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.
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.
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.
Sometimes spoilers punch your face.
They make some people
Have ragey fits
Here goes the spoiler space.
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?
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.
74 responses to “What Lessons From What Stories?”
Don’t save all your big reveals until the end of the book, thinking you’ll surprise the reader. Revealing some information at the beginning creates even more suspense. The Law of Moses by Amy Harmon stars with the narrator telling the reader (I might be messing up the quote) “I didn’t get to keep him” – I spent the entire book trying to figure out which “him” it meant, and how “he” was going to get lost. In fact, I sobbed like an abandoned child the entire way through the story, torturing myself with that sliver of knowledge. It was fabulous. 🙂
I learned that during my first beta reader match up. I was asked to read a story, where there was no back story just something that happened back then and the writer decided to dump everything into the final scene. Could’ve just been inexperience but it was a lesson to me.
Recently watched “John Dies at the End.”
BEFORE YOU CONTINUE: MAJOR SPOILAGE AHEAD.
I MEAN IT. I would try to avoid it, but it’s really not possible in order to talk about what I want to talk about.
YOU WERE WARNED!
For one, ultra trippy movie. Not entirely sure I’m supposed to know what the HECK is going on the entire damn time I’m watching.
I mean, seriously. Is it an independent film? Why is Paul Giamatti there? What does the Soy Sauce actually do? Telegraph the future? Make you become the future (and the past; all while still living in the present)?
The whole time I clung to one certainty: John dies at the end.
I watch each conflict, grinding my teeth, waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. The climax happens. Denuement. Some more fun footage. Credits. John is still alive.
I watch the ENTIRE 10-MINUTE SEGMENT OF CREDITS. There has to be more. He has to die, right?
Credits finish. No after-credits scene. John survives to be killed another day.
Sometimes, giving the reader/viewer/consumer-of-your-product false information works. Sometimes it leaves him or her feeling cheated. False expectations have to be delivered very carefully. And at some point you as the creator are going to have to come clean with either why it was false information (unreliable narrator, perhaps?) or come up with some other explanation (A wizard did it).
With this movie I felt cheated. Don’t know that the joke on me as the audience was worth it.
Then again, I’m still talking about it, aren’t I?
Laura, I felt the same way with Infinite Jest. Opens with a kid at a college admissions interview, but he’s seriously blowing it because he’s suffering from some sort of aphasia. Man, poor kid! Jump back in time to find out how he got that way, you learn that he was tempted to take some strange new drug, plus a bunch of other crazy stuff is happening to a bunch of different people. I’m wondering, how is David Fucking Wallace going to tie all this together, and what’s going to happen to the kid? Guess what, it never does tie together, and you never get back to that moment in the admissions office. That’s the Infinite Jest, and it’s on the reader. (Or, maybe I was just too stupid to get it. Obviously, a bunch of other people loved it.)
Honestly, I’ve heard the movie is meh. I haven’t seen it, but I have read the book and the consensus I’ve seen from book fans who watched is that it was “okay, but nowhere near the book”. So really I just recommend picking up the book which I absolutely loved.
First: spoilers. That is all.
I dunno. I didn’t really feel cheated by how it ended. (Disclaimer: I have not watched the movie. I’ve only read the book, so I don’t know what differences there are.) I think the early portions of the story made it clear that ALL bets were off, so I never felt 100% certain he was going to die which led to more suspense for me in the scenes where he was in danger. I think having him live more fit the tone of the story. (Even if the ending did fall a bit flat for me)
It’s worth mentioning that John Dies at the End was actually a novel before a movie, and a pretty good one. The surreal comedy’s still there, but everything makes a lot more sense by the end. In fact, the movie leaves out most of the book’s major subplots.
The spoilery stuff you mentioned about John, though? That is, unfortunately, still very much true in the book. That title could have been chosen better.
Here’s an interesting look at authorial intentions vs reader expectations. I read a lot of David Wongs columns on Cracked.con (although it was better as pointlesswasteoftime) and he’s stated before that he titled it that because in horror movies one of the main characters usually dies. The book itself both subverts a lot of horror tropes and supports them. I love the book to pieces, wonderful existential/absurd horror, but the move in no way shape or form captured that essence. They kept some of the same plot elements but didn’t add in the context so it felt more pointless in the movie.
Just my two cents!
So thanks to all the helpful replies, I learned that John Dies at the End was a novel first.
Will go check it out, because I do enjoy me some absurd horror and would love some more context.
And you know, he does die, like a few times I think. Just not exactly at the end. Anyway, did anyone tell you that you should read the book??? ;).
You should read the book. It’s even more insane, but I think it’s better than the movie. Written by David Wong.
Its funny that you mention mis-direction, ive just been adding to my 2nd book (which has sections of what i term as theoretical discussions embedded in them) where i talk about how misdirection works. A story should have a honey trap in it, an obvious store of information that the reader gets stuck in to. But whilest they are their, the writer is squirrelling away information into less obvious stores for later. Which is why Usual Suspects, Shawshank Redemption (and a fav of mine) The Illiusionist as they seem to do this very well
Rebecca does this beautifully. So clean and uncontrived. My favorite book of all time too.
I love putting in the big twists… okay, everything is going along the way my readers think it’s all going to happen, then
I throw some big-ass spanner into the works and spin everyone around on their butts.
Yep, even myself sometimes.
It’s fun, keeps us all on our toes and makes the story even more exciting to write; mainly because it makes me work on it harder to get to the end.
I forgot to put in what stories I have learned from – yep it was late when I wrote this here in Australia. I watch a lot of ‘Supernatural’ and their twists and turns are brilliant in themselves. Just when you think you know what’s going to happen – you don’t.
And I love utilising their ways of surprising my readers… it’s fun for both them and me. 😀
Couldn’t watch but one night of the show because it felt like I was watching a soap opera.
