Let’s poke it with a stick

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Hi, Gang. Craig with you today, and we’re going to do something different. I believe that nearly everything can be a case study of sorts. We get bits and bobs from everything we see, hear, observe, but some things like books, television, and films can help us with story structure.

My SE partners are nicer than I am, so I’m the obvious one to write something like this. I’m not heartless, so I’m going to pick on mainstream things for this post. I’d never single out one struggling author.

Today, we’re going to pick on shows from subscription services. You know the ones, original material from places like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, and others.

Confession time, I had never binge-watched anything in my life until C-19 showed up to ruin everyone’s year. I’d watched shows on these services, but you almost have to binge watch to get where I’m going with this today.

I’m the speculative guy at Story Empire, so you can guess that any shows I’m referring to are the speculative ones. I’ve loved every single one of these shows, and if they earn extra seasons, I’ll be checking those out. It may not sound like it here, but that’s the truth.

You’re also going to need a decoder ring, so when I say the word “episode” you should be thinking “chapter,” then relating it to your own fiction.

We always need a hook, and authors hear that all the time. We learn about false hooks, Media Res, and all the rest. The programs all seem to deliver that in the first episode. This doesn’t always mean it’s related to the big-picture problem, but there is something that keeps us invested. Maybe it’s family drama or something, but there is a reason to watch. Sometimes it doesn’t come until the end of the episode, but it’s there.

It might just be me, but setting can be a hook. Give me a creepy mansion, a tavern full of aliens, or a group in dark Victorian streets and I’m going to stick with it for a while. These programs are doing it right.

After that, they tend to fail and this is where authors should be paying attention. I loved these shows, but all of them damned near lost me on the next episode. Most of them bored me on episodes two through four. (Remember that code word here.) After delivering some kind of hook, they almost universally dove into backstory.

A widow and her kids moved from the West Coast to a creepy old mansion that looks like it’s in the tundra somewhere, then we had to learn all about why. We witnessed an old murder and got into all the sadness the characters were going through. “Excuse me, but will the creepy old mansion be returning to the story any time soon?”

A body washes out of the Thames, but it’s composed of pieces from seven different people. I’m excited! I’m ready for some gothic horror, but wait, we have to learn all about the main character’s backstory. We’ll talk about that body in about three episodes.

You really can lose your viewership at a point like this. (For you authors, substitute readership.)

I could go on here, but this is a blog post and I want to get to my next point. You have to deliver on your premise.

If you’re going to show me that corpse, I expect to see some mad science or a monster by about the third episode. It’s kind of like Chekhov’s corpse.

If you tease superheroes, I expect to see something both super and heroic, and not in the backstory either. A bunch of dysfunctional adults who got there from an abusive upbringing is interesting and good, but you promised me superheroes. Looking at you Umbrella Academy. I love this show, but I keep hanging on for the good stuff. Honestly, I’ve seen superheroes before, and it’s hard to show me something new. However, one character, called The Rumor, got me intrigued. Then they never showed me anything.

We got a couple of glimpses of this power via backstory, but nothing recent or modern. The second season is too long for viewers to wait for something they teased. For you authors, the sequel might be too late to deliver on something this intriguing. You need the first book to succeed before you can worry about the sequel.

When designing heroes, keep in mind they can be too powerful. I don’t have access to the writers, but it seems to me like The Rumor could solve everyone’s problems in pretty short order. “Oh, I heard a rumor that you got sober, learned to deal with your issues, and became a functional member of society.” Boom. That would ruin the most colorful character in the show, and that’s why character design is important. You introduced her, now you have to deliver. What now?

These programs are doing a lot right. They have drama down pat, along with colorful characters. If you’re going to imbed a holy artifact into a person, put it between her shoulder blades so it isn’t easily plucked out. An addict with a smart mouth can be hilarious even in a drama. A kid who isn’t a kid, but has a mannequin for a girlfriend is intriguing. A key that lets you temporarily join the spirit world and fly around brings a lot to the table.

