Itchy and Scratchy, the subjects of an embedded cartoon series on The Simpsons, are basically Tom & Jerry’s ultraviolent cousins. In the episode “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show,” Itchy and Scratchy’s ratings have been dwindling, so to resuscitate the show, they add a new character, Poochie, who is kind of like Goofy if Goofy had a surfboard, wore shades, and smoked weed.
In Poochie’s introductory episode, which you can watch here (sketchy YouTube version), Itchy and Scratchy are driving to a fireworks factory, where all kinds of explosive mayhem will surely ensue. Before they reach the factory, however, they meet their new friend Poochy, who introduces himself with a catchy rap song. At this point, the show cuts away from the cartoon to show Millhouse (and this part was cut out of the clip above), who voices the audience’s collective frustration, shouting, “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?”
That is, the audience (of characters on The Simpsons) has come to expect a certain level of violence from Itchy and Scratchy, and the sign for the fireworks factory has whetted their appetites. Instead of delivering the payoff the audience expects, though, the cartoon is waylaid (or derailed) by the interpolation of Poochie.
This episode led to the concept of what I (and others) have called the “Fireworks Factory" plot, wherein the story is set up for an audience to expect a certain kind of payoff or resolution, but which is either absent or significantly delayed because the story goes in a different direction.
Is a writer’s job always to give readers exactly what they’re expecting? No. There can be good and valuable reasons for playing with an audience’s expectations. That isn’t quite what I’m talking about here, however. In a Fireworks Factory plot, all the story elements have been pointing toward a necessary and significant catharsis, which is then not delivered. Instead, the story goes off in an unforeseen direction that pushes aside the very scene readers have been eagerly waiting for.
Here are a few examples of Fireworks Factory plots:
Pretties, by Scott Westerfeld
Around 2/3 of the way through this YA science-fiction novel, the protagonist, Tally Youngblood, is on a journey to reunite with her friends, who have been absent for the entire novel. On the way, she is waylaid and ends up hanging out with a bunch of characters who are basically Ewoks. She stays with them for a rather long time.
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
There are probably several in this 1200+ page novel, but I’ll highlight two. Early in the book, there is a lengthy description of the Battle of Waterloo. It goes on for close to a hundred pages, the last two pages of which are relevant to the plot of Les Mis. Later, during the climax of the story, when Jean Valjean is carrying the wounded Marius through the sewer, Hugo breaks off to give you an unbelievably detailed history of the Paris sewer system. Seriously, it goes on longer than the Waterloo part does.
The Tree of Life
This film, directed by Terrence Malick, seems to be a simple drama about a family dealing with tragedy. Around half an hour into the movie, Malick breaks away from the family story to depict the creation and history of the universe. I think it’s a brilliant move (it mirrors God’s responses to Job in the Biblical story of Job in order to show the turmoil the mother character experiences), but I have heard that a lot of people left the theater at this point, screaming, “When are they getting back to the family?” They do get back to the family, although it does take a while.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn
In this RPG video game for the Nintendo DS, the story kicks off with the heroes accidentally damaging a flying contraption and then setting off on a quest for a part they need to repair it. At the end of the game, they still have not fixed the darned flying machine. I’m not making this up. You go through half the game trying to find the part to fix it, and then once you finally find it, you never get to fix the thing.
The time-travel season of Lost
Again, having a Fireworks Factory sequence in a story isn’t automatically a bad thing. But it will disrupt the rhythm of the plots--might be want you're going for--and can potentially turn off readers--almost certainly not what you're going for--so if you’re going to do it, the payoff that results from the side-trip really needs to be worth it.