Wasted Potential: Great Premise, Terrible Execution

I'm sure we've all seen stories wherein the premise is pretty cool or seems to have a ton of potential, yet the actual story is pretty lame. Either it's badly written, doesn't explore any of the themes it presents in favor of a dull formulaic plot, has terrible characters that ruin the experience, or the world is actually a lot more boring than the blub makes it sound. At worst, it wastes our time. But at best, it might inspire us to work on a similar project, and do it right!

What are examples of such stories? Have you ever written or planned out anything in an attempt to do a better version?

So, to start us off: For me, anime and manga tend to do this a lot. Even ignoring the tropes of Japanese storytelling that I find bothersome, there's a lot of anime worlds that are really interesting at first, only for the show to totally fall short of the mark.

A particularly egregious example is the show "Angel Tales." The premise is that in this universe, deceased pets may sometimes be reincarnated as guardian angels in order to protect their former masters from dangerous supernatural threats. The angels also have a built-in psychological weakness in which they are terrified of things relating to how they died (an angel who was a bird died when they broke their wing and tried to fly, so now she's scared of heights; a fish angel died from suffocating in a poorly air-cycled tank, so is afraid of drowning, lakes and rivers). Actually sounds pretty neat, you could get a lot of mileage out of the concept:

How do the angels relate to their master now that they are humanoid, yet still not human? The difference between animal awareness and human awareness. The nature of a heaven that would use animal souls as weapons of holy protection. The human's relationship to the angels knowing they were once pets; did the human always see them as mere guard dogs, or were they beloved companions that they feel bad knowing they now have to put themselves in harms way for their sake? To what extent is a "pet" part of the family, and now that the pet has become an angel, how does angel relate? Is there a potential for romance? Is the angel now more of an adopted sibling or even surrogate kid? And to what degree do the angel's phobias scar their psyche? Do they perhaps resent their master for not protecting them if they died in an accident as a pet? Etc, etc.

The actual show, however, just uses it as the premise for what is quite possibly the most boring harem show in existence. Mind you I'm not a harem anime fan to begin with, but even so, the show doesn't have anything going for it. Characters are all one-note, the implied love polygon goes absolutely no where with no real "will they, won't they" tension, most of the episodes are slice-of-life non-adventures, and the show doesn't really try to capitalize on being a "cute girls doing cute things" story. Hell, outside of the requisite swimsuit episode, it doesn't even try to go for fan service very much (which I suppose would be refreshing for a harem show, if it did anything else with it's time). There's a brief, two-episode non-struggle against a quartet of beast god characters, but even that had less tension than the action scenes in Twilight. On top of that, despite being only 12 episodes, the cast of characters expands to 12 girls in total, plus the main guy, plus a few side characters, meaning most of them are completely superfluous, as there's only enough time for a handful of them to get anything close to development.

I felt that way about Sword Art Online. The first two episodes or so were really good, and I got excited, but then... time skip after time skip, fanservice and inconsistent characterization (UGH Asuna), and the main character is such a male Mary Sue. If there were 10 dungeon levels to beat instead of 99 and the series actually showed the main character's gradual progress through them, this would have been SO GOOD!

@Chrysalis - Agreed. There's a Youtuber named Digibro who does a great series of breakdown/analysis videos about SAO, and the various problems therein, and how they could have been improved. His coverage of the Gun Gale arc in particular is pretty good.

I kinda feel this way about most of the Japanese books (Light Novels? Is that the correct terminology) I read. No matter how good the premise or interesting the setting, after a while it always turns into yet another harem fantasy, just like all the others, and my interest wanes. I'm not sure if this phenomenon is just because I don't read very good Japanese books , but it is certainly annoying.

@GeneralRincewind - I think most Light Novels by their nature, at least as the market has turned, are largely meant to be serialized, disposable, Young Adult grade fiction. Endless adventures pumped out quickly, with the hope it'll be adapted into a merch-marketable anime. A lot fall into Super High School Harem Adventure because that's the formula that really sells.

@Sharkerbob Oh really? Didn't know that. Do you have any good Light Novels to recommend?