As authors we need to be aware of this pattern, both the good and the bad. Set that hook, then build from there. Consider whether you started your story in the right place before you dive into all the backstory. Think about just how strong your characters are, because you can’t hide from them, your viewers/readers will notice.

Once again, I enjoyed all these programs and there are bound to be more like them. We have new services like Peacock and others coming online all the time. We can only hope that writers who earn their shot will observe and adjust for their own stories. I know a few dozen independent authors who’d love the chance.

61 thoughts on “Let’s poke it with a stick

  1. Good points, Craig. You gave those series more time than I would have. If after the third show of nothing, I would be done. Time is to valuable to waste when I’m not getting the results that I had hoped to get. I do the same when I am reading. If you hook me, you need to deliver.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You make some really great comparisons here between TV and books. Understanding what works in the one can often have a positive impact when applied to the other. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think they relate most of the time. They have the advantage of visuals and theatrical music. We can write about smells. When it comes down to plot and characters popular media makes for good examples because more people will have seen whatever I discuss.

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  3. You’ve really got me thinking with this post, Craig. It makes me stop and wonder how I view character development and backstory on the screen vs. in a book. I’ll give you two examples. I’m currently reading the Astral Conspiracy Series by D. L. Cross, and I’m enthralled by the storylines of each of the myriad characters. There isn’t so much backstory in the character/plot arcs but the various plot threads have kept me riveted.There are many. They’re all different and yet intertwined.

    I’ll compare that to Longmire which I’ve been watching on Netflix. I’m now up to mid-season three, and I’m growing weary of the various character arcs. There’s too much going on with too many characters. I miss the crime-solving/new case each episode used to bring. Every single freaking character has baggage and a back story. I’m fine with a few, but I’m to the point where enough is enough. I just want the crime solving that sucked me into the series in the first place, along with 1-2 backstory plot lines. When you’ve got 4-5 it’s far too much for me. Also the reason I stopped watching the new Hawaii 5-0 after a few seasons.

    So, my takeaway is that I will willing embrace multiple backstories and plot lines in a work of fiction that I can read, but not so much in something I watch on TV.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a great comment, because television has a burden we don’t have. What are they going to do next year? Even if we write a series, there is generally an end in sight. This is why you see so many of the same things happen in long running television series. That main character abduction plot they all get to eventually. I think Bones is a great case study for that. I made tiers for my pirates. The main ones get the main focus. Second tier has a few things going on, and lower level might get something once during the whole trilogy. No idea if that’s the right path, but it seems to be functional for now. Biscuit Bill and his weird relationship with Mary, plus the funeral for his pan, are not at the forefront of the story. It’s there to show that all of them have lives and aren’t just cutouts. I didn’t spend a whole book on those deviations. Someone like Serang gets a much more prominent role. No idea if that’s the best path, but it seems functional.

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  4. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Craig Boyack has a very interesting post on Story Empire today about “false hooks” and delivering on promises. I think you’ll find it as interesting as I did and will become more aware of the perils of doing this to your readers, so I heartily recommend you check it out. And as always, please consider passing it along so others can learn from it, too. Thanks, and thanks to Craig for giving me something new to ponder when I start my next book! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Because I’m far more interested in the mental and emotional make up of each character than I am in plots (MOST of the time, not always, of course), I tend to enjoy backstory. I didn’t know much about the best way to approach it when I started my first book, though, and were I writing that one again, I would probably do it differently. However, I am learning on the job so to speak, and hopefully do a better job with it these days. But even from the start, I don’t think I did straight up info dumps. Generally, I tried to write a scene that clued readers into what a character was like by letting them see the character in action, even if the scene occurred prior to the current story line. I can see how to do that better now, too, and am working on it. But again, because I’m far more concerned with what makes my characters tick than anything else, I will probably still use a bit more backstory than many would. I try to break it into smaller bites, though, and scatter it around.

