Story Crimes: The Line between Critique and Nitpicking

I’m one of those people that you hate at the movies.

The lights have dimmed. The ads are a distant memory, like the faint scent of artificial butter clinging damply to your empty popcorn box. The film is building up toward a stirring climax, and suddenly this nitwit in the row in front of you sighs loudly and slumps back in her chair.

What the hell?

You’re temporarily distracted, but you manage to refocus on the movie quickly enough. Until you hit the stirring love scene, and suddenly there she goes again. This time she facepalms. Too hard. You can hear the ‘thwack’ as if she were sitting right next to you. The groan that follows seems to be part pain, part annoyance. What the hell is her problem, you think.

This is my problem.

I’ve just seen dewy-eyed love interest #2,343,032 fall for handsome white male protagonist #1,0003,924, when he’s given her absolutely no good reason to except that the Plot dictates he get a warm trophy for being The Protagonist. In about twenty-three minutes, she’s either going to die tragically for no reason, or they get to sail off into the sunset. Or maybe I’ve just seen token black character #4,850 jump into the scene and make a fool out of themselves for the sole purpose of making the handsome white male protagonist #1,0003,924 seem badass (that asshole). Whatever it is, it enrages me enough that my manners in public are temporarily overridden and I become one of Those People.

I groan loudly in the movie theatre. I spend hours afterward animatedly dissecting the plot and the plot holes. I get very, very mad at particular Crimes Against Stories. Sometimes I go overboard and am so passionate about pointing out why something was wrong and terrible and insulting that I accidentally ruin people’s favourite movies. I’m sorry.

That last one in particular… it’s a bad habit. And it’s one I have to consciously teach myself to be aware of. Because this sounds bizarre, but I don’t critique and pick these movies because I hate movies. I love stories, whatever art form they come in. In fact, I critique precisely because I love stories. It comes from a place of knowing how stories can be transcendent, how they can change people’s lives or even just leave behind a little bit of escapist magic. But that love means I also can’t stop myself from analysing and criticising stories. And I know I’m not alone. Most authors I know admit they find it hard to switch off their author brain, sit back, and just enjoy a story. I can only imagine how it must be for editors. And it’s not just the writing community. I imagine we’re not all that dissimilar to an architect cringing at a poorly-designed building, or a UX designer recoiling in horror at accidentally landing on a website that still looks like it was built in the 1990s.

That said, what I’m trying to learn is where to draw the line. When I’ve stopped critiquing and just started nitpicking. And I think I’ve found it. Or at least, while I’ve been groping in the dark, I’ve bumped into the edges of something that feels like a boundary should. And of all places, I found it while watching the popular Cinema Sins channel on YouTube.

It’s funny, but for someone who is such a terrible critic, I find I don’t have the stomach to sit through Cinema Sins videos. I admire the dedication of the people behind it and know plenty of other people enjoy it. It’s just not for me. The reason why is that I know nothing is perfect in this world. A movie, a book, a story… they come together to form something that is more than its sins. And some sins are worse than others. They’re like humans. Nobody is perfect. And I’ll forgive someone a lot if they make me love them.

Warning – spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

As an example, I think that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them suffers from having no clear main protagonist (unless it’s Grindelwald), and a pretty massive plot hole near the end where Jacob is magically unaffected by the bullshit Obliviate potion until he steps directly into the rain, despite scenes showing every other Muggle indoors was enchanted. It is also incredibly difficult for me to believe that Newt, with his stated problems with authority, would ever fall for Tina, particularly given her plot betrayal. I could keep going on, but guess what? I don’t care. As a whole, the movie broadened and deepened Rowling’s beautiful world enough that I felt touched by its magic. It delivered enough moments of awe and pathos that I can forgive some of these flaws. Just because the flaws exist doesn’t mean the package isn’t, as a whole, enjoyable. There is no perfection in this world, and there certainly is no such thing as perfection in art, particularly when art is so intrinsically bound to how each individual views it.

And I guess maybe I’ve also grown to recognise that I should be gentler with movies that aren’t aimed at myself. There’s no point asking me to critique a piece of ‘high’ literature. Part of me is tempted to say I deal with a lot of pointless bullshit in my life already, so I don’t have the patience to sit down and read or watch anything without a plot or likeable characters. But the truth is that many people love this type of story, and that’s completely fine. All power to them. It’s just not my cup of tea.

So I think that’s the line. If we find ourselves nitpicking a particular story, the chances are that either the story isn’t targeted to us, or it’s failed to deliver on what it promised us. If we can’t understand why the hell someone else is willing to forgive the story crimes committed by that particular piece of art, it’s probably because for them, it fulfilled some other emotional need that means they’re willing to gloss over the gaping plot holes.

As for you, still goggling at me in the cinema and wishing I would shut the hell up and let you enjoy the damn movie in peace… I’m truly sorry. I’ll try and get better and contain myself. Just don’t sit too close, otherwise you might hear me muttering imprecations under my breath.


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