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure” was an almost endless “football plot,” but the >complications…. the bad guys…. were weird and interesting enough it didn’t matter.

      Actually, I’d argue Jojo’s Stardust Crusaders arc (the third series you refer to) isn’t guilty of this exactly because, as you say, it’s the point of the story. The final goal they’re trying to achieve is more like an overarching story that brings together a series of smaller adventures and challenges, and that’s different than a single-minded march where random stuff just gets in your way because the author can’t think of any other way to slow you down.

      I guess, really, if you want to be more specific, I’m against BAD Football Plots. Done well, they can work and be exciting, but done poorly or overdone they’re maddening.

      >Which plays to another consideration: does your story serve the characters, or the characters serve the story? That is; are you writing to demonstrate/facilitate the characters, plot, >setting…. or are you writing to facilitate your own writing. So…. that’s a pretty inelegant way of putting it…. but the best example would be you and me. You write ‘cos you’re a >writer; THAT’S the important part. You have ideas and characters but the drive for you is perfecting your art and technique. Everything you do is another step along that path. On the >other hand is me. I never wanted to be a writer, or cartoonist, or designer…. but I ended up with a story, and everything I do is done to improve (or rather, express) THAT story.

      If what you mean is the difference between the “craft” and “organic” approaches to writing, then I agree. If something feels natural and organic to the story, then even if it’s hackneyed or a little cliche, the audience will still be okay with it because it just blends in naturally. On the other hand, and this can be a flaw with the “craft” approach, if you’re building a story like a craftsperson it’s easier to fall into the trap of just sticking things in there because that’s how you learned to do it rather than because they naturally fit. This is actually why Stephen King and other panster writers tend to look down on people who focus on plotting stories (he refers to them as “hacks”), because they say plotted stories often don’t fit together in a natural way like unplotted stories do. I don’t entirely agree, but I do get his point.

      >So you would create a “football plot” and upon further review seek a better way of progressing the story without a hackneyed technique. I’d look at it and ask if that’s what “really” >happened or not. (Like I said; being a skilled writer isn’t a big priority for me.)

      >Hmmmm…. did that help, or did I make things worse?

      No, it’s all good. 🙂

      >>where the main characters are trying to accomplish a goal that is important to everyone involved, but literally everything that can go wrong goes wrong to ridiculous levels, as though >>God has a hate-on for the main character(s)

      >I’m okay with that (Maybe ‘cos I can empathise) IF you can keep the escalation going. The point of this sort of plot ISN’T that the character is failing, it’s the failures themselves. >The trick is MAKING them the focus. It’s giving the audience the in that says “yeah, buddy ‘aint gonna make it but Holee Smokes lookit ‘em fail!” I think that’s what makes Monty Python >so funny: no matter how mundane the situation you KNOW it’s leading to epic fail, and you’re waiting to see how surreal said failure is gonna be.

      And I’d agree, if you accept and are upfront with the character’s impending failure and make it about that failure (in other words, the failure serves a point) then it can be just as interesting to watch as a character winning. It’s all about knowing what you’re doing, and which techniques to use and not use, and how much. However, even a character on a death spiral should get a few wins, just to give the audience false hope, and make the final failure that much more dramatic.

      >>All because if the main characters spoke to the wrong person for five seconds, the whole story would come to a screeching halt and the heroes would win. So he’s pulling out every >>single trick he can think of to keep that from happening, while at the same time giving his villains every bit of good luck they can handle.

      >Which to me sounds more like bad writing than a flaw with the technique. (Or underlying plot structure.) He’s not selling the idea of epic fail and is instead trying for straight up >drama.

      Yeah, in this case, I’d go with bad writing. He’s got a villain with such a fragile plot that he has to pull all these tricks to keep it from crashing down, when it would have been better for the villain to actually have a strong plot that wouldn’t tumble over at a stiff breeze in the first place.

      >>A good story should have a balance between successes and failures that keep the reader interested and make them believe that what they’re reading is there for a reason, not just to >>keep a weak plot alive.

      >Which is of course why “Peanuts” was one of the world’s most beloved comics for so long.
      >….wait….
      >But that goes to show the technique itself isn’t the problem, it’s the execution. If you’re gonna do it, do it. Don’t pretend you’re not, don’t half-ass it with pseudo tension…. go big >or go home.

      And this I agree with. It’s when they’re half-assing it that it doesn’t work.

      Rob

  2. >even a character on a death spiral should get a few wins, just to give the audience false hope

    Maybe; but I still think it depends on your ultimate end. Charlie Brown was popular BECAUSE he’s the perennial fall guy. That was the point. But when you read interviews with Schultz that was his intent from the get go. I suspect that’s why it worked.

    I think one of the other reasons you get the football plot is because of the nature of entertainment. Comics are a good example. You might intend for there to be an end, or development of some sort; but that’s tough to achieve in a perpetual series. You can’t REALLY end it, or change anything but there still HAS to be a next issue. So you get a sort of protracted football plot. We defeat bad guy “A” after a series of setbacks and developments, only to find that bad guy “B” has been waiting in the wings, and he’s MORE powerful, so we start at the beginning again. Next thing you know you’re writing “Dragonball” or “Bleach” or “One Piece” or any superhero comic….

    “Peanuts” had the advantage that there WASN’T an end. The series was intended to go on as long as it could, and the limited nature of the conflicts meant a reckoning wasn’t required. (Although there were a few we’d liked to see.)

    Don C.

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