Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
And where there’s cheese, there are sloppy story mechanics.
When a story is “cheesy”, it’s because the story-teller has tried to cut corners.
Any attempt to gain unearned results is cheese.
Most story-tellers don’t set out to make cheese. They want to make people cry, scream, celebrate, or gasp – not roll their eyes.
It’s hard to bring an audience to catharsis. And when we don’t feel up to the task, cheese is an easy way out. If gives the feeling of telling a good story, but we’re actually compromising the values of solid story mechanics and exchanging them for predictable, contrived fire exits.
There are very specific – and fixable – causes of cheese. You just have to know where to look and what to do when you find them.
If you don’t want your story to have that “I-saw-it-coming” feeling, and if you really want to tell a story that will take your audience on a wild ride, here’s what to look for.
1. The Dreaded Deus ex Machina
Odds are you’ve heard this Latin term but may not understand its exact meaning.
It literally translates to “God from a machine”, a term coined for medieval plays. At the climax of all the conflict, when the forces for good and evil were about to do mortal battle, an angel of god would descend into the fray (on a rope lowered from the theater rafters) and issue some news or edict that would put an end to the fighting.
God – from a machine.
But the deus ex machina is a huge cheat.
Stories are about characters wanting and pursuing their dreams – dreams they would die for.
When someone else – especially a “magical” someone else – parachutes in and saves the day, the audience feels cheated.
Look for an external presence forcing its way into your climax – or, see if your Protagonist just “gets” the goal without actually earning it. Think of ways to get him chasing again.
That’s what a story is: A Chase. It’s not a waiting room for divine intervention.
(Examples of Deus ex Machina: The antagonist gives up; a beast in nature chooses to eat the villain in the nick of time; difficult circumstances suddenly “work out”; the hero should die, but “luck” or “coincidence” protect him….that’s you, Harry Potter saga!)
2. “We’re All in This Together”
Some stories, primarily “feel-good” ones, tend to conclude with all the antagonistic forces suddenly “seeing the light” and realizing that the protagonist was right all along. They stop antagonizing and join forces to help the protagonist achieve her goal.
In film, this form of cheese tends to resolve the story with some big party, competition, or concert. Multiple camera shots show each character, no longer a “bad guy”, having a good time and maybe even high-fiving or hugging one another.
There’s nothing wrong with having an antagonist show a good side (Vader) or learn a lesson before joining forces with the Protagonist (Remy’s father in Ratatouille).
But to have all the forces of evil turn and help Cinderella get to the ball?
Antagonists don’t just roll over and die. They are rolled over because the protagonist pursues her goals to the extreme.
3. “I Love You,” says the Goal….
Some story-tellers back themselves into a corner when they take their Protagonist to the extreme. It comes from a good thing – one should always take a Protagonist as far as she will go to achieve her goals.
But once backed into a corner, many story-tellers will panic and commit the fatal error of turning the Goal into the active force in the story.
This can be tricky. In some stories, namely romantic ones, the story is about two people who want each other (Romeo and Juliet). They are co-protagonists in pursuit of unity, so each functions as the other’s Goal.
But with non-romantic stories, this type of action is toxic. Think of it this way:
Jerry wants a promotion so he can take his family on vacation and save his marriage. His boss is a grump who doesn’t see the value Jerry brings to the company. At home, his wife barely speaks to him and Jerry even catches her texting an old college boyfriend. He’s at his wits end.
Suddenly the phone rings. It’s Jerry’s boss. “I’ve been watching you,” the boss says cryptically and Jerry braces for the worst. But to his (and the audience’s) complete surprise, Mr. Boss showers Jerry with praise and acknowledges all his struggles. “I haven’t been treating you how you deserve,” he offers humbly. The boss concludes by giving Jerry a raise, promotion, and two weeks paid vacation.
This is great for Jerry but terrible for the audience. Jerry was chasing until he had nothing left to chase with, bringing him to the edge.
But this is the exact moment the audience comes to see. They come to see a man on the edge and how he plans to fly once he jumps.
They don’t come to watch Jerry get what he wants simply because he tried. That’s not good enough.
You must drag your characters through hell for their goals. It doesn’t sound pretty but it’s exactly what your audience craves.
If the Goal in your story is suddenly playing nice and talking the protagonist off the cliff, it’s time to see if that protagonist can fly. What can he endure before he really gives up? Most of us can deal with more suffering than we think – so can your protagonist. (<— Tweet that.)
A persevering character is the perfect anti-cheese.
4. “The Moral of the Story Is…”
We often feel an ethical burden to make sure that the moral behind our story is clear.
However, if you handle this impulse poorly you will have cheese on your hands.
We are guilty of this when we turn a character or a narrator into a preacher. He or she tells the characters (but really the audience) what this was all about. “I think we all learned something today….”
If you’re going to preach, at least be honest about it. But a last-minute sermon isn’t going to unify your story’s ethical core. In fact, it may worsen it. The story itself should be the sermon that teaches a moral or life-lesson if it’s that important to you.
But breaking the narrative to hold an altar-call is plain cheese.
In Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin writes: “experience is the best school”.
Franklin is dead-on. If there is a lesson for your characters to learn, they need to learn it through their experiences. Put another way, they need to learn (grow) by pursing their goals.
Identify what it is that you want your protagonist to learn. Break down the journey that leads to such knowledge. In the school of life the best teacher is suffering. For your protagonist to learn such a valuable life lesson, what will he need to lose? What mistakes will he have to make?
Learning leads to growth. And growth must come at a steep price.
5. Characters Grow Off-stage
A while ago I edited a play for a friend. The story was about a rule-breaking kid, Blake, whose life is changed by befriending a special-needs boy. About two-thirds of the way through the play, the love-interest character said this to Blake: “Wow, you’ve really changed the last few months.” Immediately I stopped reading and circled this.
Ironically, Blake’s character hadn’t grown at all.
If he had, I should have seen it. But I hadn’t.
In fact, in the previous scene he had been a total jerk. But now he was suddenly a great guy.
A character’s growth cannot happen off-screen, off-stage, or off-page. It must be in the audience’s face, zoomed in, high-definition. It’s why your audience comes in the first place.
This is where having an outside reader/editor/critique is essential.
In your mind this character is growing into a better person. But your audience will likely see the character differently unless you’ve walked the character through a series of events where he pursues his goal in various ways and tries, fails, suffers, and repeats.
Similar to #4, this cause of cheese is linked to a lack of authentic character growth. Not only does your character need to grow, but he needs to change before our eyes.
It’s amazing what you can get away with as a writer. You can describe a huge battle that the audience never sees, narrated by a messenger (thank you, Mr. Shakespeare). Seriously – how many great stories are courageous enough to stage all of the blood, gore, and sex off-screen, yet are still beloved and brilliant?
It’s because there’s something you cannot get away with as a writer. You can stage the battle offstage, but you cannot stage the protagonist’s revulsion, fear, anger, celebration, mourning, or waiting anywhere but center-stage. It must be the subject of our undivided attention.
Because the audience is truly interested in the battle happening there – in his soul. That’s the kind of combat that fascinates us – the struggle to be human. (<— Tweet that.)
There’s nothing cheesy about that.
What do you think? What else may be cheesy that writers need to know about? Share in the Comments below!
This is an updated reposting of an original piece published in summer 2013.