While dueling with sharpened churros in San Antonio recently, a friend and I recalled a great lesson from the book “Magic and Showmanship” which illustrates the difference between tricks (“here’s a rabbit…”) and reveals (“from my left nipple!”) – a boring magician has 50 tricks with 1 reveal; a great magician can make 1 trick with 50 reveals MUCH more entertaining. The best authors use misdirection and sleight-of-word to pull readers through pages without effort.
SPOILERS FOR DAREDEVIL IN HERE
Daredevil to me (the new show) and its ending also struck me as off because it feels kind of ham handed. It’s like they wrapped up all the plot points to end the show…and then forgot that they still hadn’t done several of the big reveals and so a story that was already over, had to have an extended ending just so we could have a final confrontation and see Daredevil in the suit.
To me the lesson here is that you need to check and double check your planning to make sure that you’ve paid off on all your promises before ending the plot, because dragging things out feels tacked on, which in turn retroactively kills some of the tension from earlier.
SPOILERS FOR DAREDEVIL CONTINUE BELOW
You stole my point, Anthony! I just finished DD last night and I was really enjoying the show a lot… until the end. What robbed me of my enjoyment? We never find out what Kingpin was doing.
So, a lesson for writing series: it’s good to leave plot questions dangling (that’s how you get people to keep reading, to find out the answers to those questions), but the main conceit of the book/story needs to be answered by the end. For example, I am completely okay with leaving the questions about Madam Gao unanswered (and there are some really good ones!) because that smacks of something that will be explored later. However, I need to know what Kingpin’s plan was. Is… he just going to build nicer buildings? Why did he get so much support for that? What was he planning on building? What did DD thwart?
Otherwise, all the fighting and sacrifice amounts to… not much, particularly because we don’t really believe he’s going to stay in jail for long. The victory is muted, covered by layers of ignorance. Which is sad.
I learned a great deal about writing mysteries from the Peter Straub novels KOKO, MYSTERY, and THE THROAT (especially that last one). The biggest lesson I learned from them is that when your detective character finds a clue to solving the mystery, the best thing you can do is not draw attention to that clue at the time. Let it simply be one of the details of the scene. (“I opened the drawer. In it I found a hairbrush, a collection of old bookmarks, a crumpled doctor’s prescription, a nail clipper, and a blank book of matches that looked to be about half-used. I quickly closed the drawer and left.”) Not drawing attention to the clue becomes so much more powerful when the detail is revisited for the solution later. (“It was the bookmarks in his drawer that tipped me off. They were all from bookstores that had lost their leases recently and been forced to close so a real estate mogul could replace them with upscale condos. The same mogul who was now dead.”) Now, whenever I read a mystery where the clues are pointed out as soon as they’re discovered, I feel strangely disappointed.
Another fun trick that I’ve enjoyed in books along this note – stick two clues in the drawer: one is the real clue that’s not focused on, and the other is the false clue that the detective (and reader) latches onto. Then, they can chase that trail until it blows up in their face, only to limp back and piece it together afterward.
It’s not cheating if you A) put both clues in, and B) make the detective fall for it too. No fair making the reader fall for it but not the main character!
I’ve absorbed a couple of negative lessons from stories I’ve read recently. I was enjoying one novel but feeling strangely distanced from the characters when I realized the culprit: too much of it was in narrative summary rather than in detailed scenes. Too few moments with characters acting and speaking in “real time,” so that I could see and feel the experience through their eyes; too many passages where a lot of events and exchanges were summarized, feeling more like a textbook. I guess that’s just another version of “show, don’t tell.”
Another lesson: don’t be afraid of the past perfect. A couple of writers I’ve read recently seem to have developed an allergy to the verb “had.” In one otherwise enjoyable zombie story, a character dropped her gun. Then something else happened. Then she looked for the gun. “It slid under the cabinet.” Wait, I thought, didn’t she drop it a while ago? I guess “had slid” just sounded wrong to the writer, but the problem persisted throughout the story and I kept getting time-whiplash.
In a positive lesson, Sarah Waters’ “The Paying Guests” showed me how beautifully genres can be blended. It starts out as a very slow-building drawing room drama/romance. In part two, there’s a death, and it becomes a police procedural through the eyes of one of the culprits. Part three is a courtroom drama. All of it is told from the main character’s tightly controlled point of view. For some readers, part one was too slow-moving, detailed, and boring, while for others the later parts were too plot-driven and melodramatic. But for me, it all grew out of who the characters were, with their conflicting motivations driving the story throughout. The lesson for me was that you can take your story anywhere as long as you keep it focused on the characters and what’s driving them.
Along the same lines, pertaining to crafting a story:
You can’t drop one outrageous element on top of another and expect your reader to survive the last pages.
I recently read a story starting out on one outrageous premise. It was a billionaire romance, if you want to know (don’t ask, I have my reasons) and the premise was the billionaire made a contract with the heroine’s bff, paying money and all to marry him (riggghhtt) and the bff backs out and convinces the heroine to take her place. (oh god, this hurts.) Shakespeare meets billionaire romance in misdirection and casual lies (I’m making this sound better than it is) but in the final pages when we come to the BIG SCENE Mr. Billlionaire reveals why he couldn’t find a wife the usual way. He’s a Christian Grey knock-off and not satisfied with normal relationships.
And it comes a perturbation, a drop-in in an otherwise predictable plot, and it doesn’t work.
I never laughed so hard in all my life.
If you are gong to write an outrageous premise, stick with it and don’t cross the streams.
That’s all I’m saying.
And yes, I find it useful to read bad fiction, because mistakes in crafting a plot are never so obvious.
I read something similar recently. The book seemed like it was going to be good. It was UF and the backdrop was New Orleans so I thought, “Ooh.” Right? Not. I was following the loose plot because I liked the main character in the beginning then she met this guy, she swore she’d stay away from him but she kept going back. There was no insta-connection. No big draw to the guy on her part, so maybe boredom? So, he shows her his freaky thing just because he can. She wants to fly some more so she does.
Then all of a sudden, how did you get downstairs, then take this really nice ring since you already know this thing in revealing to you but you found our lair, haha we’re married, meet my family, no I hate you, you’ll grow to love me. They dance at some party and then that’s it. She’s mad for like 6 minutes, literally, then she back to following him around. I remember thinking maybe my kindle app messing up. But wasn’t there something major about to happen? Wasn’t he in mid-sentence or something?
