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Some writers just don't realize there's such a thing as "flogging a dead horse." Very often, there will be an aspect of the plot that can only be effective as a source of tension for as long as it is not resolved. Will They or Won't They? is probably the best known example, but other possibilities include psychological issues that are a handy source of (w)angst, a long-term goal that the protagonist has set him or herself, or simply character development as a whole since, with the exception of certain genres that favour the Reset Button, personal identity is something that evolves over time.
Here's the difficulty: If you spin out this plot point for too long, you risk annoying the fans and stretching believability beyond its limits. If you do resolve it, you need to rethink your story formula: an actual romantic relationship is a very different beast from a will-they-won't-they relationship. It's generally accepted that one of the hallmarks of a good writer is the ability to cope with such transitions and depict them appropriately.
Unfortunately, some writers can't make the jump effectively. Faced with Shipping Bed Death, they decide that maybe getting the characters together wasn't such a good idea, and separate them again. Alternatively, perhaps writing a character attending university isn't as much fun as writing about their attempts to get into university. In the case of comics, a former writer might have resolved a plot that an incoming writer really, really wanted to tackle, so the newcomer undoes his predecessor's work in order to put his own spin on things.
Which could actually have worked, had the writer left it there. It might be a bit of a downer, thwarting the audience's expectations and putting a melancholy slant on things: having the characters enter into a love affair, only to have they realize that while they're great friends, they don't work as lovers, or having the earnest Ronin realize that he just isn't clever enough to keep pace with university work. However, it'd be an entirely valid plot development and would still contribute to the character's "evolution."
So it's a pity that few writers opt to do that. Instead, they devolve their characters back into the way they were before the plot point was resolved. It's not quite a Reset Button job -- the scenario will be methodically taken apart -- but the characters don't seem to have learned anything. The instant the couple breaks up, one half will decide that they really want their partner back, and will set off in pursuit, turning the will-they-won't-they into its more annoying cousin: the on-again-off-again relationship. The Hero is demoted out of his position as Commander, but rather than look for a new career, he rounds up his Five-Man Band and sets about working his way up the ranks again. The product of Break the Cutie visits a psychologist and leaves the office to a more mentally healthy life... only to remember on her way into the house that her parents liked her big brother better and descend back into her messed-up state, blowing up a few buildings for good measure.
What's worse, however, is that they will repeat this process over and over again. Periodically. To the point that the fans don't even care any more, and would happily consent to having the participants executed just for a change of pace and so that they don't have to watch this train wreck of a plot any more.
The yoyo plot point is symptomatic of a story that has simply gone on for too long. The first "resolution" of this point is often cited by fans as the show's Jump the Shark moment, where it's agreed that the writer may have been better to cut the tale short and end it there.
Important: This trope is NOT about plot points that get dragged out long past when they should have been resolved. This is about plot points that ARE resolved, and then un-resolved, repeatedly.
The Post Script Season is a close relative of this trope, but in those circumstances the dilemma faced by the writers is at least understandable... and it only really "breaks the plot" once rather than repeatedly. This trope is often the reason a Last-Minute Hookup will be employed. The writers know damn well that they don't really want to write an established romantic relationship, and so they end the story on a romantic high without having to deal with the practicalities of the situation. The Expansion Pack Past can become a Yo Yo Plot Point if it's added to and retconned past the point of credibility. But it's constantly coming Back From the Dead that is acknowledged as the least likely, and most eyeroll-inducing, variation of this trope. And finally, the Flip-Flop of God is this when it happens in Word of God only.
Anime and Manga
- Naruto: Who the hell is Tobi anyway?
- Ken Akamatsu, writer of Love Hina should really have known when to cut a long story short. Most readers figured out pretty quickly just who Keitaro's "promise girl" was, and the plot itself answered the question in the 10th of 14 volumes. So throwing in umpteen further "complications" to spin out the romantic tension ("Is she really the Promise Girl?!!") for its 14-volume run wasn't really effective, especially since he and Naru outright admit that they no longer care if she really is the girl in volume 12 and finally kiss. The same thing happened with Keitaro's Tokyo U career: he was accepted after the second year of the story, but in order to keep the protagonist's educational prospects as a source of tension, Akamatsu had a large bell fall on top of him, preventing him from taking up his place there, though it did result in him taking a level in badass in the meantime. Considering that Akamatsu is obviously a Rumiko Takahashi fan, we should be thankful that he ended the manga after 14 volumes instead of 45.
