Monday, June 4, 2012

On Television and Writing

I've been running a fever for a couple of days now. And what does one do when running a fever? Think about television, of course! Not watch it, mind you. Just think about it, in depth, and what one can learn from it.

One is very odd, it would appear.

So, in no particular order, I give you some of my favorite shows (living and dead and undead) and what I think we, as writers, can learn from them.

Avatar: Begin with the end in mind

Zuko: Best character arc ever, or best character arc ever?

But Kiersten, I don't watch cartoons SHUT UP this show had by far the best plotting, the best writing, the funniest scenes, and the best action sequences of any television show ever. EVER. YEAH, I WENT THERE. It asked the hard questions, it had genuine character development, and from the funniest episodes ("They will never rise from the ashes of their defeat!") to the saddest (Oh, Uncle Iroh), the storytelling was always. dead. on.


There is a lot to be said for saying, "We are going to create a show that is only three seasons long." They knew what they had to work with from the very beginning, and they very clearly began with the end in mind. I'm sure there were adjustments along the way (look look I know that Zuko and Katara were allegedly meant to be romantic interests in the beginning I DON'T CARE KATAANG FOREVER), but they knew where they were going and this gave them the ability to layer, and to plan, and to place details in mind-blowingly brilliant ways.

Writing a series? KNOW WHERE IT ENDS.

Sherlock: Ask the right questions

Another version of Sherlock? Did we really need that?

In this case, the answer is yes. The genius minds behind this show took the iconic character and answered a very big what-if: What if Sherlock were in modern times, an obsessive genius, possibly on the Autism spectrum, and how would his mind being so different affect his every day life and ability to function around other people?

So often the real meat of a story happens in the very seeds of the idea: the WHAT IF. If you can come up with a compelling enough WHAT IF, you don't have to worry that you are writing something that has been done before. Everything has been done before. Don't try to think of a new idea. Try to think of a new WHAT IF.

Lost: You can only ask so many questions

Oh, LOST. You started out SO AWESOME. You built and built and built the mystery, the holy crap! moments, the what-the-heck-just-happened twists! I even wrote an episode that, sadly, never aired.

And didn't stop building. Every question was answered with another three questions. Threads were dropped entirely. In the end you pulled the ultimate cop-out, the "it was all a dream!" type fakery of lazy writers who lack foresight and respect for their audience.

It became very apparent a few seasons in that this show had no idea where it was going, even from the beginning episode. As a writer, do not fall into the trap of throwing in so many twists and questions that your readers never get answers. Should there be questions? Absolutely! But think of it as an exercise in trust. Answer questions along the way to show your reader that their trust in you is well-placed, and that the BIG ANSWERS you are holding until the end will be worth it.

And don't use any bleeping polar bears, for the love.

Vampire Diaries: Don't be afraid to make things happen

First, disclaimer: this is the only show on the list that is still going. (With the exception of The Legend of Korra, which is a semi-sequel series to Avatar, but it's only eight episodes in and so I'm not going to discuss it here.) And, further disclaimer: I have stopped watching it. More on that in a minute.

Plain and simple, this show works because it makes stuff happen. They resolve more massive plot points in a single season than most shows do in an entire series run. They set up the questions (or, in this case, conflicts), they let them run a mad, perfectly fulfilling course, and then they resolve them. Sure, they immediately introduce another Big Bad Plot, but as a viewer you know you aren't going to have to wait an entire season (or seasons, plural) for resolution.

Awesome! WELL DONE.

That being said, I stopped watching when one of the show writers talked in an interview about why one mass-murdered vampire would be wrong to date.

Stefan: Has killed dozens (at least). Sometimes to protect those he loves. Sometimes to protect his own best interests. And sometimes because he goes on crazy benders and just likes to rip heads off.

Damon: Has killed dozens (at least). Sometimes to protect those he loves. Most of the time to protect his own best interests. Sometimes just because he's bored.

Klaus: Has killed fewer than both of them (on screen). Most of the time to protect those he loves, though that protection is misguided. Often to protect his own best interests. Never, that I can recall, because he goes psychotic sometimes or because he is bored and doesn't have anything better to do.


That's what I thought. (Another lesson about consistency in morals, perhaps?)

Veronica Mars: Main Characters are only as good as their surroundings

Except maybe Duncan. He can stay in [spoiler].