That taught me that a good editor and some beta readers can do wonderful things. We don’t know everything. If she redid it, it could be an okay book.
These days I learn more from the flawed books. The really good books suck me in so deeply that the skill and craft become invisible.
I’m reading a crime-thriller and the moment, and not being pulled into the story. Trying to analyze why i just don’t care, i came up with these reasons:
1. Expectations not met: the protagonist is supposed to be a world specialist in body language but two thirds into the novel, she’s only got things wrong or picked up some hints of misdirection. I could do that. So i feel cheated, and the character is boring without the special skill.
2. No internal conflict. Yes, we need to race to stop the baddie but our protag is pretty ok with herself and her choices. There’s no internal tussle and I’m realizing that makes the story shallow.
3. My worst cynical author move: introduce characters only to kill them. it’s like someone taught the author, “The reader has to care about the character who dies, so y’know, spend maybe a third of a chapter on them – how they have a dog or a kid or are pregnant – before you kill ’em off.’ This works once, then every time the author describes some random person, you think, ‘Righty-O, bud, you’re about to die, let me just emotionally disconnect from your inevitable fate.’
That “right-o, that’s a Dead Flag, wave it high” feeling is SO hard to beat, isn’t it? XD Especially in the current movies/TV scene. It says a lot about the state of the arts when the surprise is NOT suddenly killing someone with whom the reader or a major character has a passing, positive interaction.
But seriously, this is common enough that I want to submit plans for a Waving the Dead Flag colorguard crew.
I’m there. I can’t watch TV anymore, without every once in a while (way too often, really) smacking my lips and going: “Yup, you’re about to die. Oh, you have some sort of emotional investment into the success of the protag? You are SOOO dead… Yup, there ya go.”
Re: Bloodline, I agree with everything you said, Chuck. That show hooked me with the slow burn and the stellar acting. But then yeah, last episode sort of fizzled. I think it works if you see the show as simply a dark family drama. Then, if it ends there, we are left thinking about how these characters can all go on with what they did. Like signing a deal with the devil or something…they get to live relatively good lives, but will the big “gotcha!” come when they aren’t expecting it? BUT, when you try to make it more crime drama-ish, and put out the limp danglers for a second season, it sort of overshadows all the goodness that came before.
I just read a book where all the way along the characters base their actions on their belief that one character doesn’t know something, but it’s completely obvious to the reader that she does know, even though it’s not supposed to be. So there’s absolutely no tension. And I waited to see what the surprise would be, to the characters and the reader, and when it didn’t come it was sort of like “I knew that five pages in…why did I keep reading?”. But it was otherwise so well-written. Lesson there being that even a book with beautiful language and well-drawn characters can have a stain that sullies the whole thing.
“Storytelling is like a magic trick.” is great wording right now, since my STORY-MAW entry is a professional production of the musical Pippin, which is absolutely a split show/circus act/magic trick.
LESSON LEARNED (that struck me a lot more on seeing the show than just hearing it, and really brought a lot of my favorite characters from other things into focus for me): Character dynamics are not just part of the plot, but part of the /story/–they should gel (or contrast, if that’s what you go for) with the whole of the thing.
Pippin is a show within a show, led by a larger-than-life circus master known only as the Leading Player, and she starts off presenting nothing but charisma, literally enticing the audience to join her for the show–the pledge at the front of a magic trick. It’s only as the show continues that very slight cracks begin to show, the intensity of keeping her “cast” under control showing through. She spirals as they rebel; her menace keeps them on track, to a point. The character and the story feed back into each other, making the thing beautifully cohesive.
As opposed to other shows (and other stories) where the characters do things and have interactions, and they’re likable and interesting, but they don’t specifically further the overall feel of the story. They leave less of an impression after the thing is done.
Okay, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Ugh. What a wonderful book it could have been. But it taught me a big lesson about the intersection of character and plot. Plausibility. You can’t have a character, especially your protagonist, do a significant action to suit the plot if it doesn’t fit that character’s profile. If your character wouldn’t do it, then don’t make her do it! In the case of The Goldfinch, SPOILER ALERT, the whole story was ruined for me when Theo gives up his passport to his double-crossing, thug friend thug in Amsterdam. Theo is involved in some heavily illegal stuff, why on this ever turning ball of blue, would he be so utterly stupid as to just willingly hand over his passport. What would be the consequences of such an action? Duh. Heavily involved in felonious stuff, foreigner in a foreign land. Keep your passport dummy! Any twelve year old would know to protect that little slice of safe egress with every nuance of their smarts. Let alone a suspicious, ruminating, streetwise guy like Theo. Right? It seems like it was the easy thing to have the character do to get the ending over and done with. And, yeah, it was just as stupid a move as Theo handing over his passport. It ruined the book for me. The mind boggles about what those judges were thinking when they awarded it the Pulitzer. Grimace, bordering on sad face.
My go-to magic lesson learned from a story comes from A CLASH OF KINGS. Tyrion goes to King’s Landing and he orders every blacksmith in the city to stop work on making armor and weapons (in the middle of a siege? what?) and begin making heavy chain. No explanation. Then he goes to the Alchemist’s Guild or whatever they’re called and tells them to drag all the Greek Fire analogue in the city out of their catacombs. And none of it makes any sense as a defense strategy. We know Greek Fire destroyed the city once, and Tyrion refuses to be responsible for that.
And what’s brilliant about this, what remains brilliant about it to my mind to this day, is every piece of Tyrion’s strategy to defend the city was out in the open. The whole table was set. And yet I still couldn’t predict how exactly the chain was going to come into play, or the Greek Fire, or what the grand finale was going to be. I realized this was essentially the Platonic ideal of storytelling: you give the audience everything they need to put together your endgame, but you STILL surprise them. That’s the goal right there, kids. Don’t cheat your audience by holding back info, but still amaze them.
