Criticism is a difficult arena.
It can be hard to give a critique; the intent should always be to identify an issue you have with a story1. There’s all the usual difficulties of communication and potential misunderstandings2, and it’s all to easy to drift into unhelpful negativity (“this book sucks!”), or ad hominem (“this author sucks!”). You (as the critic) have to recognise that not everyone will feel the same way, and that maybe you’re not part of the target audience.
But it is also very hard to receive a critique, and especially to not take it personally. Ideally, there needs to be a level of trust between author and critic that both share the goal of improving the story.
This makes the internet both boon and bane. An author can submit their work to a site3, allowing others to read it and make comments. Anyone can give feedback. Unfortunately, anyone can give feedback. I don’t have any figures to back it up, but it seems a truth universally acknowledged that a writer who allows anonymous reviews must be in want of abuse.
I was reading a story the other day, and the author’s response (to comments they4 had gotten) caught my eye. As context, one of the main characters was attacked, and had to spend time in hospital recovering, and the authorities didn’t take the investigation seriously until her friends kicked up a fuss. The author later explained why they had this happen: to give that character a reason to not be around, giving focus to the relationship between the other two protagonists; to demonstrate that the other characters cared (i.e. when she was hurt they looked after her); to provide conflict between the protagonists and the authorities; and to have an incident be punished, thus showing that the local hooligans weren’t going to have free rein any more.
A repeated piece of writing advice is to ensure that there is a reason why every part of the story is there (whether it’s a scene, a subplot, or an entire character), and if there isn’t a good reason, remove it. Like a lot of advice, though, in being distilled to a bullet point, it loses some nuance and explanation. How good a reason do you need? What sort of reason do you need?
Now, all the reasons given above are perfectly valid to justify the inclusion of this incident. But what I realised when I thought about it some more, is that the reasons are all looking forward. Basically, the attack creates a situation that allows later things to happen; as another piece of writing advice puts it, events should be linked by “therefore” or “but” (not just “and then”). Here, the real issue is not that the incident does not link to later plot/character developments, but that it doesn’t have clear enough links backward to previous things that have happened in the story, so it seemed to come out of nowhere. In animation, this is called Anticipation—preparing the audience for what is about to happen5.
For my third, and final, piece of writing advice: “earn it”. You can include whatever dramatic plot twist, sudden reveal, or clichéd trope you like, but you have to make it work. Put in the foreshadowing, so that the reader reacts with “I should have seen it coming!” rather than “Wait, what?!?”. Establish how dangerous an enemy is so it doesn’t throw people out of the story when the enemies savagely attack. The bigger/more clichéd the trope, the more work you need to do to ensure that it meshes well with the rest of your story.
1 I’m going to be focusing on the context of writing a story, but the challenge is similar for any type of work, whether focusing on the subjective elements (the art—e.g. “this sculpture fills me with optimism”), or the objective ones (the craft—e.g. “the left sleeve came unstitched when the model turned at the end of the runway”).
2 “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” (Attributed to various people, original unknown.)
3 Of which there are more than I can keep track of, whether you’re writing fanfiction or original works.
5 Interestingly, if you do the anticipation and the follow through/reaction well, you can omit the actual action and the audience will still perceive it as happening. Think of a kids show where they don’t want to explicitly show a character punching another—you get the dramatic wind-up (pulling back a fist), and then the other character flies out the window.