- Kira and Rei of Mars are supposed to be "rescued" by each other's love. However, pairing them up early in the story just won't provide the Wangst-fuel for fifteen volumes, so the comfort and stability (and Character Development) they create for each other is constantly tested via Expansion Pack Past. The result is that they seesaw between "well-adjusted individuals" and "pair of head cases" as each trauma comes to light, with the unaffected partner having to rescue the victim all over again. With Kira in particular, the pattern started veering away from tragic and towards ridiculous, and issue upon issue was heaped on her. By the end of the story, there doesn't seem to have been a torment that she hasn't suffered
- Poor Sora of Kaleido Star is a living yoyo: no matter how hard she works, no matter how spectacular a performance she turns in, at the end of each Kaleido Stage production she falls back to the bottom of the pecking order and has to work her way up all over again. It's only at the end of Season One that she's acknowledged as the true prima donna of the stage...whereupon the show got a sequel, and a Post Script Season saw her "star" status usurped yet again.
- Early in the run of Marmalade Boy, protagonists Miki and Yuu find their slowly-developing love to be threatened by new characters, love triangles, and typical rom-com misunderstandings. Fortunately, love wins out, and they remain together in the end. This happens again. And again. And keeps happening. It seems that you simply cannot add another new character or event to the story without having Yuu and Miki (especially Miki) question the other's already-proven affection. In fact, a few episodes before the end of the anime, Miki herself admits that she's tired of the constant doubt and worrying and calls off the whole relationship. This is later resolved, but you can't help but agree with her.
- For a non-romantic example, there's Inuyasha. While the romances are definitely of the "will-they/won't-they" variety, the true culprit is the main plot of killing Naraku. They get close, then he escapes. Inuyasha gets a new attack that makes it possible for him to kill Naraku. Naraku levels up and defeats it. Rinse and repeat for way too long.
- Rogue and Gambit of the X-Men are notorious as victims of this trope. Even more so than Scott and Jean, writers seem to have a dislike for giving them any kind of stable love life. Several issues were promoted as "the one where Rogue and Gambit finally get together!" but any long-term reader will realize that this will only last ten comics at best before they split up again, for increasingly ridiculous reasons. And then the chase will start all over again.
- Gambit lampshades this in X-men Legacy, explaining to Rogue that he doesn't even get jealous anymore because she'll always end up back with him eventually.
- How many times must Spider-Man defeat Norman Osborn before the latter finally dies for good?
- That's just the tip of the iceberg for Spider-Man. There's also things like moving out of Aunt May's place, publicly revealing his secret identity, and most of all getting married. Attempts to backpedal on any or all of these have been disastrous.
- And this is all along side someone deciding they want to put their "once and for all" stamp on Gwen Stacy's clone(s) (Which would be three or four since the mid-90s).
- That's just the tip of the iceberg for Spider-Man. There's also things like moving out of Aunt May's place, publicly revealing his secret identity, and most of all getting married. Attempts to backpedal on any or all of these have been disastrous.
- Batman was put through the wringer, in a multi-month multi-title event, and came out of it promising to be less of a jerk to his friends and allies in future. Didn't last.
- Main plot of Strangers in Paradise is lengthy will-they-won't-they relationship, and so are several main subplots. That reasons for this yoyoing are more realistic than in other examples doesn't help, because they go back and forth just too many times. One plot that isn't romantic features organization "The Big Six" repeatedly pursuing the main character. Each time the story resolves with the leader of "Big Six" dead and the organization seemingly dismantled, or at least promising to leave main characters alone. However, each time it soon turns out that "The Big Six" still exists and one of ex-minions, now promoted into the big boss, decided to continue pursuing the main character for various reasons.
- The Martian Manhunter is ridiculously powerful, his only vulnerability is fire, and unlike most superheroes with weaknesses, his origin doesn't contain a particularly good reason why he's vulnerable to fire. Those facts combine to ensure that every time a new writer get a hold of him, they come up with the "real" reason he's vulnerable to fire and (since they usually decide it was all in his head the whole time) usually have him overcome it for good. Again. Until next time.