And THAT, my friend, is why Tyrion is nearly everyone’s favorite character. (In addition to Arya.) I also have to give Martin major props for taking a character that was so despicable in the beginning of ASOIAF, Jaime Lannister, became a sympathetic — even lovable — character over time. I actually care about what happens to him now.
*taking a character … and making him …
(I got distracted mid-sentence, and I just had a super-strong dose of chamomile tea. Please forgive the error.)
‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ by Alan Garner. It’s an awesome book and it was one of the first ones I read as I kid.
I finally got a new copy and read it again. I still loved the book, but now it was a bit of a mixed bag.
On the positive side, I learned a LOT about accents and how to create an atmosphere(even if you have to use very obvious magic to do so, aka, villain has his very own cloud of dark fog).
On the not-so-positive side, I felt really let down by the ending. One character sacrifices himself bravely and the evil guy has his turnabout by giving the good guy the weirdstone before dying. The four main characters are surrounded on all sides by the forces of darkness and then…an enormous wolf comes down from the sky(sent by the Big Bad to punish the minions for not giving him the stone), swallows all of the bad guys and leaves…everything else completely normal? No humans died? Not even a tree was harmed in the making of this climax? About 5 sentences later, the story ends.
I realized that you can’t just let tension fall away without leaving the reader going ‘wait, WHAT just happened?!’ I love Alan Garner, but now I know why I could never remember the ending of that book. It was too disappointing.
Mr HT and I just read ‘HMS Ulysses’ together, about a Russian convoy during WW2. And at the start, I told him “This is a horror novel. They’re going to be picked off one by one, in more and more gruesome ways.”
The story was well told, with lots of little sub-plots to add human drama, and big set-pieces to add big stuff-blows-up drama. The fault was having to keep losing the ship’s main point of view character as people died – first the Admiral, then the Captain. The last pov character before the end, the First Lieutenant, wasn’t one that had been prepared well enough in advance to have a real voice for me. I think if he had been, it would have turned a good book into a great book.
Here’s one that happened to me not too long ago. I was super excited to read the book “Help for the Haunted” by John Searles. I was ready for a good scare, a ghost story, something spooky and chilling, perhaps? Heck, it was loosely tied to Ed and Lorraine Warren, and “Haunted” is RIGHT THERE in the title! The book arrived and I tore into it . . . for a few chapters. That was last year. I set it down one day and didn’t pick it up again for months. Then, recently, I came across it again and tricked myself all over: “Oooh, scary book! Why didn’t I finish this? Must finish!” So I started again from the beginning, and read the whole thing.
After the last page I was . . . disappointed. (SORTA SPOILER) It’s not really a ghost story. At least, that’s what I got from it. It’s more like a family drama, and all of the kinda spooky things that happen are mostly explained away rationally. Here’s the problem: I didn’t WANT rational. I wanted to stay up late under the covers and be too scared to fall asleep. I wanted creepy and unexplained and “Wait, what was that??” The book, to me, didn’t deliver on the premise I thought was there. Maybe the book jacket was misleading? Maybe I saw the word “haunted” and my brain refused to accept it at any more than face value?
The lesson I learned here, for my own writing, is that it’s super important to deliver on the premise you give readers. Don’t say it’s a story about a unicorn who saves the world, when in fact it’s a white horse with a fake horn tied on who couldn’t save it’s backside with both hands. Because it’s just a bummer for the reader, and readers remember disappointment, we have memories like elephants, and will likely forever avoid books by said author because of that.
Still looking for an awesome ghost story. With actual ghosts.
I had a pretty mixed reaction to Daredevil, but one thing I really liked about it, from a writing standpoint, was that it reminded me that even in a very serialized story that you could (and I guess should) jump ahead to the next big exciting thing at the start of the new episode/chapter. In my comic I tend to think of a new chapter as just starting the next section of the story, but Daredevil reminded me that I could really jump ahead to the next really cool part of the story. (And that I’d done so a few times over the last few years already.)
I just finished reading Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. I don’t know if I have to mention this for something from the 1800s, but spoilers ahead:) Some things I noticed:
1) If you have a love triangle, maybe don’t give both of the men the same first name (Alexei). Add to that all the Russian nicknames and family names, and it gets kind of confusing.
2) Foreshadowing is important. For example, Anna’s death. Right at the beginning, a man is crushed by a train. Then there’s a scene about Vronsky at the races, where he loses his favorite horse and it dies. Right before Anna throws herself under the train, we’re reminded of the man from the beginning.
3) Contrast is great. Examples: Levin witnessing the death of his brother and the birth of his child. Juxtaposition of city life and country life. Different kinds of relationships and mirroring,
Here’s the blog post I wrote about it, if someone wants to have a look:
It has been largely discussed everywhere, including this blog, but I learnt a huge lesson from How I Met Your Mother, and that is: you should earn your ending. A few weeks ago, we were analysing short stories and my teacher said exactly the same thing. I couldn’t stop thinking of that awful betrayal. That tv show failed me as a long-time fan, but it taught me what I shouldn’t do as a writer. It’s something, I guess…
And a positive example would be Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. This book taught me a lot about character development. It was a beautiful display of how a character lives, grows, and is affected by life and time. I loved how I didn’t even need to like that character to appreciate that. I thought it was marvellous.
My God, I still can’t even think about that last episode without cringing!
OH GOD HIMYM IT BURNS
Yes yes yes I will still never forgive them! I rewatched the series a few months ago and the ending tainted everything that had gone before because they were so adamant about how they weren’t good together. And it got creepy with Ted constantly pining for Robin. I feel like it just bolsters those guys (and girls) who feel bitter about being “friend-zoned” and let’s them believe if they just stalk someone long enough, no matter how often they say no, they will eventually cave and sleep with you. Ugh.
The ending made me hate Robin. Because she does the whole ‘I’ll abandon my friends, divorce a guy I neglect for my job, and then at then end I get everything I wanted.” When I liked her before, the end painted her like some poor martyr. Ugh.
Not to mention what they did to Teds wife. UGH.
