After three and a half seasons of screaming at my tv, I finally gave up on Supernatural. The show had a lot of potential: good acting, interesting lore, and that speculative element I always welcome in my entertainment, so I was willing to give it a go, despite it being a little too close to horror for my liking. And yet, here I was, finally giving up after over three seasons of being less and less entertained. At the same time, I had similar experience with Stranger Things 3. I’ve been so hopeful for it, only to be met with disappointment. While I appreciate some aspects of these two and many other shows, they all seem to suffer from a fatal storytelling flaw.
“I’d die for you, but I’ll lie to you”
I have a confession to make: I’m a sucker for a good scheme in fiction. I love to see both protagonists and antagonists to come up with complex plots to outwit their adversaries, or to manipulate information and people in order to get to their goal. It usually makes for a good and exciting story.
But not if it’s overdone and unjustified.
In Supernatural, the majority of the drama and conflict between the two main characters comes from dishonesty. The two brothers, seemingly tightly-bond over the course of the series, readily sacrificing themselves for each other, at the same time have no trouble in concealing any inconvenient facts or flat out lying about decisions, events, and information.
At some point, such plot solution becomes not only predictable, but also tiresome, especially in the context of two family members trusting each other with their lives. How am I supposed to believe that if at the same time neither bats his eye when lying to the other one?
Friends… do lie
The same problem occurs with Stranger Things 3. Through two seasons the close-knitted group of friends learns the lesson that “friends don’t lie.” It’s almost a motif of the whole series, and there are always consequences and fallouts following those lies. Yet, after those two seasons, the third one opens with lies, and tops it up with even more as the story progresses. The drama between two of the main characters could have been avoided entirely, if one of them was honest up front. But he wasn’t, and even though he gets to suffer the consequences, a question arises whether he can learn the lesson. That doesn’t make an admirable character who outgrows his mistakes, and it bares the lazy writing so common in nowadays shows (and books): lie sows discord, but when it’s not needed anymore, an apology is enough. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam.
When lies become a lousy plot solution
As I mentioned above, generally, I have no problem with lies in fiction. After all, antagonists are supposed to lie. And even the protagonists sometimes have to wiggle their way through problems with deception, whether it is to get into that high security alien compound or evil wizard’s lair.
But when lies become a tool to sow disruption between tightly-bond characters and trusting characters, without any long-term, deep consequences, it sends the wrong message to the audience: lying is ok (as long as it’s justified, and you can justify it with the most laugh-worthy excuse).
Yet, in real life, a lie from a partner or a friend isn’t something as light as tv shows try to convince us. It might be forgiven once or twice, or maybe even ten times, but at some stage, the relationship begins to deteriorate one way or another. Trust dwindles, and there’s a point of no return, that one lie too far to destroy everything.
Going down the spiral of lies could be an interesting study of dissolution of such bonds, but instead, tv shows and books reiterate that lying isn’t an issue, at least not one that would go beyond an episode or a chapter. That characters could have their lies exposed in one scene, but demand the trust of the person they lied to in the next one.
Let’s not normalize negative behaviors
Fiction isn’t real life, but to some extent, it often reflects it. People complain about glorifying stalking or normalizing abusive relationship in books among many other things, because they feel they affect real relationship and people’s choices. But lies are still used lightly for the sake of drama and entertainment, and become more and more common easy plot solutions, and hardly anyone notices, praising the dramatic plot twists and reliving the drama. At the same time, people seem to grow concerned about our societies becoming dishonest, and relationships falling apart more and more often.
Maybe it’s time to change that, even if it’s only through working on some more creative plot solutions?
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games.
Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English.
Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.