FiYoShiMo Day 12 Secondary Characters

Today’s the final day of character development on FiYoShiMo, and honestly, the topic today almost didn’t make the cut. When I started mapping out the ideas you’ve been reading about for the last twelve days, I was worried that several of the days weren’t as strong as other days – that the topics weren’t as exciting, they weren’t as well developed. I’ve tried not to worry about it, but today was a particularly tough topic, because there are a lot of examples, but not a lot of definitions behind them. I hope what I’ve presented below helps clarify something I think we all take for granted.

Have you ever noticed the number of “and”s when we look at characters? Batman AND Robin. The Lone Ranger AND Tonto. Riggs AND Murtaugh. Tango AND Cash.

‘And’ is a potent word, when you think about it, because it creates a relationship. We don’t always know what kind of relationship, whether it’s as equals (see Riggs and Murtaugh) or superior-subordinate (Batman and Robin), but there’s a relationship to consider. We have to find out which relationship is present in the story, and adjust our expectations accordingly. It’s not bad that it works out that way, but setting expectations in power dynamics between characters is critical, because as a reader, we want to follow the most compelling character, even if they’re lower on the hierarchy than another character.

Power dynamics sit at the heart of today’s FiYoShiMo, because we’re talking about secondary characters. A secondary character is any character in a story who isn’t the main character, who contributes something to the story, and who isn’t a cameo. Steve the barista isn’t a secondary character if he makes one appearance to pour our weary protag some macchiato. That’s a cameo. Steve the barista becomes a secondary character when the story becomes about people hiding in the coffee shop because aliens have landed and are shooting humans under orders from their leader Donald Trump. (Topical!)

A power dynamic is how a relationship gets expressed between characters. For binary relationships, there are two:

a) A Superior/Subordinate relationship, where the subordinate is reduced in role and is often portrayed as younger, less knowledgeable, or to some degree lesser than the superior. Often the subordinate is a “sidekick”, which comes from pickpocket slang, as a kick is a pocket safest from theft, and a side-kick is the inseparable companion to the kick.

b) A Partner relationship, also called a “two-hander”, where each partner often typifies a particular archetype or mindset or approach and while they’re at odds with each other, they work together well.

These hinge on the idea that you’ve got two characters coordinated together. Manipulating that power dynamic is often a source of story tension, as you can lead the subordinate to chafe against the superior (see Robin against Batman, becoming Nightwing), or split the partners up only to get them back together (see any buddy cop movie).

But what about where you have way more than two characters you need to focus on? Then we get into what are called secondary role characters, where each character has a function to serve or aid the protagonist (or antagonist, but I’m going to use the protagonist, since I have better examples). There are plenty of secondary role characters:

The knowledge proxy (or sage character) is the character who supplies the protagonist with information or items the protagonist could not easily get themselves. This is Q from James Bond, or the old wise man in town who gives the knight the magic item to use at a later time. They know something relevant to the story, and they share that knowledge so the protagonist can go do stuff. There’s an assumption here that the secondary character couldn’t do what the protagonist could do, and an agreement that the knowledge proxy fills their role and nothing more.

The comedic secondary character is the character who brings levity to the story, often at their own expense, or within a subplot. This is Ralph Malph and Potsie from the early Happy Days seasons, this is the wise-cracking character who is there to lighten the mood, usually has the funnier lines, and when the plot requires it, is often put in danger to highlight that they’re still a contributing member of the team, even when their technical role is unclear (I’m looking at you CBS shows).

The romantic secondary character is the character who provides sexual or emotional tension to the story by giving the protagonist a possible love interest or relationship. This is the character the protag will eventually end up with as a couple, either for good or ill, either successfully or not. This often comes up on television when you need an emotional cliffhanger, or when you’re trying to stress a will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic.

The mentor secondary character is the character who provides the protagonist guidance through previous experience or teaching. Obi Wan Kenobi. Old Bruce Wayne to Terry McGinnis. There comes a point in this mentor relationship where the protag and mentor have to part company for one reason or another, and not doing so can lock the characters in a permanent superior/subordinate relationship. When this happens for Batman, they find a new Robin. Or the Doctor finds a new Companion.

The ingenue is the character that allows the protagonist to be a mentor. This is character is new to the experiences of the story, often it’s their first day on the job, or the first case. It’s the rookie, and while it’s common to make this character a protagonist on their own (so that the audience gets maximum exposure to the world, see Harry Potter), when the ingenue is a secondary character, you get a chance to see more of the protag’s philosophy and motivations, in addition to their actions, as in Arrow when Oliver adds Roy Harper to the retinue.

The oppositional secondary character is a character that opposes the protagonist but does not prevent them from taking action, because plot. This is your angry chief of police in any cop movie, or Malfoy for Harry Potter. They’re not exactly the antagonist, but they don’t make the protagonist’s life easier, which is probably why so many cops are loose cannons in 80s movies and why Malfoy shows up intersectionally with whatever the hell Harry is doing.

All these secondary characters provide the protagonist either conflict to work against, or aid while working through conflict. That aid isn’t always direct (sometimes the comedic secondary just makes a joke before the scene ends), but it’s present. And that’s because the secondary character, regardless of type, exists in the story for their role above all else. Ages ago, these characters were called “service” characters, though now the only one of those older titles that exist is “fan service”. A secondary character performs a role and gets out of the way. And when you need filler, you take a secondary character and give them a subplot. The highest level of story production a secondary character can accomplish is subplot. If a secondary character affects primary plot, they’re a protagonist. (We’ll talk subplots on Day 16)

I want to stress these roles aren’t story permanent. You can promote or demote a character as story evolves. The possible red flag there is that doing it too quickly or doing it too frequently will make it difficult for the reader to invest in the character, and possibly make it harder to follow along in the story. Wait, they’ll ask, is this character a big deal or not? Am I supposed to care about this? You see this sometimes in two places with television shows – early on, when the show is still finding its footing, so a character changes and then locks into that change (like Fonzie becoming more central in Happy Days) or later on in a show, where in order to advance an arc, or provide an arc, an established character makes a huge and unclear change in their nature (like Parker in Leverage going from a crazy fun character to a sort of level-headed leader after a few rounds of dialogue, a change in wardrobe and a change in setting).

