The Consequences of a Story

18 Nov

I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately, despite not actually owning a TV (my dorm room is so small I hardly have room for my dresser, desk, and bed). Thank goodness for the internet.

I was never a huge TV series person. We didn’t have cable when I was a kid, so the Saturday morning cartoon deal wasn’t much of a possibility until I was almost too old for them, and to be honest, I was a lot more excited about getting Animal Planet than I was about finally getting some good cartoons. Then I all but fell out of watching any TV at all at the beginning of high school.

But in the past couple of months, I’ve gotten into a few series, and I’ve decided that in order to make myself feel better about watching way too much of them, I’m going to call it research. And to further justify this, I’m going to write an article about it—because saying it (and publishing it for the world to see) makes it so, right? Right.

To be a little more serious, you really can learn a lot about storytelling from TV. But I’m going to focus on just one aspect today, and that’s story consequences.

There are two broad categories of TV shows in my mind: those that practically reset every episode, and those that carry a strong story arc. In the first kind, what happens in an episode stays in the episode. Godzilla comes and stampedes Walmart. Next episode, it’s all built up again. Flying monkeys of doom kidnap the mayor, but he’s always rescued by the end of the hour and no one ever mentions the incident again. In the second kind, the events of one episode impact, to some degree, all the ones after them. Actions aren’t self contained. The hero gets shot in episode one, and three seasons later, he’s still got the scar.

I probably shouldn’t be referring to these as categories so much as two ends of a spectrum, because most shows fall somewhere between the extremes. TV shows have that sort of leeway. Most of the time, however, this isn’t true for novels.

Now, there are the super long series, the ones that run for twenty or thirty books and hardly anything ever changes. But most series (and definitely most stand-alone books) don’t have this luxury. If something big happens in chapter two, readers are going to feel cheated if it’s forgotten about by chapter ten. If it’s big enough, it should have repercussions even in book two.

Repercussions and consequences give your story weight. Everything big that happens in your book ought to affect your characters in some way, not just at the moment, but for the rest of the book. I’m not saying that every tiny thing ought to plague your character forever, but really try to make sure you’re letting each event have the proper emotional and physical consequences.

This is an extreme example, but say you need your character to get badly beaten up or even tortured in one scene. If he’s dancing the tango a chapter later (and there wasn’t some major time jump), then we’ve got a problem. It might be my medical side peaking through, but I find myself rolling my eyes every time the hero of a TV show gets the crap beat out of him, hard enough to break ribs, but ends the episode without a single bruise. Or when something highly emotional happens (a death, for example), and the sadness lasts all of two minutes before it’s time to forget all about it.

Sometimes, I know I get so caught up in the plot side of things that I forget my characters aren’t automatons. Plot might dictate that they need to get from point A to point B after character C dies, and they have to do it quickly, but I have to remember to consider their emotional state. Are they going to want to be going somewhere? If not, how are they convinced? If they’re guilted into it or angered into it, what are the repercussions of that? Is this going to harm their relationship with character D? How badly? Does this mean that when character D asks the hero to do him a favor at the end of the book, the hero going to tell him to go stuff it? And is that going to end up in character D getting in some serious trouble with the local gang, resulting in the story’s climax, where the hero has to go save him?

Ok, so that got a little out of hand, but you sort of see what I mean? I’m a big believer in a story growing organically out of the choices made by the characters, which are affected by the events of the story, which, in turn, are oftentimes influenced by the choices made by the characters. This leads to a much richer story.

At the end of the day, TV shows are different from books, and what’s accepted on the screen sometimes isn’t accepted in print. But both, I think, benefit from making sure story events carry weight.

Well, how was that for an article? Good enough to justify watching more TV? 😛


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She has recently signed with literary agent Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.


