by Susan Dennard
One thing you’ve probably heard in your writing-career is that it’s important to read. Perhaps people have told you how to “read like a writer” by analyzing characterization, scene, syntax, and all the other stuff that goes into a novel.
Well, reading can take time, and dissecting can take even more time. But the same things you see in a book you can see in a movie. The key is to watch a movie like a writer. Seems obvious, right?
It occurred to me while I was watching The Walking Dead. You may or may not like the show (there is some definite Cheese Factor and plot unbelievability), but there are a few things I think the creators do really well that keep viewers coming back for more episodes. And these things got me thinking…
There are a some common elements in all popular stories, and if you keep your eyes peeled, you can easily spot them and use them yourself!
**Sorta spoilers below for The Walking Dead and Pride & Prejudice… I try to be vague, but some things might be revealing. Sorry.**
1) Within the first 15 minutes of the first episode of The Walking Dead, I was invested in the story and attached to the hero, Rick. Why? Because Rick showed immediately that he was 1) brave (he’s a cop), 2) devoted to his family, and 3) in a really crappy position (um, waking up from a coma to find the whole world has turned into zombies and your family is missing? SO NOT A GOOD DAY).
Give your readers a reason to care about and respect your protagonist as soon as your story starts. Show your protagonist as the underdog, show your protagonist helping others, or show your protagonist putting on a big smile even those his heart aches, and your readers will have something to instantly latch onto and appreciate. (Note: don’t go overboard — make it appropriate to the story. No on likes a Mary Sue or a Mary Jane.)
2) As The Walking Dead episodes progressed, I kept my eyes peeled for other aspects that kept me interested. The most obvious thing this show has is conflict — but not the kind you’d expect. Yeah, there are zombies everywhere trying to eat Rick’s brains, but most of the show’s drama revolves around relationships. For example, Rick’s wife thought Rick was dead, so she started having an affair with Rick’s police partner — OOPS.
Conflict isn’t just about external plot; it’s also about tough decisions, strained friendships, blossoming love, disagreeing goals, self-defeating guilt, etc. Harrowing external events aren’t usually enough to keep a plot interesting. The tension stays high when characters have to deal with conflict within themselves and amongst themselves. Above all, it’s conflict that matters because it’s conflict we can relate to.
3) In one of the first episodes, one of the characters makes a Really Bad Decision — he leaves someone behind as zombie food when he could have saved the person. In later episodes, it’s revealed Mr. Zombie Food managed to survive and is now at large in Atlanta. As a viewer, I know Mr. Zombie Food is going to come back and be a Really Big Problem for the guy who made the Really Bad Decision.
Every decision has a consequence — usually bad or at least not what the character expects. Stories are more than just cause and effect, they’re decision and consequence. Good decisions can have bad consequences, bad decisions can have good. But if the consequences are immediately good, you’ve got a very short story. The best-laid tales show an ever escalating series of decisions and consequences until the final showdown where things are all wrapped up (for better or for worse).
4) And that escalation leads me to my final point. Life for the characters is bad — like really really bad — and it’s only getting worse as each episode progresses. Every step forward leads to two steps back, and that leads to me tuning in every week!
The stakes keep rising and rising until the end. What began as one man’s quest is now several families (oh no! there are more lives a stake!). What seemed like it might be a solution (a cure for the virus) proves to be a giant death trap (oh no! There is no cure!). Every safe haven the characters think they’ve found proves to be a zombie wasteland (oh no! there is no escape!). If you can keep escalating the consequences of decisions (a là element #3) and also escalate what stands to be lost, you’ll have a real page turner on your hands.
Looking at Other Kinds of Film
Action TV isn’t the only place these rules can be found. Throw Pride & Prejudice in your DVD player (faster than reading the book, remember? But the book is AMAZING — I definitely recommend it), and you’ll see the same things happening!
Element #1: Elizabeth Bennett is the most clever daughter in a household of ninnies (she is a witty and endearing heroine); her family is bordering on poverty (she is a heroine in underdog circumstances); and she wants nothing more than for her sisters to find good marriages and be happy (she is a selfless and loving heroine).
Element #2: While there is some external conflict (illness, unwanted suitors, cruel Bingley sisters) much of the conflict stems from Elizabeth’s interactions with others and her own inner turmoil. She doesn’t hit it off too well with Mr. Darcy (lots of lovely tension in those scenes!). She has to deal with her horribly embarrassing mother in public settings (ugh, so much awkward conflict). And eventually, she has to deal with her guilt/regret over how she treated Mr. Darcy (inner conflict).
Element #3: Every decision Elizabeth makes leads the story in different directions and has resounding consequences. She learns the truth about Mr. Wickham, but chooses not to reveal his shady history. As a result, her sister Lydia runs off with him. She dislikes Mr. Darcy because of his snobbishness, and as a result rejects a marriage proposal that would have elevated her family to prosperity.
Element #4: Elizabeth’s sisters need to make good marriages in order to provide for the rest of the family, but one by one, their options disappear. Jane loses Mr. Bingley; Elizabeth rejects Mr. Collins; Elizabeth’s mother embarrasses the family at every turn and lowers any chance that the Bennett girls will attract good husbands; Elizabeth rejects Mr. Darcy; Lydia shames the family by running off like harlot. You have to turn the page to find out how it will all work out for the Bennett sisters, and most importantly, to find out how it will work out for Elizabeth.
Applying it to Your Stories
When I set out to write The Spirit-Hunters, I laid out all my favorite novels, movies, and shows and I figured out what elements I liked best, why I liked those best, and how I could use them in my story.
Now it’s your turn to do the same! Grab your favorite films and TV shows, and pay close attention! I bet you’ll notice elements 1-4 in play, and what you need to look out for is how the elements are executed. Maybe the hero is introduced right after he got fired from work (element #1), or maybe every episode shows the heroine dealing with dark secrets (element #2). Whatever the use, is there some way you can infuse it into your own story? And are there other things you see and want to use in your writing (maybe a spine-chilling ghost or a passionate love scene)?
Good story-telling is good story-telling, no matter if the medium is film or prose or smoke circles, so why not learn from the people who’ve already done and done it well?
Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.