- Professor X of X-Men fame has an autistic son - David Haller, a.k.a Legion - with tons of superpowers and multiple personalities, some of which are evil. He's too unstable to be a superhero, so when he turns up it's almost always in the position of "villain-who's-really-a-victim." But he's basically a good kid, so every time he goes berserk he has to have a mental breakdown first. And since he's a sympathetic character, his stories have to end with him "finally getting the help he needs." In other words, virtually every David Haller story is: Legion has a relapse/Legion goes on a rampage/Legion is subdued/Legion is cured. Wash, rinse, repeat.
- The Scarlet Witch has had a mental breakdown, wreaked havoc with her ill-defined, nigh-omnipotent powers, and then returned to her senses at least three times.
- Every damn time that Cassie gets a point-of-view novel in the series, she has to reconcile her pacifist morality with waging war against the Yeerks. It never takes.
- Ax's "Am I an Andalite or an Animorph first?" dilemma.
- Harry Potter: Harry is loved by all, Harry is despised and ostracized. Specifically, separate events in years 1, 2, 4, and 5 tarnish the attitude of Hogwarts students toward their local celebrity, but his reputation is usually fixed by the end. (In year 7 he becomes "Undesirable Number 1" after the bad guys take over the government and the school, but it's not as clear what the general opinion of him is.)
- Zoey's Unwanted Harem problems in The House of Night. The first couple of books had her being torn among her boyfriend Erik, her jock ex-boyfriend Heath, and poetry teacher Loren. The third book resolved the love polygon, albeit in an abrupt and contrived way that brought into question Zoey's intelligence, by having Erik leave Zoey after she slept with Loren which severed her blood-based connection with Heath and then Loren turned out to be working for the Big Bad all along and was killed off at the end of the book with the clear message that Zoey had learned her lesson and would work hard to repair her broken relationship with Erik. But then the fifth book brings Zoey's Unwanted Harem right back with her renewing her blood-based connection with Heath thanks to a contrived "you need to drink his blood or else he'll die" situation (and making their connection even stronger than it was before) and getting a Replacement Love Interest for Loren in the form of Stark. To top all this off, Erik is derailed into a possessive jerk to justify why Zoey is suddenly going back on her earlier vow to stick to just him, and she proceeds to repeat the "woe is me, I'm a ho for being unable to choose between three hot guys" indecisiveness/wangst from the second and third books all over again. The sixth book appears to try resolving at least one factor of this love issue for good by killing Heath off, only for the very next book to reveal that he's not so dead after all and Zoey proclaims her love for him, even though she's still stringing Stark and Erik along. Romantic Plot Tumor doesn't even begin to describe it.
Live Action TV
- Gilmore Girls: This proved to be a huge problem in the latter seasons with Lorelai and Luke. After five years of will they or won't they, Lorelai proposed to Luke at the beginning of season 6 and he accepted. Instead of dealing with the myriad other potential plots the show had going on at the time (namely, the fallout from Lorelai and Rory's estrangement), a long lost daughter was introduced who literally served no purpose other than to break up Luke and Lorelai and send Lorelai into a quickie marriage with old flame Christopher which in turn served no purpose other than pushing Lorelai and Luke getting together "for good" back to the series finale.
- Due to their neverending nature, decades on the air, and poor quality of writers at the helm of most, soap operas suffer greatly from this. Granted, it was never uncommon for a supercouple to get divorced and remarried several times over. However, it seems like couples divorce and remarry each four or five times over the course of ten years. The trouble is, the things that break the couples up in the first place is never addressed or rectified. It's usually some variation on Your Cheating Heart, however.
- Egregious example alert: On General Hospital, Carly Benson and Sonny Corinthos have been married...and divorced...four times. In the past decade.
- Friends, goddamnit, Friends. In particular, Ross and Rachel's Will They or Won't They?, Make Up or Break Up, Off-Again-On-Again relationship.
- Averted, however, with the Chandler/Monica relationship. Once they got together, they stayed together, and their relationship evolved realistically in a way that benefited the show.
- How I Met Your Mother: Ted and Robin's relationship. The first episode ends by saying she's not the mother, the first season ends with them getting together, they break up, they relapse, they wind up living together, have a friends-wish-benefits thing going on for a bit, she dates Ted's best friend for a while, then Ted realizes he wants her back... a minor theme of seasons 6 and 7 has been the strain of Robin being best friends with two of her most serious exes, with hints that there's still something between her and Ted.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- Buffy had a She's Back moment once a season, minimum, usually in the final episode. Every time she "accepts" being the Chosen One, you just know she's going to backslide.
