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.