    Your post has given me a new way to look at all of this, and will help me keep from getting quite so carried away with it as I may have done seven years ago. I know I’ll refer to it from time to time, even if just to see how close to the line I can skate before I get called on it. 😀 Good post, Craig. Lots to think about here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve reached the point where everything is a case study. I ask myself what I liked about something. What might the writer have done differently? Everything. I hesitate to even look at my early work. I leave it up as souvenirs of my writing journey.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Life’s too short to look back very long. I say learn what you can from those early days and carry that knowledge ahead to your next project. In some ways, it’s good to compare now and then, too. I often flip through my books, pause here or there, and think about how I would do a certain paragraph differently today, using what I’ve been learning. But I’m only figuring on writing a few more years, so I prefer to move forward. Souvenirs of our writing journeys, indeed. Good way to phrase it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I just watched Cracker–a British crime show–for the first time last night, and I thought they did his backstory really quickly and well, but I got tired of everyone going in the wrong direction to solve the crime and almost gave up and turned to something else. It’s hard to keep all of the balls in the air when you juggle a story. But backstory seems to be one of the more common mistakes. Good post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You bring out a great point here today, Craig. One writer’s class I sat in on, talked about delivering on your promise to the reader. This post made me think of that. We all know in our stories, we don’t want to stop the plot to tell the readers about what happened years ago. We weave it in throughout the story as we go. Sounds like these show producers and writers need to learn that as well! Thanks for sharing, and wow, what a beautiful perfect zucchini!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Good post, Craig and advice. Its easy to to do this and lose the action.
    I’ve been binge watching old detective shows. I’m always happy when I can’t guess the ending which isn’t often. I’m appreciating corny right now:)
    Starting from the right place with that hook is tricky but when its right a great read.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post, Craig, and great examples. My hubby and I watch a movie every night (a definite COVID-thing). We seem to alternate between thrillers and romantic comedies. Invariably, I know where the screenwriter will go next — to my husband’s surprise. The backstory is the reason. The concern I have is how much is revealed and when. It seems to me that, much like standing in the middle of a teeter-totter, writers are tasked with balancing the reveal.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think the reason writers do the backstory is a) to create sympathy for the character and b) because the author himself/herself is interested in the character and wants you to understand the character. Perhaps writers feel protective of their characters and don’t want to risk them being misunderstood.

    That being said, I’ve gotten annoyed at too much backstory, too. I think the times I’ve seen it done successfully is when what is being told in the backstory is directly relevant to what is going on in the present. For example, the show Once Upon a Time comes to mind. They show bits of the characters’ backstories as they are showing what is happening in the present.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think your first paragraph is spot on. We’re excited about our characters. We want people to buy in and come along for the ride. It’s a learned skill to keep the present interesting enough that dribbles of backstory will only enhance it.

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  11. Totally agree, Craig. If you show me a body in the hook, you better deliver with some sort of investigation soon and not make me wade through backstory first.

    This line cracked me up: “A kid who isn’t a kid, but has a mannequin for a girlfriend is intriguing.” We have this new weatherman on our local news, and the first time he debuted I said to my husband, “There’s no way he doesn’t have a mannequin or two at home.” LOL

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I agree with your premise. An opening hook followed by large chunks of backstory and exposition are turnoffs. But I’m much more interested in characters than in plots, one hundred percent of the time. That’s why I loved The Umbrella Academy and The Boys. (And I know you said you’re still watching UA, so I’m not trying to convince you of its merits.) They’re different because they turn the superhero trope on its head, and to do that, you have to focus on the characters. So, in those cases, I totally don’t mind.

    I’d love to know which mystery you watched with all the different body parts. That sounds fascinating. Unless it wasn’t.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I watched all of UA (So far, now) I’m all in, but there was an awful lot of backstory in the episodes right after the premier. It has some wonderful characters in the mix. The one you’re asking about is The Frankenstein Chronicles. I really enjoyed it, too, but it only earned two seasons it seems.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I hate it when I find a good series and they end it too soon. I’m still going to look for TFC. It sounds good.