Another wasted potential story is(sorry Mathtans) Personified Math. I really wanted to like it. I utterly love math and will spend forever reading wikipedia about all it's facets, and I also love the idea of concrete representations of abstract concepts, so I started reading it with high hopes, but was disappointed. All the characters felt fake, like caricatures , their dialogue was physically painful and they reacted like badly written anime characters. The prose was even worse, it somehow fell(at least to me) into the uncanny valley of prose, where it seems like normal prose, and when you think about it later you can't identify why you felt unsettled, but as you read it you find it unsettling and physically painful to read(I liked the math puns though). The story I think was okay, but I couldn't quite grasp it behind the painful prose. Big disappointment to me.

And again, really sorry mathtans, you seem like a great guy and also very helpful to everyone here on these forums.

@GeneralRincewind - Why not put that up as a review instead of only a forum comment? Feedback like that - especially if you can elaborate on some points or give specific examples - is exactly what WFG wants, and because it might get more eyes on PM that could lead to more feedback and a general consensus from the audience that mathtans can do more with.

@Tatra I utterly suck at writing long things, so I don't publish many reviews because I don't think my 100-200 words are that neccessary compared to the amount others post, but I'll try to put this up as a review.

@GR - I honestly haven't read much because I haven't been interested in that many, but that's mostly what I've heard. And it seems like the recent surge of "Light Novel Adaptation" animes are often of that type. SAO, Chivalry of a Failed Knight, Asterisk War, etc. Even if it isn't High School, it's often overly meta with being Otaku-centric, has harems, or has some weird fetishy element to it. Earlier LNs don't do this as much apparently, it's mainly in the last few years they've gotten bad about it. Or, again, so I've heard.

As for recommendations, I got a couple:

"All You Need Is Kill" - This was adapted into the movie Edge of Tomorrow and both movie and book are pretty decent, focusing on a solider trapped in a time loop during a war against weird alien monsters.

The "Kino no Tabi" (Kino's Journey) novels are short story collections that are mostly a Gulliver's Travels style series where the main character explores different cultures, most of which are some exploration of a philosophy. Only the first novel was (officially) translated to English, though. I would say check out the anime, too, although it might be a bit too "artsy."

"Welcome to the NHK", I didn't read the book, but did see the anime. The book is apparently even more dark than the show, and is about a hikikomori (guy who stays isolated from society as much as possible) dealing with his own neurosis. Not sure if the original book is any good, but the show was okay.

All three of these definitely avoid the harem/school tropes, and are one-shots or short-run series.

"Baccano!" I haven't read, but it's pretty popular, and is about a huge cast of characters, many of whom are immortals and are all caught up in gang war struggles in 1930's America. First book came out in English recently, but is a long series.

@Sharkerbob Ah thanks dude definitively gonna check those out. They don't sound that much akin to things I usually read(mostly high/urban fantasy with a focus on a single character) but I do need something new, and just reading the same genre over and over again is bad for your brain.

@Tartra: I don't actually have Personified Math in the archives here, mainly because it doesn't follow the guidelines of having a proper way of clicking from one episode to the next, and I haven't been motivated to go back and implement all that for something which seemed niche and crosses multiple sites anyway. I also feel it's more useful as a historical record than something I should hammer into shape, but maybe I'm wrong.

@GeneralRincewind: Thanks for that, seriously. It kind of echoes something someone else said to me just last week, in that the math characters were not acting in the way they personally felt functions would behave. Food for thought. I've never heard about the prose thing before -- and actually good thing you mentioned the puns, because I thought for a moment that those would have been what was off-putting. Interesting. Out of curiosity, what had you expected, what would have redeemed it for you? Just better writing with the same story? Completely different characterizations?

Also, no problem. I get more feedback on these forums than anywhere else, including in person. As to the actual topic of premise/execution, I've seen some of the DigiBro videos, and he's on point with a number of his observations. Can't think of any specific story premise to add, though I'll say that on occasion when I've wandered into adult fiction, sometimes a neat premise gets fired out the window when things get rape-y. That's one of the few times I've felt like I wanted to rewrite a story.

Ooh, another chance to rip into Throne of Glass? You guys are good to me!

Throne of Glass has an awesome setup. The most feared assassin in the kingdom, who happens to be an 18 year old girl (it's fantasy, I can suspend my disbelief that much), is being offered the chance to work for the king, one of her former targets, as the royal assassin for a number of years, and when that time is up she'll be set free. All she has to do is win a tournament the king is holding to select a worthy candidate. If she loses, she gets sent back to the prison work death camp she was at before.