So, I maintain that, while Avatar: The Last Airbender is the best series ever, the first season of Veronica Mars was the best season of any series, ever. And what the show did so well (SO WELL) was have a main character who was compelling and likable but also kind of a jerk at times, with just the right balance of tragedy and humor, and then give her surrounding characters who made her shine--both her good parts (the snark! the justice-seeking! the loyalty!) and her bad parts (the grudge-holding! the drive for revenge!). Everyone on this show played so well off each other. Even the community itself was critical and acted as the perfect foil to the action. (Another reason I [sadly] don't think the proposed FBI future jump would have worked. The show was Neptune, and her dad, and her friends. Without them, Veronica wouldn't have been Veronica.)

Make sure that your side characters are each essential, and that they each play a role. If they don't do something to or with the main character, figure out how to make them matter or cut them out. Same goes for setting. It should feel impossible for your story to take place anywhere other than where it does.

Buffy/Firefly: Let's face it

I should say something here about learning to balance tragedy and humor, or how to write amoral characters that the audience still roots for, but let's face it: You will never write like Joss Whedon. Accept it and move on.

The Avengers wish you well in your not-quite-as-awesome-as-Joss writing endeavors.
(Also, can we make a law that all movies must be written by him? Forever?)


Jenny said...

Best post ever. I wish I had written this & I wish every (and I mean EVERY) YA author would/has/had read this.


Stephanie Perkins said...

Riley = totally the worst

Spike, on the other hand . . .


Stephanie Perkins said...

Also, Riley and Duncan? Practically twins.

Kiersten White said...

YES! The Boring Twins of Boringness.


And I am notorious for rooting for the nice guys.

Spike and Logan are probably the only bad boys I have ever actively shipped. Genius writing. Genius acting. NOT BORING.

Stephanie Perkins said...

Same here. I wonder what made Spike and Logan so different? Was it just because they were played by better actors who had gifts for line delivery? (And, because of it, got all the best lines?) Or was there something else written into their characters, something more sympathetic? Or was the sympathy just easier for us to see, again, because the actors were so good?

I honestly don't know.

Flamefire123 said...

*cracks fangirl knuckles* I'm pretty sure that Katara and Aang was always the goal by the producers, it was just the fans (admitely, I among them) who pushed Katara and Zuko so far that they felt it would be cannon. I LOVE the two as a couple but honestly? There are no serious hints towards them being a couple. Zuko does creepy rape face at her once, when he was in his darkest of moods but it's more of an empty threat and then they had an emotional connection twice. Katara and Aang were close friends with lots of shiptease moments and continued relationship building (even if sometimes in season one Aang just conveniently forgot he loved Katara for the sake of the plot). Not to mention the whole "Katara's the only one who can trigger/turn off Aang's avatar state" thing.

I don't like them as a couple, but I can see clearly where cannon stood.

That's the only show I've watched and can comment on but I LOVE Avatar, both Aang's story and the new sequel series. (Where I think I am once again supporting the losing couple, which amuses me because besides this series and series where cannon couples don't exist I am generally cannon couples all the way.)

Though good comments on the series, I felt like it's good advice.

Vicki said...

Avatar FTW! *tazes Shamalamadingdong for screwing the movie*

...Totally agree with everything else, though, too. ;)

linda said...

Being not much of a TV watcher, I haven't seen ANY of these shows (I know, I know. I've seen The Avengers, though -- yay?). Your post makes me want to start watching a few of these! :)

Matthew MacNish said...

Prince (Firelord) Zuko for the win! Greatest character ever.

MeaganTowle said...

I pretty much agree with everything you said...and am so glad you said it. Everything Joss Whedon has written is beyond everything else. Veronica Mars was wonderful (but kind of lost me mid-season 2 although I own them all) and Buffy and Firefly...sigh...

Clare C. Greenstreet said...

Veronica Mars and Buffy! Love those shows! Especially Veronica Mars. Never watched Firefly but one day I'm determined to watch it.

Gjertrud said...

I have watched everything here (except Buffy, I wasn't old enough when it aired and I've never gotten around to it - someday though). Admittedly, you and your gushing is the reason I watched Veronica Mars (so thank you for that). And yes, these are among my favorite shows

Flurple said...

Did you borrow my Netflix que? AND MY MIND?

Guild jokes aside, it took me years to watch the avatar series because I kept insisting that it was a cartoon, but then I finally gave in to peer pressure and watched it and fell in love. The internal conflict! The character archs! *sigh*

Also, have you seen Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods? That movie won life.

ashley said...

