Over the past month, I’ve blogged about one of my now-favorite TV series, the FX channel’s Justified. My husband and I started watching the series as part of our binge-watching approach to television because it had been recommended to us by a few different people whose TV and movie viewing tastes are similar to ours. I started rewatching episodes to deconstruct and analyze the writing because, from the very beginning, the approach to story writing resonated with me. Then I started discussing the writing elements with my husband who, though not a writer, is a good sport and enjoys talking story with me…to a point. Once I’d passed that point (identified by the way his eyes glazed over), I knew it was time to bring the discussion here and share it with other writers.
But I also knew my writer brain wasn’t just connecting with the story for the pure enjoyment of it. It was figuring out how I could use the story lessons in my own work. This week, I read over those last three posts, each of which focused on a writing lesson the series had reinforced for me, and considered how I’m using those lessons to improve my own WIP.
Lesson One: Open Strong
This is not new or earth-shattering advice. It’s not something that I or most writers I know willfully eschew. But it is something that’s so easy to inadvertently fall short of achieving. On this blog, we’ve talked many times about the dangers of the ‘sittin’ and thinkin” scene. Michaeline has talked about her propensity to write ‘sittin’/thinkin’/drinkin’ tea’ scenes. I feel her pain, as that’s exactly what my hero and his friend were doing in the very first scene of Book 1 in my Victorian Romance series (if you substitute Cognac for tea, sitting in the Captain’s quarters on a ship instead of in a kitchen). Sure, they were conversing, but even the conversation – which did at least have them at cross-purposes – was really an excuse for info-dump.
Now, in the first scene of the Justified series, the protagonist sits and talks with his scene antagonist. However. Some major differences between that scene and mine. The Justified scene opens with the shot of the protagonist sauntering into view, with all his telltale accessories we discussed in week 1 (Marshal’s star, gun, off-white hat). And it ends with the man drawing on each other and our hero shooting the bad guy. Unless I was going to have my hero and his friend draw on each other with dueling pistols, there was just no saving my opening scene. So I scrapped it and started over. This time, while the two characters are still on a ship in the Bay of Biscayne, the hero is now hanging from ship’s rigging, tearing up his hands with wet ropes, and the Captain/best friend trying to argue him down before their passengers – British peers and their families – catch sight of a gentleman in such an unseemly act of manual labor.
My goal is still to convey a lot of information about the hero and his external goal, but I want readers to intuit something about his character and deeper motivations as well. He’s a gentleman and partner in the shipping line with the Captain,but he also knows how to do the hard work of an actual sailor. His hands are soft and bleeding now, but they’ve been hard and calloused in the past and will be again if necessary. And he has little regard for the peers other than the fact that they’re customers paying for passage on the ship. So, a gentleman that has done hard labor, was industrious enough to become a self-made man, and seems not to care what British Society thinks of him. He’s hanging from the rigging on this particular day because they’re preparing to return to England, where he hasn’t set foot in five years, and (hopefully one can deduce) he’s anxious and full of nervous energy. I hope this opening scene leaves the reader with questions about what happened in his past, why he left England and stayed away so long, and most importantly for the now of the story, why he’s returning.
Lesson Two: Create an Empathetic Protagonist
In the first scene of Justified, we’re rooting for the protagonist Raylan Givens because we realize he’s the good guy, the lawman, the one in the white hat. We don’t necessarily empathize with him in the first scene, but we do by the end of the first episode. I liked the pacing of that, the episode-long winning of my empathy that would then carry through the 13-episode season, which I’m using as the unit of measure for the story based on the premise that no TV series can count on more than one season at a time. Applying some rough math to that and extrapolating for a roughly 300-page story, I want to have readers not only watching but also rooting for my protagonist within the first 20 pages.
I failed on this count in Book 1, at least for one of my critique partners. The solution to this problem was not entirely separate from the solution to the first problem. By upping the tension and putting some character-revealing action in the first scene, the hero is more interesting and ‘watchable’ (also, embedding the visual of a shirtless, sea-splashed hero in the readers’ mind might not hurt). But I also need to elicit reader empathy for my hero. Referring back to Hague’s three ways to create character empathy (undeserved misfortune, likability, jeopardy), I’ve tried to use some element of each in the first scene, and build upon and deepen each element throughout the first few chapters so the reader will be rooting for the hero* through to the end of the book. The gentleman familiar with manual labor hints at misfortune. The banter between the hero and the captain shows their friendship and the hero’s wit and humor, even when he’s so obviously distressed, hopefully qualities readers will appreciate and like. And while there is slight physical jeopardy when the hero could fall off the slippery rigging into the Bay of Biscayne, the true jeopardy is emotional and is revealed in the last beat of the scene, when he catches sight of a woman who reminds him of the one he loved and lost, from which he’s never recovered.
(*As is the case with most romances, I want my reader to empathize with both the hero and the heroine, regardless of whether they’re both protagonists or, as is the case with Book 1 in my series, one is the protagonist and the other is the antagonist. So all of those approaches to creating empathy? I had to lather, rinse, and repeat for the heroine.)
Lesson Three: Challenge the Hero With a Well-Matched Nemesis
As I said in my third Justified post, one of my favorite elements of the series was the protagonist/nemesis relationship between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder. It gave the protagonist an equally matched antagonist, and the two crossed swords through the very last episode in the final year of the series. Recapping the difference between an antagonist and a nemesis, an antagonist is any character that blocks the protagonist’s goal, whether in a scene or an entire story. A nemesis, while externally opposed, and therefore an antagonist for the protagonist’s external journey, actually has the same internal journey as the protagonist. That’s what I want to find – a nemesis for my protagonist who blocks the external journey while sharing the internal one.
Backing up a bit, this is where I should point out that while I’ve focused quite a bit in this post on changes I made to fix the hero’s introduction and development because there were so many issues with the way his story was written in the early part of the book, the heroine is actually the protagonist of the book. That doesn’t mean I can’t identify a nemesis for the hero and develop that as a subplot, and I think I’ve found a good candidate with heroine’s brother, who is also the hero’s former friend. But I’d really like to balance that by giving the heroine a nemesis of her very own, which is proving harder than I thought it would be.
I’ve identified a few possibilities, which I won’t share here (I have to keep some things a mystery). What it will come down to in the end is fleshing out the character arcs for the supporting cast and seeing which one either already aligns to the heroine’s inner journey or who can be rewritten to do so. A nemesis isn’t a requirement for a good story, but it’s the type of character I’d really like to try to write. If it goes well, I’ll have to decide if it’s a story element I want to weave into each of the five novels (but not the novellas – there’s not enough space for it!) in the series.
What have you read or watched lately that inspired you or taught you a lesson about your own writing? Have you fixed a problem in your WIP after analyzing someone else’s writing? And is there any well-written movie or TV series you recommend I add to my binge-watching queue?