That sounds freaking awesome. I was seriously excited to read this book, especially since it's a YA novel. The YA market seems to consist of Twilight knockoffs and Hunger Games knockoffs, so the idea of a high fantasy YA series sounded like a breath of fresh air. Too bad, because Sarah J. Maas has the rare talent of actually coming up with awesome ideas, and then ruining them. ToG takes less than two chapters to forget that it's supposed to be an epic action/adventure story about a young but hardened assassin, and becomes yet another stupid teen love triangle book. It gets so bad that some parts of the book literally go "The next two tests were archery and tracking, and Celaena did good at both of them Also, another contestant was found mutilated beyond recognition." That's like if Suzanne Collins were to write, "So Katniss went to the Hunger Games, and two weeks later she won. More importantly, now she's going to have a hot makeout session with Peeta!" It doesn't help that Celaena is the most vapid, conceited, incompetent character I've ever had the displeasure of reading, and yet between the not being able to fight, the admiring herself in the mirror, and throwing up after a short jog, Maas still expects us to believe she's the most dangerous, most feared assassin in the country. Why? Because Calini tells you so. Over and over. What's the first thing we're taught when we're learning how to write stories? Show, don't tell. Maas throws that right out the window by having Cilana tell you every single thing she could do, and why she's awesome for being able to do it. Maas never actually SHOWS you anything. And when something interesting does happen, like a training fight, Celena promptly loses, and then complains that tripping someone isn't fighting fair... because she's an assassin, and everyone knows they make their living by challenging people to formal duels in broad daylight, where other people can see them, and they always, always, ALWAYS fight fair.

Ugh... I've gone on long enough. Hopefully you get my point :P

I echo AdamBo's sentiments about getting to tear into a story some more, albeit a different story.

As I mentioned about fictional characters I hate, the main character of "Subjugation" by Fel is horrible. And people might wonder why I read the whole long (overly long) first book (turns out there's a bunch more of the stories, but I couldn't even get too far into the second one due to some stuff about homosexuality that was, ironically, F-ed in the A).

In fact, my review of the story might still be the longest on the site, even after I edited it some to try and account for the fact that at least part of my dislike was how badly they wasted the premise. Even trying to be objective, I hated it.

Earth surrenders to a hyper-advanced alien race that happens to be dominated by females, without even a fight. It sounds so good at first, but there's so much wrong. There's a lot to explore there with the idea of having been conquered, something that the U.S. hasn't had to look at. It's the kind of thing that makes people consider their place in things. On top of that, a lot of our media has the idea of fighting off alien conquerors, because to conquer us implicitly bad. Except these guys bring all these great benefits to earth, too, and what's it say when a people might be better off conquered? That's not even counting the exploration of being part of a civilization with radically different views on dominant sexes.

Not that the story bothers. They basically just write it off by saying that the women of the alien race are basically like guys, but heterosexual females. They don't even make much hay over the idea that a college student gets challenged to a brawl by an alien marine, with the marine saying she'll force him to walk back to his dorm naked except for a collar and high heels if he loses.

Another opportunity missed is the lack of armed resistance. I can see nations deciding not to go to war, for the most part. But apparently there isn't any armed resistance whatsoever, by any non-government organizations, militias, lone wolves, etc.. My mind immediately goes to Afghanistan, one of the least conquerable places on Earth, and how they definitely wouldn't put up with a race of heathen alien women taking over without firing a shot. North Korea apparently doesn't lift a finger or go into hiding in tunnels, or anything. In fact, the place with the most resistance of any kind is supposedly the rugged, independent (former) United States. Cue the eyerolling.

It's not the only time the person utterly screws up realistic geopolitics, though my most hated example is a bit of a spoiler later on that thoroughly makes the main character a Hero In Name Only. The story's kind of an affront to realism, actually. Sure, there's a bit of a nod at the idea that resistance types don't like that some humans are telepaths, but we never see any more friction come of it. What we do see is a drawn-out investigation where the long-lived, blue-skinned alien Faey are revealed to be...the basis of the myths of the Fae!

If one of your plot's key mysteries could have been solved by a kid that accidentally left a letter off, maybe it shouldn't be that big of a reveal. That's why I don't even consider this one a spoiler.

On top of that, one of the things that really pissed me off is that the author's forums have someone posting a link to Top Web Fiction urging fans of the guy's other stories to go and keep upvoting it on there. IF they want to get him to submit any good stories and vote them, that'd be one thing, but don't just upvote whatever he writes just because he wrote it, regardless of quality.