- Also, Xander and Anya are in love and having sex on a constant basis, then Xander proposes, they spend the entire sixth season bitching and moaning about it, then Xander leaves her at the altar, Anya goes back to being a vengeance-obsessed demon, and by season seven, they're back to having sex, and Anya commenting about it in her awkward manner.
- Xander would regularly have episodes in which he would come into his own, demonstrate that years of facing eldritch dangers without superpowers implied something about his competence and courage, and put his Butt Monkey status behind him. ("The Zeppo", "Graduation", "The Replacement", etc.) It never lasted. (Though he seems to have gone back in that direction in the Season Eight comics.)
- Smallville: Clark and Lana, dragged out far, far beyond the point where all viewers have lost interest in their Romantic Plot Tumor.
- Besides, everyone familiar with just about every other version of the Superman canon already knows where that one is going...
- The earlier seasons of Smallville also had this a problem with Lex Luthor, who was repeatedly shown to be good, then evil, then good again, then evil again. Repeat ad nauseum.
- The Silver Age was worse, the love triangle was only resolved by the Kill'Em All ending of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, after, what, 20, 30 years?
- Lois and Clark had it bad too, marrying the eponymous characters twice before they finally married for real. (To the point where the actual marriage episode was entitled "Swear to God, This Time We're Not Kidding.") At least one of the marriages involved the Frog eating clone of Lois Lane. Yeah...
- Lost's love triangle between Jack, Kate, and Sawyer. Kate just keeps bouncing between those two guys like a ping pong ball well into the fourth season. Lampshaded when she leaves Sawyer for Jack yet again, and Sawyer doesn't react at all, telling her to her face that he knows within a few days she'll have found some reason to get mad at Jack again and come back to him.
- And later after Jack and Kate get off the island, their engagement ends when it's revealed that Kate has been covertly fulfilling some promise to Sawyer, even though he got left behind.
- In its short time on the air, even Firefly had one of these: The status of Simon and River on Serenity. Were they crew, or were they passengers? It fluctuated wildly from episode to episode, and even into The Movie.
- In Grey's Anatomy, the whole Meredith/Dr McDreamy thing - they're together, then she wants him but he doesn't want her (although he secretly does), then he wants her but she isn't sure whether she wants him or not.
- Scrubs has POV character JD, each of whose (very short) relationships mirrors the last one, contrasted by just about any other main character, all of whom go through some serious Character Development over the course of the series.
- Not to mention the number of times JD and Elliot get together, then break up, then ... well, you know the drill.
- Charmed had Cole and his tendency to go in and out of the Heel Face Revolving Door.
- Supernatural has major yo-yo-ing going on, although it manages to keep it from wrecking the rest of the show. The cycle is as follows: Sam has an issue but won't talk about it. Dean knows something is wrong and keeps pushing Sam on it, only to be frozen out. Tension builds. Sam keeps secrets. Dean finds out about them. Finally there is a huge fight and Sam walks out. An episode follows where the two of them are seen going their separate ways. Then they realize the importance of family and get back together, and the cycle is renewed. (Notice how the original issue that caused the whole thing never actually gets addressed...)
- Nip Tuck: lives on this trope in the later seasons. Characters from previous seasons whose plot threads seem to have been resolved are brought back in with the magic words ""Previously On..." Nip/Tuck."
- Heroes. Claire's relationship with her adoptive father and her power is pretty much like this. In the first season it was believable. But every damn season, it's like she just found out she can heal and has a secret agent as a father. By the time she reconciles with the fact, it's time for her to start freaking out again.
- SYLAR'S DEATH. Apparently Killed Off for Real in Volume One. Recovers from his fatal chest wound in Volume Two, but without his powers. Then gets his powers back. Then, in Volume Three, steals Claire's power and becomes immortal - but aha! All powers get switched off during the eclipse, so he finally dies then - but, whoops, as soon as the eclipse is over his dead and decomposing body heals itself and he returns to full strength. He gets Killed Off for Real at the end of Volume Three, because his power can't save him when you stab him in the back of the head and drop a burning building on hi - oh no wait, according to Volume Four, it can. Then he gets effectively 'killed' at the end of Volume Four when his mind is erased and replaced with the mind of Nathan Petrelli. Volume Five rolls around, and this is promptly Ret Conned to his mind being still alive inside Matt Parkman's head - and then he takes Parkman over and even eventually gets his own body back. So Parkman traps him down and does the next best thing to killing him - imprisons him inside a personal Hell and bricks him up in a basement. This lasts maybe all of an episode before Peter Petrelli breaks him back out. Luckily, as part of the Heel Face Revolving Door thing Heroes seems to love so much, he turns out to have repented while unconscious, and was last seen alive and well, again, but now a good guy. Had the show not been cancelled, this would undoubtedly have been changed back to his usual evil self before long. Also, he probably would have died some more.
