Thursday, March 28, 2013

What I've Learned From My Favorite Shows

Some of the greatest lessons I've learned as a storyteller come from observing and interacting with the world. And many of them are simply from watching TV. Compiled below, in no particular order, are the gems of wisdom I've gained from five of my favorite shows.


Say "Smoke Monster"!

1) Keep the audience guessing. Always. 

When one mystery is solved, another should take its place. Make the characters and the audience work for answers by putting them through one trial after the other.

2) Backstory is an incredible tool when crafting powerful characters.

One of the biggest aspects of Lost is the flashbacks throughout almost every episode. They spend time showing pivotal moments in the characters' lives, giving us glimpses of what they've been through, what drives them as people or what they're trying to put behind them. It's the characters' stories that make the audience invested in their fate. And a lot of these stories are complicated and convoluted, often depicting characters in ways that contradict the people they are on the island. And that's exactly what makes the characters so real and believable.


"We're awesome at posing. Take that, Lost!"

1) Superpowers can be really cool. But not everyone wants to be a superhero.

Characters don't always choose the duties thrust upon them, even if these duties come with the power to travel through time or to recover within mere seconds from a bullet to the heart. Most of these characters are just ordinary people getting by, who suddenly find themselves in a battle to save the world (and specifically one cheerleader). Not everyone adapts easily to the role of hero, but they all struggle to make sense of who and what they are, and why they've been given this huge responsibility. And they make a lot of mistakes and bad choices along the way.

2) Bring characters together for a common cause or purpose.

Heroes has a huge and diverse cast of people, from all over the world. But they all cross paths in one way or another, their lives merging at different points. Imagine the moment when two characters who are fully developed and whom the audience knows quite well, first meet. They know nothing about each other. They might even distrust each other, even though they're both good guys. Because the audience is invested in each one beforehand, this meeting is all the more pivotal. So while it's nice to have a vast cast of characters from all parts of the world and all walks of life, it's critical to connect them in some way, usually by a common quest.


Dexter is more at home in a pool of blood than posing with the rest of the crew.

1) Good guys aren't necessarily goody-two-shoes.

Dexter is a serial killer. He knows he is, he knows that what he does is wrong, but for some reason, we don't hate him for it. He has just the right balance of good and evil in him that the scale could tip either way (as it often does throughout the seasons), and this creates a complex individual. He is a blueprint for the perfect villain, because there is nothing stereotypical about him. He also makes for an intriguing good guy, even though he isn't one in the conventional sense.

2) Secrets and hidden motives add a lot of tension and anguish.

The whole series is based around Dexter's secret life as a serial killer and his attempts to keep it hidden from his co-workers, his love interests, and even his family. He's constantly covering his tracks, lying about his behavior, and coming up with alibis when people get a little too close to the truth. And it's a huge strain on his relationship with those he cares about. It also ups the show's tension and makes the audience even more on edge, because we never know who will find out about his dirty secret and how it will affect him.


Say - Walker! No, seriously, behind you!

1) When the going gets good...throw your characters off of a cliff. 

Not literally, but the point is that The Walking Dead thrives on the unpredictable. The uncertainty of the characters' fate (the odds are especially grim if you happen to be a black character.). They rarely catch a break. And when they do, it never lasts because it's only the calm before the storm. Crap eventually hits the fan. No one's life or happiness is guaranteed. And this certainly takes the boredom out of things.

2) People do uncharacteristic things when thrust into uncharacteristic situations. 

How many of us would shoot a zombie, knowing they were once flesh and blood human beings? Now how many would shoot a living man, or worse, our own mothers? This show brings out the worst in people and it does so in a way that is entirely believable. This is a world where nice guys finish last (and last place isn't a good place to be when running from zombies). Survival in extreme situations means that your characters have to face some really tough choices, and they have to make decisions that might be unsavory, but at the very least, understandable.


I sense a little too much tension in this room.

1) It's important for characters to have one big objective that they're striving toward.

Battlestar Galactica is all about one big quest for salvation and survival of the human race. The crew of the Galactica race from one galaxy to the other, trying to find a new home after Cylons destroyed theirs. The journey is perilous and often disheartening, and the crew encounters one obstacle after the other. But it's their hope, their desire to accomplish their goal, that drives them, and it's also what makes the audience root for them.

2) People who all want the same thing don't always get along.

There is a lot of in-fighting in this show, to the point where people are constantly getting into fistfights or even trying to kill each other. The lines between good and bad are often blurred as a result, because it's not always easy to tell who is the transgressor and who is in the right. Battlestar Galactica is an excellent demonstration of how distrust and disunity between a cast of characters can work well to increase the hardship and trials that they face as a group, which isn't good for them, but it certainly works toward keeping the audience on an emotional rollercoaster.

So in conclusion, writers find lessons in everything, and movies and books and shows are a great source for inspiration. So the next time you sit down to watch your favorite TV show, make sure to note all of the things you really like about it, and try to find a way to utilize them in your own storytelling.