I’m going to try an experiment. I’m going to talk about some television shows, and try to draw conclusions for novelists. This may not work, but I’m going to try it. I’m choosing television, because more of us are likely to have seen the same show than read the same book.
Besides, it isn’t nice to call out a novel, which is the work of one stressed out author. Television is a team event, and it feels safer.
The idea is that new work has to meet certain landmarks. The idea is to keep me interested. This feels the same whether it’s a program or a novel.
One caveat. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Any of you who read Wild Concept probably noticed a few. I’m not perfect, but I can still talk about this stuff. I’m a sucker for Science Fiction, Paranormal, and Fantasy. These shows all fit that bill in one form or another.
Sleepy Hollow is our first show. Ichabod Crane is resurrected in modern times. He’s the only live character in the show that wears clothing from the 1700s. He’s a nice looking white fellow with a pony tail. His modern day partner is Abby. She’s an attractive black girl. Oh, and the main bad guy doesn’t have a head.
Ichabod and Abby have a cute relationship. He’s way out of date, and as she helps him there is a nice, nearly romantic, tension that gets my approval. There are a few funny bits woven into a darker story line. Most of the lighter parts take place in broad daylight, and the dark stuff happens at night. You would think this would be pretty obvious.
For the novelist here are the points I appreciate. I can tell the characters apart. Black girl, white guy, no head – got it. Nice mix of light and dark, in more ways than one. I like Abby and Ichabod. I will go out of my way to watch this next year.
Authors don’t have the ability to use those kinds of visuals, but we have an advantage too. At least every page or two, we have to write “Ichabod said.” Pretty hard to get lost or confused. We can weave in light and dark moments, along with light and dark settings. The trick is to make our readers like the characters they’re supposed to cheer for.
I don’t give up on a book, program, or movie easily. I used to watch a show called Copper. I gave it about three episodes and quit. The stories were pretty good. I had a hard time keeping the characters straight. They all talked alike, refused to shave, dressed alike, and the actors looked alike. After about the fifth time asking “Which one was that?” I was finished.
Writers can give our characters some quirks. As long as our names are distinct, we won’t have much problem. If needed, one of them can go everywhere with a toothpick or something.
Almost Human is a decent bit of science fiction. It involves a white male cop, John, who has a prosthetic leg. His partner, Dorian, is a black cyborg. These guys bust on each other like actual people. They aren’t marionettes simply following a plot. They each have a quirk that makes them slightly less than everyone else. John is a grouchy old school kind of guy. Dorian is high tech and does some surprising things. Great sci-fi effects here too.
As a writer, putting opposites together might be a good idea. There’s a stress between John and Dorian, but they have a common goal too. They’re willing to go some crazy places with the stories. When Dorian scanned John’s balls it was hilarious. I like these guys too. Likable characters, I want to watch more.
Turn is a new show. It’s about an American spy ring during the American Revolution. The characters are distinct enough. Abe looks vaguely like Tom Hiddleston. It’s easy to tell him from the others. The settings are mostly gloomy, even in daylight. I’ve never seen anyone happy in this show ever. It’s pretty easy to tell that the Americans are the good guys and the British are the bad guys.
Abe ratted out some redcoats. The only one that needed to die, survived. He’s in American hands, but it’s all over for Abe if this redcoat escapes. This particular redcoat is an asshole. This works for me. Tell me who not to like.
There are good points and bad points to this one. Abe has a wife and son. We’ve seen him philandering with the local tavern owner lady. This doesn’t exactly make me cheer for him. It was three episodes before they told me that two brothers were both engaged. Abe was verbally engaged to the tavern lady. His brother, in writing to the other woman. When Abe’s brother died. Abe married his brother’s fiancé to honor the contract. Things like this actually happened in the 1700s.
They needed to tell me this earlier. I wasn’t exactly endeared to Abe when he was unfaithful to his wife and son. I might have turned away and never learned the truth. This story line brings a nice tension, particularly when the wife gave her approval to the tavern lady.
As a writer, I think it’s important to define the villain and the hero PDQ. If everyone sucks, readers might look elsewhere. I’ll give this one a couple more episodes, but I’m not sure.
Salem premiered last night. This looks at the Salem witches as if witchcraft were real. John Alden is obviously the hero here, I just don’t like him. He left his love, Mary to go fight Indians. he didn’t return for seven years. Go figure, Mary married someone else. There is a plausibility problem here for me.