My netflix queue and I thank you.

Ms. Snip said...

One - Zuko=BEST CHARACTER ARC EVER! Totally agreed. He may be one of my favorite characters of all times. Also, he is voiced by the kid who played Rufio in Hook, and you gotta love that. :)
I, too have sadly come to the realization that I will never be able to write like Joss Whedon. My silver lining is hoping I can write a compelling enough story that (a) gets made into a movie that (b) he would write the screenplay for.
We can all dream, right?

Morrigan Aoife said...

Sorry to hear you haven't been feeling well. Great post though, I guess something can be said for fever induced delirium. Avatar and Buffy FTW! Riley, yep, def. the worst. Was a bit surprised you didn't mention "Angel" also written by Whedon but hey you'll never fit everything good into one post. Would love to hear your comments on Supernatural.....

Sarah J. said...

Excellent post! I might have to watch Avatar now. My brothers couldn't convince me, but I think you just did. Also, Sherlock. Sherlock. One of my favorite parts is the dominatrix episode (while I don't approve of her "battle dress") I love the scene where she is trying to seduce Sherlock and all they are doing is touching hands and looking into each other's eyes. It's so sensual without being "sensual." Love it.

Heather said...

A fever? You clearly need to get yourself some frozen frogs. I'm surprised no one else has mentioned it. You've seen Avatar so you know what to do them. :)

Cool post.

K said...

OH MY GOSH AVATAR. Yes! The hilarity! The sweetness! ZUKO! Who doesn't love Zuko? Zuko is the best.(And the mushrooms! Does anybody else remember the giant mushroom scene? In the desert? Sokka, I love you forever). (And OH MY GOSH Legend of Korra. I love Legend of Korra. It makes me hyperventilate. That's all).
Also: Sherlock! Sherlock! I love you, Sherlock! Be my friend!
Basically, I love good characters. And great plot. And...I love this post. That's all.

TL Conway said...

Prince Zuko, Sherlock, LOST, Logan, and Firefly--all in ONE post?

*head explosion*

Dear Kiersten:
Congratulations! You have just won the internet today.
Hope you feel better soon,

Ru said...

Ahem. I plan to briefly fangirl out for a moment.

A-FREAKING-MEN on the Vampire Diaries analysis. The characterization of Klaus is the one area where I think they've kind of dropped the ball. "He's super evil! He's the worst! The worst, I tells ya!"

Except when he actually arrives on scene, he's just supremely insecure about his own safety and sketches pictures of pretty girls and ponies. Honestly, I kinda like him, and he definitely doesn't lose a moral battle between the Salvatore brothers.

THAT BEING SAID ... I still don't think he should hook up with Caroline, though not because she's Tyler's twu wuv, or because he is (as we're told) "super evil," but because they've never addressed the fact that he planned to *sacrifice her.* Yet she's more bothered by his treatment of Tyler? Boo that. If you're going to try to redeem a character with a love of art and traveling, etc., let him redeem himself about things he's actually been evil about.

(I am also bugged that Stefan said something along the lines of, "Without Elena's love, me stopping being a homicidal fiend is all for naught." Yes, because the most important thing about the cessation of torture and murder is getting your girlfriend back.)

Heather said...

Well, I thought I liked you before, but now I love you. Like stalker love you. I agree with all of it, except Avatar. And that's just because I haven't seen it. Perhaps I just might.

Kiersten White said...

Also, I find it a little too convenient everyone forgets about Damon being a rapist. Because...he is. You compel someone into sleeping with you? THAT IS NOT CONSENT. I don't care how pretty he is. And especially when that someone was Caroline! People in that show have painfully selective memories.

Kiersten White said...


Ru said...

Kiersten - ditto that on the Damon/rape thing.

I really like the constant redemption story arcs characters in Vampire Diaries, I just wish they were a little more on point regarding which bad behaviors need to be redeemed.

Giles Hash said...

GREAT points. Every writer should read this post before writing their outline. I can't agree more enthusiastically.

And great show choices, BTW. :D

rockinlibrarian said...

That last piece of advice? So perfect. I just laughed. I was looking forward to more specifics, but really, you nailed it, so I can't complain.

Also, there is a picture of Martin Freeman in this post, so I thank you very kindly.

Yiling said...

Best post ever! I love love LOVE Avatar the last Airbender. Zuko and Uncle are some of my favorite characters and GAH I could just watch this show forever. Do you watch Legend of Korra?