- Cussed Royal Pains and that idiotic point with Jill and Hank...
- The show suffered from a bit of this with the Chase and Cameron relationship. They sleep together, nothing happens, they start sleeping together regularly, Chase decides he has feelings, Cameron rejects him repeatedly, they finally start dating, move in together, get married... then get divorced. Seemingly finally resolved as they wrote Jennifer Morrison out of the show (almost) entirely.
- The show seems to be averting it with House himself. Surprising many fans, after his stint in a psychiatric hospital House managed to go the entirety of Season 6 without going back to Vicodin, even right up to the last moment of the season finale when he chooses Cuddy over pills. This comes after repeated failures in this area over the course of the series, and his repeated Off the Wagon moments are actually a pretty realistic depiction of drug addiction and relapse.
- Queer as Folk: Brian and Justin's relationship is a bit like this, as they break up and get together again about once a season. Of course, being Brian and Justin, it's never quite resolved even when they are together.
- Star Trek: Thanks to multiple writers and a poorly fleshed-out character background, Spock's ability to lie and lack of emotions tended to bounce around from episode to episode, with some of them determing that his emotions were always on the verge of constantly boiling over and others treating him as an automaton with a physical inability to tell a fib. The writers attempted to resolve this long-running subplot in the Motion Picture and its sequel, where it is fully established that Spock has embraced his human side just in time to make a Heroic Sacrifice at the end of the movie, cleaning wrapping up his Character Arc... And then they brought him back in the next film and it turns out he has forgotten everything he learned.
- Averted in Frasier: after seven years of Will They or Won't They?, Niles and Daphne finally got together in the season 7 finale. However, in the beginning of season 8 it looked like the writers were gonna use various plot elements (mainly Niles' ex-wife Maris) to stop them from actually being together. Thankfully, though, these issues were resolved in a handful of episodes, and the writers managed to integrate Niles' and Daphne's relationship into the series for its final four seasons.
- On Boy Meets World, Cory and Topanga have three major breakup arcs after they first officially get together at the start of season three, and two of those arcs happen after their relationship was retconned into being life-long true love.
- Many video games fall into this trap, as sequels use the same characters and same plot but with new maps. Most are protected by the Rule of Fun (see Super Mario Brothers.) But when they aren't good enough the repetitive plot sticks out like a sore thumb.
- The Warcraft series (and especially World of Warcraft) is slowly starting to suffer from a case of this when it comes to the relations of the Alliance and the Horde. They're at war? Not anymore. Oh wait, now they're fighting again... And here comes the next excuse for them to ally with each other!
- Another possibility is the Orcs' placement on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Ever since they pulled a huge Heel Face Turn in Warcraft III, they've kind of fluctuated between being brutal barbarians fighting for a good cause and a race of Noble Savages.
- The Forsaken are also playing hopscotch at the line between Tragic Monsters and Complete Monsters. If one of them pets a dog, someone else is bound to poison it afterwards.
- The Land Before Time: Just how many times does Petrie have to overcome his fear of heights?
- King of the Hill in regards to Bobby being accepted by Hank despite his eccentricities. They would repeatedly find something to bond over, only for the next episode to have them again not seeing eye to eye.
- Total Drama Island and subsequent seasons are chock full of it, especially when it comes to character development, they're very Reset Button happy. Things that seem to get resolved as many times as the writers need them to include Heather's Defrosting Ice Queen progress, Gwen and Trent's relationship and later the Courtney-Duncan-Gwen love triangle (possibly resolved at the end of "World Tour" but unclear), Lindsay becoming less of a ditz, Bridgette and Geoff's relationship, Cody's unhealthy crush on Gwen, and constant fluctuations between disdain and respect for Sierra.