This guy left for seven years, never wrote, and walks in like nothing changed. Mary is the main witch now, of course. Everyone scowls, everyone’s dirty, and everyone’s violent. (Okay, Mary seems to stay clean, and she’s always in black.) I have no reason to like a single person in this show. There is a redhead girl with a charming smile. She’s the only character that smiled in a whole hour. She’s a third tier character, and I’m cheering for her.
They could have taken 30 seconds to show Alden doing something nice. Lift a kid up to pick an apple, pet a dog, something. Lots of scowls, dirt, and grumbling from Alden instead. On the plus side, there were some cool special effects. This includes the coolest place to hide your toad familiar I’ve ever seen.
Not only do the characters need to establish who they are, the concept needs to have some degree of reality. Seven years, and Alden expected Mary to wait for him? He didn’t even write. I’ll give it a few more episodes.
So as a writer, I want to define who the hero is, and who the villain is. I want the characters to be different from each other. I want to use a contrast between light and dark, both in mood and setting. I don’t want to base part of my story on something that isn’t realistic. I also don’t want to withhold some important information that might cause someone to give up on my story. If I can include a bit of humor, so much the better.
So how many pages do I have to accomplish all this? I’m guessing about twenty. I think there’s a need to establish something on every page up to that point. What do the real experts have to say about this?
16 responses to “Putting New Work out There”
I see you are a sleepy hollow fan. Look who I interviewed:http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1081829
That’s pretty cool. A part of me was hoping it was the horseman, in sign language or something.
Sigh. I haven’t seen any of these shows. What a sheltered life I must lead.
I would be better off if I watched less and read more. Weigh in on your first 20 pages. What needs to go in there?
Some key things for me: world building, love interest, tension.
World building:magic/future crap, yes or no? Lemme know right off the bat how far removed from reality we are, and which quirks I need to keep to with.
Love interest: yes or no, is it that kind of story? I wanna know right away if I have to put up with that crap.
Tension: why do I care? What thing am I dying to find out that keeps me reading- tell me quick or I get bored.
These are just my knee jerks thoughts, had late at night while I can’t sleep, so take them with a grain of salt.
I agree with all of yours. I think the tension can be something peripheral to the main story early on, but it has to be there, and ought to show character.
ok, guess now i have so many tv shows to check out. they all sound promising. especially salem and almost human. they are my kind of entertainment.
Scripted drama is getting hard to come by. I’m kind of impressed to see a little science fiction, fantasy, and paranormal. Too many reality shows to compete with. I still think they need to keep some kind of story structure in place.
i’m so over reality shows. well, with the exception of the korean reality show Running Man that manages to always keep me laughing.
I still find one or two to keep me entertained, but don’t feel bad if I miss them.
Wow, I haven’t seen any of these shows, but your reviews are great! Yes, I definitely see what you mean and couldn’t agree with you more on how TV shows, plots, characters, appearances, etc., are so important, just as they are in books. And I can’t stand what you mentioned in Turn about the writers not telling you all the facts early enough. That often makes it seem to me like they are just making it up as they go along and they have no more idea than I do what to do with what they’ve got.
That being said, I know it’s the trendy thing these days to break up the backstory and weave it throughout the novel. But sometimes that just makes me mad when I don’t know some of it until later. A great example is Gone With The Wind. You HAD to have all the description of Tara in the beginning for it to make sense why the Civil War made such an impact on Scarlet when she lost everything. If you wrote a book like that nowadays, it would never be published because there is too much backstory up front.
So, I agree with you, about 20 pages, or about two chapters is the point I give a book to give me what I need to know and give me at least the hint of an interesting plot. I can’t stand when people read one page or maybe two then decide they know how the book will turn out and it’s not worth their time. But a couple of chapters in, the author should generally be able to develop some characters at least a little, and allow the reader to get a feel. (Maybe longer in sci-fi, though, now that I think about it, because there are so many details involved describing the things that aren’t commonplace in the real world.)
Oops! By the way, great post! 😀
This is how I watch TV, movies, and now Broadway plays. I’m looking for story structure, plants & payoffs, and other writerly tricks.
I find it easier to discuss them, because they are a product of a group effort. If I discuss a novel, less people will have read it, and maybe it’s some poor hack like me that wrote it. Pointing out a flaw becomes much more personal.
This is true. Good point! 🙂