What Lessons From What Stories?

Writers can’t just read books. Or watch shows. It’s no longer reasonable to expect that we can just turn our brains off like a bedside lamp — click — and force our storyteller brains to go dark. (Some stories let us do this, still, and those are frequently the sign of a truly powerful tale.) But it’s our job to read and watch stories with a critical eye. Not just critical of the tale being told but just to pick it apart — to see how the bones fit together on each mad animal. So, that’s what this post is about. The tl;dr is that I want you to jump into the comments and talk about a lesson you learned form some story you read or watched recently. But first, lemme tell you a lesson I learned.

So.

I just finished the first season of the Netflix show, Bloodline.

It’s an amazing show. It’s a nicely textured crimey story wrapped up in the sweaty sheen of a family drama. The bad sheep brother comes back to town — played by the inimitable Ben Mendelsohn (go watch Animal Kingdom right fucking now) — and throws a seemingly good family way the hell out of whack.

It’s powerful from the first shot. It’s often tense not in a gun to your head way, but in a slow, creeping dread way — like a septic infection settling into your blood.

But.

But.

We just finished the show the other night —

And here I’ll try very very hard not to spoil the show in any big way, because I want you to watch it.

Just the same, here’s a little spoiler space.

Spoiler space.

Spoiler space.

Sometimes spoilers punch your face.

Spoilers leak

Plotty bits

They make some people

Have ragey fits

LOOK OUT

Here goes the spoiler space.

Ahem.

The end to the season (apparently leading into a season 2?) felt alarmingly rote to me. Rote as in, it telegraphed the ending and that’s how it went down — no surprise, no Usual Suspects moment, no twist of the knife. Further, they took one particular character off the table, one really great character, and sometimes taking characters off the table permanently is tricky — it can be like kicking the leg out from under a chair as someone is sitting on it. If your show relies on something, then removing that thing is a risky proposition.

Here’s the thing, right? A story is, in a way, a magic trick. The author is a stage magician. You are showing off the trick at the fore — “Look, here’s a goddamn bunny, and here’s a fucking hat, and now I’m going to stick the goddamn bunny right in this fucking hat and — oh, holy shitkittens, voila, the bunny has turned into a Taco Bell chalupa.” And the way you make that trick work is you do a lot of setup and misdirection, so that way people don’t see you perform the switch — but when they see the result, they’re all ooh and ahhh.

But this show felt more like, “Look, goddamn bunny, fucking hat, and now I’m going to stick the bunny into the hat and –” *flips hat back around* — “Look, the bunny in the hat has become, drum roll please, a bunny. The same bunny. The one I showed you. I told you it was a bunny and now look: BUNNY.” It’s not even like, “Look, one bunny became ten,” or “the white bunny is now black,” because that’s still magic. That still works. This is like a very literal version of Chekhov’s Gun — “This is a gun and I’m going to shoot that guy over there BOOM look I told you I was going to do it. I told you the ending and that ending happened.” The trick is that there’s no trick.

Bloodline is this, in a way — it tells you ultimately what’s happening or going to happen, and then that thing sorta happens. It works as a tragic piece — and there are some nice emotional and intellectual twists and turns that happen. It’s still a helluva show. Lusciously shot and acted with menace and might by all the players on the scene. Amazing texture throughout. But at the same time, the show also sets itself up as something crime-flavored, something thrillery and mysterious. And so when the last couple of episodes roll around, you wait for the big twist. And it never really comes. Everything’s a bit too obvious.

A trick that’s not a trick can work.

But it can also leave the audience disappointed.

Were they expecting a trick?

Then, uh-oh.

And then removing that character from the story is like removing a step from the trick. It simplifies it. Maybe overmuch. It makes you wonder — would you come back to the show without that character? Does the table still stand without that one leg? Does the trick still work? Is it still compelling? If Teller left Penn and Teller, would the stage act work? It’s a meaningful question.

So, that’s my story lesson for you:

Storytelling is like a magic trick. And managing audience expectations is part of that trick.

(And maybe a sub-lesson in there — be careful about setting up one type of story and then not playing by at least some of the rules and expectations. It’s one of the values of knowing your genre — because knowing genre offers a little value toward what people expect. You can subvert those expectations. You should subvert those expectations. But you shouldn’t ignore them entirely.)

Now, I turn the forum to you.

Think back recently to a story you have consumed with your STORY MAW. A book, movie, comic, whatever. And I want you to tell us all a lesson you intuited from that story.

Drop into the comments.

Get to work.