Andrea said...

TV is so under-rated. Some of my favorite writers write for TV. I love that someone else appreciates this.

Kate said...

I'm totally watching Avatar: The Last Airbender right now!!! Haha!! I totally agree about everything you said with the series and think it is the most fantastic show ever!!! :)

Sanna said...

Oh I sooo agree. Avatar was awesome, awesome, awesome. And I loved Veronica Mars. :)

You pointed everything out so well, I don't have anything to add.

Krissi Dallas said...

GREAT post!! And BOOOO to Lost and YESSSS to Joss Whedon! Haha. (Your caption under the LOST picture was almost EXACTLY what came to my mind when I first saw it in your post... LOL.)

Megs said...

I SO. TOTALLY. AGREE. The end. :)

p.s. kick that fever out of the park.

Hannah said...

SHERLOCK! YES! I love that show!

cam.robbins said...

I will co-sponsor your Joss Whedon law! Whenever I see anything that he does, I get excited to write, then incredibly depressed because there is no way to come close.

I agree with TL Conway, you won the internet today!

Megan Coakley said...

I don't watch cartoons. When my husband makes a comment about someone in the DC or Marvel universe, I don't know what he's talking about. But I have five male children who do, and when "Avatar" began, I was sucked in by the visuals. Beautiful. Then the story...ah! My oldest is 19, and was the original fan, but now the youngest (8) has seen all the episodes on DVD. I love "Avatar."

Based on the kids' ages, you may have deduced that I'm old enough to have watched "Buffy" when it was first broadcast. We were hooked from the first episode, and when our VCR-yes, you read that right-failed to record the final episode of Season One I cried. My husband, bless his heart, called our network affiliate and got a copy (on VHS ) and gave it to me for my birthday. It remains one of my most precious gifts.

I don't want to write like Joss. I just want to type in his shadow.

Kelley York said...

Yes, yes, yes to all of these. Sherlock and Avatar especially.

(As a side note--I saw the stage production of FRANKENSTEIN at the movie theaters last night. Benedict Cumberbatch was SO AMAZING. I'm going back again tonight for the reverse-casting show now.)

Hallie said...

Oh my gosh, I LOVE your blog and your books are brilliant!

Avery Frost said...

I just found your blog--wow. These are all my favorite shows (except for Legend of Korra, I haven't started it yet!) I have to say I agree with your opinions so very thoroughly. I especially like your thoughts on Avatar. I thought the same thing! I prefer a show that knows when and how it's going to end and can wrap up neatly than one living and dying on ratings and dragging on forever. Great post!

Kim Aippersbach said...

Great post. I'm going to try watching Avatar again--I was put off by the anime style that I don't really get, but if you think it's the best show EVER then I'd better give it another chance!

And thank you, Kelly York, for mentioning the Benedict Cumberbatch Frankenstein: I had not heard of the production, and it sounds so cool! And the movies are showing in Vancouver next week, so I can go see them!

Musing Novelist said...

Let's start a Joss Whedon Must Write All Movie Scripts petition! :)

Todd Newton said...

I understand your point, but I don't think you can use LOST as an example of "what not to do" because it was incredibly successful and remains one of the most popular television shows ever. Seems kind of weird to say "don't do this thing that created a huge following and immense popularity."

Kiersten White said...

Todd--Yes, but you aren't writing a television series. You don't have several season to string viewers along and build loyalty. You have one book. Sometimes you have one chapter of one book. Were there positive takeaways from LOST? Absolutely. But there is a lot to learn from flaws as well.

Unless, uh, you ARE, in fact, writing a television series. In which case, carry on with the polar bears and four-toed statues and crazy number sequences, etc.

unikorna said...

Allow me to give you an even more awkward hug and tell you how much I like your words :).

alastaircookie said...

Wow, I really want to watch Avatar now! I've seen it on TV a couple of times but now I'm really intrigued. When you were describing it, it really reminded me of a show I watched a few years ago called Jewel in the Palace(Or I think it's offical name is Dae Jang Geum). My sisters and I kind of stumbled across it and we got totally hooked, even though it's in Korean. Lol, even my mum got addicted to it when we came back for the holidays and there were only 10 episodes left. There are 70-something episodes, and they all feel like a breath of fresh air. This is definitely a show that has the end in mind, so if you ever get a chance to watch this you totally should. =D