11 Responses to “The Consequences of a Story”

  1. sdennard November 18, 2010 at 1:31 AM #

    OMG Kat, what a *fantastic* post! I’ve been doing the same thing!!! Watching TV and calling it “research”. But you’re right: there’s a lot to be learned from TVs or movies — a story is a story after all. 🙂

    I’ve been hooked on The Walking Dead (it’s set in Atl, you know!) and I was impressed with how, in the first episode, they did a great job of making me *care* about the MC. I spent a while considering how the show-creators did this… They showed the MC being brave/heroic; they showed he cared about his family more than anything; they showed he was being screwed around by some people; they showed him being tough; and they show all this is the first ten minutes!! I even started taking notes because it was such an effective way to “build a hero”.

    Seriously, this is such a great post! And now I’m totally curious what shows you’re watching. I’m always scouting for new English TV… 😉

    • Kat Zhang November 18, 2010 at 1:39 AM #

      Haha, thanks, Sooz!

      Let’s just say that I have a thing for shows with dark humor, loads of
      UST, and forensics….:P Anyone wanna guess??

  2. Julie Eshbaugh November 18, 2010 at 10:15 AM #

    Kat, this was an excellent post! One of the things I thought of while reading this the Bourne trilogy of movies. Personally, I LOVE the Bourne movies (I’ve never read the books, and I’ve heard the movies and books differ significantly.) But I recently re-watched one of the films in the months since I recovered from my car accident. In the “car chase” sequence, Bourne is in multiple wrecks that should have left him barely able to walk, and of course he practically jogs away. I guess this should bother me to a certain level.

    However, I really enjoy the “suspension of disbelief.” I enjoy feeling that Jason Bourne really is so superior to me and other fragile humans that he COULD walk away from that kind of accident. I like that kind of TV, too – where the character somehow is believably stronger or smarter than everyone around him/her. I want the bullet hole and the blood and even the pain to stay with him/her, but I like to see the hero rise above it. 🙂 GREAT POST!

    • Kat Zhang November 18, 2010 at 10:48 AM #

      Thanks, Julie! Yeah, I think my suspension of disbelief is stronger for TV and movies sometimes, maybe because everything flashes by so quickly and I’m distracted by the shiny special effects 😛

  3. Savannah J. Foley November 18, 2010 at 10:52 AM #

    Sigh, the internet has been worse for me in terms of watching tv than the actual tv and cable I had at my parents house! I haven’t tried calling it research yet though, lol.

    One thing I’m always impressed with in TV series is how long the stories are. With a book you get one climax, but with TV series you get multiple climaxes. It’s like one, big, huge story, and I admire how TV writers can keep it going/entertaining for so long.

    • Kat Zhang November 18, 2010 at 11:04 AM #

      Yes, I agree! Sometimes I wish I could try my hand at writing a TV series because I’m jealous of the looong time span they get (barring cancelation, of course!) What other medium allows you to develop your characters over years in one-week installments? There’s SO much room for exploring the smallest of quirks. But then I remember I’d actually have to keep the plot going for years, as well, and an unforeseen cancelation could cut me off before I reach my big finish! D:

  4. authorguy November 18, 2010 at 11:41 AM #

    “I’m a big believer in a story growing organically out of the choices made by the characters, which are affected by the events of the story, which, in turn, are oftentimes influenced by the choices made by the characters.”

    Amen. Lack of a character orientation has put me off watching TV at all. I watch DVDs mostly now.

    I noticed in Burn Notice how when the hero got kicked in the ribs he winced from the pain days later. A welcome touch of realism.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • Kat Zhang November 18, 2010 at 12:52 PM #

      Yeah, the reference to the scar I mentioned was more or less true. It wasn’t two seasons later, but the fact that there was a scar at all was pretty cool!

    • Julie Eshbaugh November 18, 2010 at 4:11 PM #

      Hey Marc – I LOVE Burn Notice! Not the most realistic story line, but a group of realistic characters – especially Michael’s mom – not at all the typical “TV mom.” 🙂

  5. tymcon November 19, 2010 at 1:06 PM #

    Angel was either very good at that or very bad.

    • Kat Zhang November 19, 2010 at 7:24 PM #

      Really? Haha. I haven’t really watched much of that show, so I can’t say 😛 But I think Whedon is generally quite good with the continuity an foreshadowing stuff.

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