And if anyone wants to call me bitter about that last point, that's still a more realistic reaction than most of what you'd find in that damn story.

@Chrysalis have you watched SAO abridged? It's got all the usual abridged series stuff, but it actually does a really good job of wrangling good characterisation and plot out of the shitty mess that the original show was. Personally, I found it really enjoyable, as someone who despises SAO with a passion.

For me, the biggest bit of wasted potential came from a novel called The Paper Magician, by some guy whose name I can't remember. I'm a sucker for magic systems, and I was really keen for this novel's one initially. I can't remember the exact details, but basically magicians bonded to different materials, which they then could manipulate. The bonding was permanent, though, so once you've picked, that's it, you're locked in for life. The main character wanted to be bonded to something important or useful, like steel or concrete or something, but instead was assigned to paper. Now, that brings up two really good ideas: one, good character conflict and potential for growth, and two, the fact that the government assigns the fields of magic, with the possibility of something more sinister there. The book starts with the MC being dropped off at her new teacher's home, the only other paper magician, and something of a broody, mysterious figure with an ambiguous backstory.

Good so far, right? Well, prepare for all that to go right down the shitter. The magic was about as relevant to the story as the window dressings. Hell, it could've been the ability to magically stick stuff up your own ass and it would've had about the same impact. I kid you not, there are three characters in the entire novel. THREE. MC, mentor and a villain. The MC immediately crushes on her 'swoony' new teacher, there's faffing around for five chapters, and then his villainous ex-wife shows up and steals his heart. Literally, steals it right out of his chest. See, she's a magician bonded to flesh, which you'd think would be an interesting concept. Fucking nope! Glossed over again, while the MC TRAVELS INSIDE HER TEACHER'S GODDAMN HEART TO VIEW HIS SAPPY-ASS BACKSTORY, THUS PROVING THEY WERE MEANT TO BE.

I fucking hated it. I read all the way to the end, out of the hope it would get better, but it didn't. It wasn't even badly written or anything, and, excluding the love story bits, I was actually quite fond of the MC, but it could've been SO MUCH BETTER, and it wasn't. And honestly, it just makes me a bit sad.

I'll second SAO Abridged, it's one of only three Abridged Series I've actually enjoyed.

You're all on here talking about how bad the SAO anime is. Well... okay, yeah, it's pretty bad. But it's kinda funny, because I actually have to commend the people who made it, because compared to the light novels it's based on (or, at least the first one), the anime is a masterpiece. At least the anime remembers that it's an action/adventure story about people trapped in a killer video game. The book is a romance, and nothing but. The characters are stuck in a video game that will kill them if they get a game over, but the author chose to focus on Kirito and Asuna instaromance instead. Seriously, who wants action and adventure when you've got two weaboos RUNNING AWAY FROM THE ACTION AND ADVENTURE and promising to kill themselves if the other one dies? Seriously, I have to give kudos to the people who made the anime, because they at least managed to keep the story where people wanted it... for the most part.

Recently my pet peeve has been a thing I'll call "handicap of awesomeness" or something similar. I swear there are at least 4 or five anime/mangas that go roughly like:

There is a school for Wizards/Ninjas/Magic People/whatever

A guy arrives at this this school, but he is The Worst At MagicNinjaWhatever

He accidentally offends a girl who is Best at MagicNinjaWhatever

She won't take his apology, and they have to fight a MagicNinjaWhatever duel

Everyone is sure that he'll lose, but he defeats her, because he isn't 'really' The Worst at MagicNinjaWhatever, he is the best at it in a way that the tests don't notice

She joins his harem

This repeats several times

Chivalry of a Failed Knight, Asterisk War...it is a common template.

The thing that bugs me about it is that the premise seems to setup the tale of someone who is having trouble doing something that everyone else can do. Deaf guy at music school kind of thing. Then it invariably turns out that not being able to do whatever makes you double great at it. Batman syndrome. But I'd like to read about someone with an actual deficiency that they have to conceal/overcome in order to make it.

"She joins his harem".

@Walter, you slay me. Well put.

@TheAdamBo - I actually did read the first novel of SAO. That one is definitely a prime example of the topic. Just wasted potential through and through.

Not sure if it ever starts to get better. I know SAO: Progressive is supposed to be a retroactive series that fills in a lot of the blanks in the first story arc (all the events and development lost to time skips), not sure if it's actually any good or not or if it really fleshes out the concept much, though.