Flipside: Gossip Girl ended in a way that ultimately, was exactly how they planned it to, but it actually made sense, and was fairly satisfying. But that show was a cloak and dagger soap from the start, so it made sense to follow its tropes all the way to the end.
I read a short story last week in which a man was at the front door and the protagonist was torn about whether to go with him or not. The ending fell flat because it read as her sitting and waiting, then deciding to get up and leave. I read it, then went back to look again. Had I missed something? Nope.
You have to be careful your story’s is all in the protagonist’s head. That’s hard to do well unless you’re a master at internal dialogue… and most of us are not.
The Good: the Awesome by Eva Darrows. OMG this book. The characters are all well fleshed out, the main character is believably competent and flawed, the plot is spot on, and the VOICE is perfect. It’s written in first person and it’s so hard to do snarky, quirky first person without feeling like the character is just talking at you. It’s too easy to fall into the trap where the main character wittily summarizes all of the things without allowing you to experience anything. Darrows pulls this off perfectly, and every other element is top notch. I can’t stop talking about the book.
The Bad: Seed by Ania Anborn (sp? On last name). HERE THERE BE SPOILERS:
I love creepy horror. I cut my teeth on Stephan King so I’m used to endings where everyone dies so it’s not that I just didn’t like a downer ending. This book started off well with a creepy The Bad Seed type story set in the South.
The author was great about setting up the circumstances of “okay here’s some bad stuff and it’s probably not going to end well for our heroes.” But then she ended it exactly as expected. Not every ending needs a twist, but if you say “here’s a bad thing that’s going to happen” and just show that happening, the reader wonders why they bothered reading the book. I want to be surprised or shocked or the ending to be even worse than you were hinting at. Don’t deliver bare minimum. Don’t just tell us who the killer is in a murder mystery, or show us the monster who kills everyone in horror. Do those things, but also over deliver. The very best endings give you what the rest of the book promises, but throws in something unexpectedly wonderful to boot.
It seems like horror is all too easy to do BADLY. All the failures stick in my brain the longest, and they always either a)”Okay, that’s exactly how that was going to end” or b) “This is reaching a logical conclusion. BLAM! Twist ending that makes no sense, has no explanation, and now it’s over.” There’s a GOOD kind of jolt, the kind where you realize there were hints that such a thing might happen, but it surprised you, then there’s the bad kind where they slap you in the face with something unrelated for shock value.
It’s hard to do well.
It is, and the sad thing is the book was great up until the lackluster ending, but now I really don’t want to read anymore of her books barbecue of it.
Saw the show and loved it. However you are right, the end was a let down. Still gonna watch next season but gonna miss the drama of the brother.
Side note, I don’t usually comment but wanted to say I LOVE your blog. Your humor sets you apart, and the advice is always spot on! Thx
A lesson that I didn’t precisely learn anew but that was hammered home again by – I’m loath to say – one of my favourite TV shows (Supernatural) … Don’t make characters TELL ‘facts’ about other characters and then SHOW those talked-about characters doing exactly… nothing to support that claim.
Seriously, I love this show and I have been a fan for a long time, but that kind of narrative laziness is something I expect from a different programm and it pains me to say that what ails the show is not that they’ve been on air as long as they have because I do believe there’s still mileage left in the story but I think they’ve been renewed too easily these past few years. They need a good cancellation scare to wake them up, because when the show was hanging by a thread, that’s when it was always at its best. (Possibly, that is lesson number two. If you don’t have to work for it, chances are, you drop more balls than you juggle, even if those you still got in the air are good.)
Re: Bloodline and spoilers: Yeah, you ruined the roast, but I’ll eat it anyway. (I didn’t even realize that was Ben Mendelsohn from the trailer — oh yeah. Animal Kingdom. Brilliant film. I was going to watch Bloodline simply because of Kyle Chandler, but now…)
Re: writers as readers/watchers: We can’t help but check out the plumbing. How do you turn that crap off? I sure don’t, or can’t.
I liken it to taking a general contractor along if you’re looking to buy a house. He’s going to see a completely different structure than you do. Same with writers reading a book or watching a TV show/film.
Re: meeting reader/viewer expectations: Sacrosanct Writing Rule #1: You must give your readers/audience what they want in a way they don’t expect.
To do that, you must first know what they want and what they’ll reasonably expect.
I’m teaching a workshop this summer at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference titled “Sub-genre Subtleties: How to Meet, Exceed, and Transcend Reader Expectations.” Most writers who try to “transcend” a genre basically have no clue what the genre’s about to begin with, and therefore transcend nothing but a reasonable word count.
I LOVE character-driven crime stories — it’s what I do — but you have to answer the story questions you raise, and you have to deliver an ending that is emotionally gratifying and at least somewhat surprising. Otherwise you’re falling into that old pseudo-artistic trap, confusing the ambiguous for the profound.
Richard Price is brilliant at using the crime story set-up to explore a particular time and place and the people thereof, but he also gets that the crime (which spell-correct just changed to “chimera,” which is kinda cool) has to be solved. Some form of justice, however the author envisions it, must be achieved. Otherwise you’ve got one of those books that doesn’t end, it just stops.
BTW: The worst violator of this whole viewpoint was The Top of the Lake. It was like they thought story was some kind of contagion, and atmosphere was the antidote.
Write On, Wise One.
That is SO TRUE about Top of the Lake. Acting was stellar, but still.
I recently shotgunned House of Cards. The nature of my Lesson is also, probably unsurprisingly, a spoiler. But it’s not the sort of spoiler that I think… well… actually *spoils* anything (particularly since one can go straight from S2 to S3 in one sitting), so.
TLDR: One should take a good, hard look at one’s pacing occasionally, and not be afraid to cut out very large pieces of narrative fat. ESPECIALLY large pieces of narrative fat.
If you are rabidly anti-spoiler of any kind, don’t read the rest of this.