        UA was backstory-heavy early on. I didn’t really mind (in that case, though I usually do in fiction). They are such damaged people, I was fascinated by each of them. I find it difficult to pick a favorite. Most people seem to choose Klaus. I think I might have to pick Diego. Or The Boy. Maybe Ben. It’s so hard to choose!

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I don’t watch TV these days (still binge-watch my DVD sets of MASH and JAG from time to time). But on to writing. Too much backstory at the beginning is a huge turn off for me as a reader. As both a writer and a reader, I like to see a character’s backstory dribbled out in bits and pieces throughout the book.

    I’m a big fan of character-driven fiction, so books that are totally plot-driven bore me to tears – I don’t care how “exciting” they’re supposed to be.

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  14. Hmmmm, not sure where to go here. I thought Umbrella Academy was great because it wasn’t a regular superhero story. Never thought that it promised to be a standard one either. It’s all about how they’re dysfunctional and broken, so they aren’t really heroes in the first place. The Rumor could solve everything, but she can’t because she has personal issues using her powers. Also, I don’t think such a suggestion would last for eternity, so the problem would return. It’s kind of like asking why Superman doesn’t kill all the bad guys on Earth since we know he could. It’s because that’s not his personality. If Diego has her power then you’d probably see it abused left and right for heroism. It’s all about the personality of the characters and broken ones tend to require backstory for modern audiences to care. People don’t simply accept that a character has issues. They want the reason. This is exceptionally true if you have an ensemble cased like UA. You have to portion out the backstory over time to avoid putting one character above the others. It’s a really difficult balancing act that requires spreading out over time.

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    • Don’t get me wrong. I loved UA and will watch future seasons if they get them. It kind of felt like episode 2 was backstory for character 2, Episode 3 = backstory for character 3, etc. They got out of that rut and the story became better for it. We’ve seen “big strong lug” before, but Rumor was something new. We didn’t get to her until season 2. Even then it was small portions, which can work with a fascinating character.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I actually liked Luther being a big strong lug with a deformed body. He’s like if Superman suddenly realized he wasn’t really a hero too. I think with Allison, a lot deals with her fear or hate of her own power. It cost her her family.

        Sadly, I think MCU success has made it harder for lower action superhero movies to gain traction. Imagine if the first Superman came out now? It would be destroyed by fans for being boring.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think lower action works well, but you kind of need some to keep the theme going. I know you’re not a fan, but I saw Game of Thrones as a low fantasy, but it worked. Not every scene had the fantastic in it. Makes the dragons even more special.

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      • Game of Thrones was also perceived as a political epic story. If it was marketed as a LOTR adventure, it would have fallen short. So expectations definitely play into it. UA had a weird intro. It did look action-y in some promos, but dramatic in others.

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  15. An entertaining and on-point post, Craig. Backstory turns me off every single time. I watched a movie last night where the back story was dribbled out in measured doses as the plot unfolded. They did it in such a way that the backstory enhanced the tension because you discovered more about a certain character and that she wasn’t who you thought she was. So much better than if we’d started out with all that in one go.

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  16. I’m a fan of writers who dribble bits of backstory and lore while they’re actually telling the story. As a reader, I sometimes get frustrated not having a whole chunk of exposition so I know exactly what’s going on, but ultimately it’s a much more sophisticated way to write, to tease bits of backstory and drop hints about the world. It’s something I aspire to in my writing (though I tend to be a bit like a five year old kid with a secret and want to blurt out all the cool backstory and love in the first few pages) 😁

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  17. A great post, Craig. I don’t watch much TV or many movies, but I get this. I suppose it also depends on what the purpose of the story is and whether it is intended to be historical, ect. For example, a soapie has a reputation for being a long drawn-out dramatisation of a group of people’s lives. The viewers know that and expect a slow moving story that focuses on the daily lives of the characters with very little action. A super hero story is different, the viewer expects action, that is what they paid for, and they do expect it quickly and continuously.

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