Kay: Better Writing through Watching TV

LeverageI’ve been watching Leverage on Netflix—actually I’ve been rewatching it—and this time I’m also listening to the commentary. The commentary is mostly by the producers and writers. I don’t always enjoy the commentaries or find them helpful, because often everybody talks at the same time and it’s like having a thermonuclear bomb in your living room—all heat and no light. But sometimes you hear something interesting.

The other night I watched “The Frame Up Job.” It features only two of the main cast of five characters, Nate and Sophie. In this episode, Sophie and Nate, the grifter and criminal mastermind, respectively, go to the mansion of a deceased art collector, where a painting by a modern master will be shown for the first time. But at the unveiling, the painting is gone. Sterling, an insurance investigator and Nate’s nemesis, tries to pin the theft on them, so to escape arrest, they look for the painting.

Let me just say I loved this episode—as I watched, I thought, “The Thin Man! Nick and Nora!” The actress who plays Sophie was especially stunning. The house and the clothes were fabulous. The humor was well timed. The nemesis was evil. Fun all around.

Then the commentary came on, and one of the producers talked about how an event in the plot raised the stakes in the story. And the part that caught my ear was, they weren’t talking about turning points in the plot. Or they didn’t seem to be.

I’m interested in these questions of stakes and turning points and escalating tension because I’m having trouble with it all. I discussed it at some length in the post a couple of weeks ago about whether my character Phoebe should pay the invoice, and what it means for the story if she does or she doesn’t. In this Leverage episode, Nate and Sophie run a chemical test on two paintings to demonstrate that the one in question is a fake. But wait! The tests on both paintings have the same result! Oh, no!! The painting is genuine!!

If you came to that conclusion, as I did, you’d be wrong. What did it mean that the test results were the same? It meant that all the paintings in the art show were fakes. Whoa! That upped the stakes for the plot because it demonstrated that someone had been plotting for a long time. No one had just slipped in and swiped the one painting. And now—what was the legacy of the collector? What would happen to his heirs? And where was all the stolen artwork? Not to mention the money?

Here’s what I’m trying to sort out—and of course, extrapolate to my own story. Sophie and Nate’s goal is to find the missing painting. But the stakes are prison. So those things are different—linked, but separate. It turns out, as the episode progresses, the goal—the stolen painting—is a McGuffin, in the Alfred Hitchcock sense of being something that everybody chases after, but is essentially unimportant to the story.

The plot in this episode, then, results from Nate and Sophie having a goal (find the painting), because the stakes if they don’t (going to prison) are too high. So they make choices and act on those choices. (That’s the plot.) I’m pretty sure.

The stakes can be positive (win the guy) or negative (stay out of prison). The stakes can escalate as the plot’s turning points escalate or have unforeseen consequences or—hey! as in my story!—the characters can have choices that have opposing stakes (pay the invoice and get the guy, don’t pay and get the job).

Each scene should have its own character goals with something at stake, even for subplots and minor characters. And that means that every scene could have different stakes, even for the big plot, because the subplots will affect the main plot.

In “The Frame Up Job,” Nate and Sophie try to overcome the plot conflicts (working with Sterling) in service to their goals (finding the painting). At least, I think that’s what happens. The stakes force choices. I think. And character shapes the choices that they make. At least, I think that’s how it works.

Did I get any of that right? Back to Phoebe.

5 thoughts on “Kay: Better Writing through Watching TV

  1. Hm. I haven’t seen Leverage yet – been spending my spare moments recently reading rather than watching – but this reminds me a lot of a conversation I had with Jenny last year about my hero Ian’s goal. I said it was vitally important to him. She said something like yes, but he could simply change his mind and the story would be over. Nothing else would happen. So I needed to find some tangible consequences to raise the stakes for him.

    I think it’s exactly as you said – the stakes force choices, and the character shapes those choices. The external stakes/consequences must test and reveal the essence of the character. So the Phoebe who pays the invoice and gets the guy is not the same woman as the Phoebe who doesn’t pay the invoice and gets her job back.

    • I think that’s right—but I have to say that whenever I start to think about this, it makes my head hurt and I feel like I’m walking through a field of nettles. But I like Jenny’s point that a goal without consequences does not hold a story. By the way, Phoebe so far still pays the invoice. We’ll see if she changes her mind!

  2. I watched the first couple Leverage shows — on my list of things to watch! But I don’t think my rental versions carry the commentary.

    This is really enlightening — Jenny always said goals can’t be negative. But . . . if stakes can be negative, that’s very important! Because in order to avoid the punishment, one must choose a positive goal that keeps one out of trouble! (Maybe. I can’t believe it’s so simple. But maybe it can work if I approach the problems from that way.)

  3. I wouldn’t worry about not being able to watch the commentaries. So far I’ve watched about eight, and four were useless—at least to me—because of the simultaneous jabbering. The other four, though, were interesting in part because they revealed how writing for TV works, but also in part because they revealed to me that the writers for the show discussed the issues we discussed in class. Who knew? I don’t remember that we discussed negative stakes in class, but one commentary talked about how important negative stakes could be (“don’t go to jail” being the big one). And I’m not sure that in 100% of the cases the situation would be that to avoid the negative stakes your characters would have a positive goal. But it sure works sometimes. It certainly worked for Leverage.

  4. Pingback: Blog of the Week – Eight Ladies Writing « Dancing with Fireflies

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