It has been quite a while since I have fallen so quickly and intensely in love with a piece of media as I did with season 1. HoC S1 is a goddamn tour de force. Characters, acting, pacing, surprises, tension, drama – all brilliant. So perhaps a lesser Lesson is that it serves as an example of excellent implementation of all of these things, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
Season 2 was slightly less amazing for a few reasons, and one of those reasons became the source of an average of two pained groans per episode in S3. Unlike in Chuck’s example, they kept a character they really, REALLY should have let die.
Literally. I thought he was dead at the end of S2 and I was very happy about it. And then S3 bloody starts with him waking up in the hospital and there was Pained Groan #1.
Throughout the entirety of S3, the pacing of the rest of the narrative was pretty much wrecked by the attempt to give this sad, boring, profoundly fucked-up (contrary to some belief, one can in fact be both fucked-up and boring) character a development arc. And he was a shitbag who did shitbag things that also upset me, but as evidenced by my enjoyment of Frank Underwood, as long as one is an *interesting* shitbag, I am (some reasonable level of) content.
Over pretty much the entirety of this character’s arc in S3, it seemed apparent that said arc would conclude one of two ways. I didn’t put equal odds on those outcomes, but the less likely of the two was still significant. There were plenty of other, far more interesting ways it could have concluded, and I hoped against hope that one of those would end up being how it went (or better yet, that I might actually be surprised), and that maybe all my boredom in watching this dude be a drunk, creepy fuck would end up being at least a tiny bit worth it. It wouldn’t have redeemed the pacing problem, but I would have been less table-flippingly annoyed with the end of the season.
But no, one gets to watch him be boring all season and then carry out the highest-weighted possible outcome, which had a side bonus of being awful in its own right.
In hindsight I think they were trying to develop a sense of dread of said outcome, but like in the Bloodlines example, that dread didn’t really feel like it had any narrative payoff. It was just a “yup, that happened, that sucked, can we please, PLEASE not see any of this character in S4 – oh wait, he’s going to be back in a prominent (at least situationally prominent) position, fuck everything.”
If they felt like they absolutely had to do that with that character, they also could have bloody well done it over 3-5 episodes rather than thirteen and lost nothing important to his arc whatsoever.
Doug Stamper might be the character I hate the most in any media right now, and the least of the reasons for that is that he’s actually a piece of shit. And that’s not how things should be.
I’ve been consuming TV Series like nothing else lately, and most TV shows (especially network aired series) suffer from what I call “Sweeps Week” pacing. You will have a fantastic arc going, things will be moving toward an expected goal… Then abruptly, a big change, a dramatic jolt, a BIG episode that in some cases is just so random that it makes no sense to the pacing of the story at all.
I HATE that.
I get that TV writers are put under the gun for ratings, and like salesmen gearing up for some BIG MEMORIAL DAY EXTRAVAGANZA they know, even when they start to write, WHAT episodes will be aired at that key moment, right before a long break. They need a hook, to snare the audience’s interest so that when they go into a months worth of sports or re-runs, the audience makes sure to come RIGHT BACK to the show when it airs. So in that context it makes sense…
But the reality of TV series has changed, and people now binge watch on netflix, so these random sloppy BIG BANG moments that happen abruptly, and then often get resolved just as quickly, feel like a wasted effort.
How does this relate to WRITING? Well, it’s a lesson in pacing. If you have a story that you want to be told in a massive three or ten novels you have to plan it well. Don’t cut a book off with no reason just so you can claim it’s a ‘cliffhanger’ to drag people to the next book. It’s lazy and it LOOKS lazy. You cannot write a book like an old Saturday morning cartoon TO BE CONTINUED.
Even if the story you want to write NEEDS three books, it cannot be told WITHOUT three books, you as the writer must find a way to make each book feel like a tale of it’s own, while letting it lead into the next. This doesn’t have to be a literal END, in sagas like Lord of the Rings you can’t make it END in the MIDDLE, but you can find a pause point. A moment where a battle, a subplot, a harrowing danger reaches the end and the reader can catch their breath. THAT is the moment, with subtle cues as to what drama might lie ahead, that you end one book and begin the next.
Obviously this is really hard to do WELL, which is why you should get really good at flat out WRITING before a trilogy saga becomes your aim.
IMO My favorite series are the ones that focus on a subplot, a tale that can easily fill one novel, that takes up the foreground, without neglecting the big over arcing plot action that continues in the background, letting pieces fall into place as you go. This WORKS because with the short plot, you have a beginning, middle, and end. You have the rise and fall and proper pace of a good story, you know where it’s going to end. But you reel the reader in by having a complex world and clearly MORE going on than meets the eye. Readers want to see that. Give them peeks, hint at a greater tale, but don’t lose sight of the pacing in the story you are trying to tell.
Or said another way, Don’t lose the POINT of the story you are trying to SELL. Book contracts end. Agents start with just the first book. People can’t SEE the whole picture you have so lovingly mapped onto 150 page outline. You have to make sure each novel, each piece of the puzzle, is worth reading.
TLDR: TV shows waste episodes trying to boost ratings. Writers cannot waste books with lazy cliffhanger endings, or a messed up sense of time from one book to the next. Pacing, flow, and endings matter. Do it right.
I loved the book Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, but there’s a scene where the main character, who’s about eleven, runs afoul of a traumatic event wrought at the hands of someone she’d seen as a savior. I thought, as I was reading it, “Really? Do we need this here? Isn’t there enough bad stuff going on already? It seems gratuitous.”
And to me, it was. It sours my taste for the book, which had such great language and lines in it that I read some sentences four or five times over, they were so deliciously written.
Tragedy is a great toy to play with, but there is a limit. When watching Game of Thrones now, and a wedding is mentioned, the audience cringes. The word Wedding is a curse.
A story can be tragic, and tragedy is a valid form of storytelling, but the reader has to have a chance to breathe and recover between acts of violence, loss, death, humiliation, etc. I don’t want to read a book that’s a rocket-ride to damnation with no light at the end of the tunnel, I took 19th Century Russian Literature in high school.
That was over 20 years ago, and it’s too soon to go back.
Also, I loved reading all the comments here and seeing what people learned. I love getting tips.
I couldn’t agree with you more on this one. I loved Swamplandia! until the exact episode you mention. It totally pulled me out of the story and I couldn’t figure out what the point of it was. Death to gratuitous whatevers!
I contradict myself so this may appear incongruous. I cannot stand reading the kind of books I write. Sort of. Except for mine. I think the rule that a book classified as a romance has to have the “happy ever after” is ridiculous. Submission requirements demand it. Some witty, wondrous female is hot for some guy at first sight. Then the whole book ruminates on all the asshole things he does, like ignore her, or discount her, or marry someone else. But whatever plot twists arrive, the ending has to have the HEA, usually because the gorgeous jerk is really a swell fellow all along. And this type of book is a guaranteed audience bringer. But real life looms for me and most people ignore it, so maybe that is the secret, or the key, or the incongruity. I don’t do HEAs. But then, huge ‘fuck me’, I love love love Anya Seton’s Katherine.
You want to know something, a lot of my beef with romance is exactly this, only I wasn’t sure how to put it in words.
Girl meets Guy, Guy is a dick, Girl loves Guy anyway, they get together, he turns out to be fantastically honorable, rich, handsome etc, the END.
I do like HEAs… when they’re earned. See above: Earn your ending.
Things shouldn’t always end happily just because they’re supposed to.
Maybe I’ll get to back to actually writing the stories I want to read, as there seem to be so few of them out there…
First, I have started reading your book and its made me think about my plot and whether or not I’ve done all that I can do. And about my character development. I think she’s gone from great to worse by the end. I understand it but I don’t think it’ll come across to the audience. So thank you for that.
I love Doctor Who like most of us. But what I really love about the show, is its ability to tell a great story within an hour. It taught me not only how to construct a short story but a scene too, how to fill it with different types of tension. What clues need to be left? What distraction need to be made to keep the audience not only guessing but engaged? And for that I am forever grateful for the show.
I was watching Grimm a few months ago, and I forget exactly which episode it was, but I remember turning to my husband two or three times and saying things like, “it’s going to be the mom,” and “they’ll be in the old farmhouse,” and so on and so forth. And I was right each time. (Not to bag on Grimm, which I love.) It made me start thinking about twists and reveals, and how it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to wow an audience because now everyone EXPECTS the twist. Same thing with deaths. I still remember seeing Air Force One in theaters and the utter shock that went through me when they offed the Vice President in the first 15 minutes of the movie. That kind of thrill is harder and harder to come by nowadays when killing off a character is also starting to become a standard play. People might get sad or upset, but they’re no longer surprised when it happens.
I think that writers of all stripes will have to turn the heat up on their storytelling skills in order to still give readers / watchers those “ah ha” moments that are so powerful.
Okay, so maybe this is nitpicky, but I just finished “Voyage of the Basilisk” and here’s the lesson I took away from it: don’t reveal the same clue in largely the same way twice. It makes the main character sound forgetful, or worse, like an idiot. Sure, reference back to the original description of the blue, finely carved detail (making shit up here to be non-spoilery), but don’t treat it like it’s the first time you’re hearing about anything blue and finely carved. The book did a lot of wonderful things, but there were a few of these doubled-up descriptions.
That sort of thing makes me cringe. And obvious continuity errors, like a character inexplicably changing her name from one boom to the next. That’s just sloppy editing.
I’m a big fan of historical fiction, and even more so if it has a twist of fantasy. Naturally, the Outlander series seemed like a total win for me. I listened to the audiobook version of the first book in the series and was smitten. Then, I listened to the second and grew a little dubious of the sometimes ridiculous backbends Gabaldon does just to keep a plot going. The characters make all sorts of decisions that are blatantly bad and out of character for them in order to set themselves up for another plot device calamity. By the third book I was getting irritated with these repeated tactics. While listening to the rest of the series I’ve had to take long breaks to keep from throwing my phone on the floor in frustration. Halfway through the last book I finally said fuck it and stopped listening all together. I felt like I was being jerked around as a reader so the author could show off all her research on minor revolutionary war battles or Scottish farming practices. The characters became plot devices without logical and believable agency of their own and I stopped caring.
I guess Gabaldon won with me as a reader in that I did buy all of the books in the series, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to finish reading it. The experience I’ve had with this series definitely has me going back and looking at the decisions my own characters make and the scenarios they find themselves in.
A Farewell To Arms: The first chapter, all of two pages, foreshadows the whole novel. Now, whether I actually learned how to foreshadow well or at all . . . but that example is the most obvious I’ve ever read.
I recently read an embarrassingly out of my age group YA series. Yes a trilogy of books that I ought to be ashamed of reading, but….I’m not. The reason? Even though the story line is about high school characters and painfully stereotypical characters at that; A cheerleader and a goth kid. It somehow grabbed my attention. I was bored and decided hey, let’s give this a try, those 1,000 page monsters can’t be all there is in the literary world for adults the other side of 30 to enjoy. I read all of them like they were crack, and felt more than a little depression at the end because I was saying goodbye to characters I truly loved reading. They had depth, they challenged their own stereotypes even while fitting all the basic criteria needed for that ‘type’ of character. Somehow the author just a had a way of making me care what happened to these two. They never broke out of the reality they created, these two man characters made mistakes, they effed it up big time, they made you say ‘hey!, don’t do that, please don’t do that, that’s just stupid.’ and then feel bad for them when the inevitable occurred. There was literally nothing special about the premise, the action sequences, the plot in general but it was engaging because I really liked reading about these two people and though it’s been said a million times I fully grasped that, we read not about crazy weird new possible worlds, we read about….the people.
FWIW: The series was The Ghost and the Goth by Stacey Kade and I don’t care what you say, it was worth the read.
A few months ago I read The Sword of the Bright Lady by M. C. Plank, which did several things really well. (This will probably be spoilery).
In the book, a man from our world is somehow transported to another where there are humans and a form of magic. So there are a lot of world-building details and rules that we don’t know or understand. Of course, having a protagonist that doesn’t know or understand those rules is one of the oldest tricks around. Plank takes it further than most however, first because the people in that world really just don’t get the degree to which he doesn’t understand and don’t bother to tell him things because they are so obvious to them.
Second, the protagonist has a big problem he’s working to solve, not a “I need to get home so I’ll complete this quest” problem, but a “this world is screwed up and I have a skill set that can make it better and since I’m stuck here that’s what I’m going to do, even if it means everyone thinks I’m crazy”. So you learn about the world in bits, as he’s trying to solve this problem, and you work on solving it, too, or at least I did.
The second thing done really well was the Big Thing that we all knew was coming, (the mc and everyone else had been working toward the whole time) came about two-thirds of the way through the book. Knowing there was a Thing, but not being quite sure how it would work out ratcheted up the tension. And then something went wrong . And another thing went really, really wrong. And everything went absolutely to hell and could not get worse. And then it got worse. And then it got better, and then much, much worse and then you learned that nothing was what you thought it was and…the end.
That “the end” may sound like a let-down, but I am just itching to read the next one to find out what happens, now that he know the real rules, not just the official rules.
Based on some hearty recommendations from my horror-loving friends, I saw “Sinister” this past weekend. Needless to say: Spoiler alert.
It’s a good thing I was watching it from the privacy of my own home. Half the time, I was yelling at the main character (“Turn the fucking light on!” and “For fuck’s sake, don’t go in there!”), and the other half, I was yelling about the maddening inconsistencies (“Children can’t lift that much weight!” and “That Slipknot reject isn’t scaring anyone!”). That said, the acting was fantastic and the directing (up until the end) was great. I really enjoyed the build-up.
The ending was a little goofy. While they did a good job of keeping me guessing which child would become this family’s murderer, the end-of-movie-pop-up of the pagan god’s head was way over the top, and laughable.
I think the music alone might have carried that movie. So creepy!
I recently started watching the anime series Deathnote. The basic premise is that a death god (or shinigami) has dropped his Deathnote into the human world. Deathnotes are mundane-looking notebooks able to bring about the death of any human whose name is written in their pages. The character who finds this Deathnote, Yagami Light, appears initially to be an ideal recipient. He is thoughtful and highly intelligent with a strong sense of justice. He immediately sets about writing down the names of prominent criminals. As the story progresses, though, it becomes clear that Light is not simply doing what he’s doing for the greater good of humanity, but rather because he wants to create a perfect world over which he can rule as a god.
The way this show subverts the viewer expectation of who our protagonist should be (which in anime is normally someone fearless and fundamentally good) and gets you to at once admire Light while also making us side with the cops (who have the equally awesome, quirky and shadowy figure of ‘L’ leading their investigation) gives me a lot of joy as a viewer. As with all the anime I watch, good or bad, I find myself taking away the lessons in terms of what I did and didn’t enjoy and then applying those to my own writing. The thing that stands out particularly is how carefully the writers thought through every possible outcome from a given sequence of events and then wrote their story (and the backstory around it) to deftly sidestep any potential plot-holes, while keeping the two primary characters engaged in a back-and-forth strategic chess match with both their lives on the line.
I picked up a book – Medicus by Ruth Downie. It says it’s the first in a mystery series set in Roman occupied Britain, so I’m thinking, “I like historical mysteries, Romans, ancient Britain – right up my alley!” So I start reading and…halfway through the book I realize that though our hero has encountered 2 dead prostitutes (ugh, always prostitutes) he still has no interest in investigating these murders the townsfolk keep asking him to investigate. Halfway through, 50%, and no mystery solving going on. He doesn’t even think there is a mystery to be solved.
WTF, is this a mystery book or not? I mean, the world-building was good, the character was being fleshed out and I was interested by him, *I* wanted to know who was murdering hookers – but sheesh! There wasn’t enough other stuff going on for the book to hook me as a straight historical fiction book. I dropped the book right there. I wanted a mystery. It says it’s a mystery novel. There needs to be some mystery-type stuff going on, right?
I’m all for genre blending, but “1st half historical fiction worldbuilding, 2nd half finally do something about some murders” just didn’t work for me.
I really liked “A Casual Vacancy”, the show adapted from a JK Rowling novel. It got some bad reviews for being really freaking dreary. I actually wanted to lose interest in it because it was so… Just dreary and depressing and disenchanting. But even still, it was such a strong story that I, a serial abandoner of unfun stories, stuck it out and was glad to have done so.
The reason why is that it had plenty of forward momentum, a variety of character types who made you wonder what they were going to do next, a little mischievous humor to lighten up all the grit and to stir the pot all the characters were in, and just a little teeny tiny hint of mystery and something supernatural in the midst of a very realistic message, just to add drama. It had lots of things which grabbed my interest by making me ask questions continually. It kept things moving.
So I got through it and I got the message at the end, and I cried a little. It was heavy, sad shit. That same message could have been delivered in a more direct way. It could have been laid out through the use of fewer moving parts. But if it had been, I’d probably never have finished the show no matter how impactful or realistic the message, and the message probably would have been cheapened or unempowered anyway. That message wouldn’t have mattered one bit without the continuous motion the story inspires in the minds of readers/viewers.
So if you’ve got subject matter that’s a huge downer, I guess it especially pays to pull out all your tricks to inspire reader involvement. We can write all the bummers we want as long as we do it artfully. (It would probably also help to wait until you’re JK Rowling famous to write your big bummer, but it’s not a requirement)
Conversely though? James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia” was so awesomely written that I could not put it away, and I’m still amazed by his writing of it–but it left me so pissed off when I was done because it was such a massive bummer. Ellroy seems to want you to know that everyone you admire most is a deeply, deeply disappointing human being in the end.
[…] Wallace extolls the short story, and Chuck Wendig gives his take and asks others to share — what storytelling lessons are you learning from what stories? Literary journals offer publishing venues for short stories and poetry, but Jane Friedman wonders […]
Yeah, “Bloodline” is a great show. And the slogan “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing.” perfectly suits it.