You also run the risk of invalidating your primary protagonist by adding more protagonists through promotion. It doesn’t make sense to suddenly make Q and M extra worried about Spectre, they’re already worried about Spectre, and it makes Bond less Bond if he needs to call in allies to handle opposition that he’s supposed to be capable of defeating. Secondary characters are already invested in the protagonist’s efforts, you don’t need to double down.

Do you need secondary characters? No. You can do perfectly fine telling a story of without a lot of extra pieces (see the movie Phone Booth). They do serve a purpose, they can broaden possibilities in story, they can give you extra room to stretch and new risks to take. But they’re not critical the way the protagonist is. You can tell a Batman story without Robin (in fact, some of the better ones, do).

To build a secondary character, look at their function. Ask what purpose they accomplish in the story. Then build outward from the purpose to see where you can plug it into the larger story. The arms dealer in chapter 6 is interesting, but he’s there just to give out explosives. When he shows up later, it’s for more explosions, not to opine about his mother’s failing gallbladder. The sudden reveal of his mother is more strange than appealing, and it doesn’t help endear us to the character.

The purpose of the secondary character is to serve the story, not appease the audience. Story always comes first, and secondary characters are personified routes of advancement.

Tomorrow, we start looking at plot. Write your plot down somewhere and have it ready to go.

See you then.


FiYoShiMo – Day 11- Protagonists and Antagonists

Here we are, Day 11 of FiYoShiMo. We’ve come out of the basics of character development, and now we get to look at the biggest character types in writing.

A protagonist is a story’s main character (from the Greek, protagonistes). It’s who we follow throughout the course of the story. I think we can all agree to that. Sure, you can make a point that the protagonist (also called a protag) is the character who interacts with the story’s plot, but since we’re following the plot over the course of the story, it seems obvious.

The protag’s opposition is the antagonist (called an antag), and when you look closely the antagonist is often placed in direct opposition to the protagonist. I say “often” because the plot isn’t the only point of intersection between protagonist and antagonist, but we’ll talk more about that in a few paragraphs. Let’s start with a breakdown for both protag and antag.

Note: Why don’t we refer to them as tagonists? Hmm.

Protagonists are not only our main characters, but they embody the beliefs and motivations the audience or reader is meant to see as “good”, because we make a binary assumption that protagonists are on the positive side of things. Maybe because they both start with p, or maybe because the majority of protagonists sit at the far end of the spectrum for good versus evil. What the protagonist believes, what the narrative reinforces, what their dialogue demonstrates, is a character philosophy and a set of motivations that we’re to agree with and get behind over the course of the story. The tricky part here, as we’ll talk about, is divorcing yourself from the idea that protagonist equals good, antagonist equals bad. A protagonist is the main character, period.

There isn’t a lot of flexibility in that binary, even if you subvert the assumption that all protagonists are good guys. Television shows like Leverage, or a movie like Payback feature characters who are on the face of it, bad people. They’re criminals, but because they go against other criminals, or help the greater good, they’re our goodguy protagonists. This leads to the question – what makes a protagonist a protagonist?

The protagonist needs the majority of attention in the story. We’re over their shoulder, maybe we’re in the head, we follow their actions closer than any other character, and depending on the POV you create it, we lens the plot through their descriptions and their reactions. Because we experience this character more than any other, this is who we invest in as a reader and an audience. It’s their roller coaster on which we’re passengers. In part then, “screentime” or “storytime” makes the character a protagonist.

A sympathetic protagonist is a character who we can relate to and agree with whatever they’re doing in the story. We want to see them succeed, because we can project ourselves into their place, and possibly, we’d make the same or similar decisions. The agreeing part is critical, because when we can’t agree with the majority of their decisions (we’re never going to be 100% in line with them, there are too many variables), the protagonist is termed unsympathetic. Whether or not we relate to them is secondary, because it’s possible that many elements exist in the story that makes it difficult to do so. We don’t easily relate to Yoda, because we’re not Muppets, we don’t have the Force, and we generally don’t live in a swamp talking to ghostly Alec Guinness.

One of the challenges I pose to writers when I give seminars is this: could they take a character we relate to on some level, even if we don’t agree with them, and build them as a protagonist, but not a good guy? Where some people stumble is on the “relate” part, because they make an assumption that relate can mean to agree with, but relating to someone means being able to put yourself into their experience, consider their thoughts, then viewing their actions. As we talk more about it, I take it one step further, by posing a question – Could you make Stalin (or Hitler, or any dictator) a protagonist, without creating an alternate history?

This is proof of how ingrained our protagonist-is-the-good-guy assumption is. It’s hard to perceive a guy who killed millions as a good guy (hint: he wasn’t, he killed millions), but since protagonist just means main character, it’s possible to center the story around him. How? Think about a biography. Yes, even non-fiction has protagonists.

Going to the other side of things, the antagonist is in the story to oppose the protagonist. I move A, they go B. A lot of assumptions and binaries dominate the protag-antag relationship. Let’s look at a few:

Assumption: The protagonist has to do something to counter everything the antagonist does. No, they don’t. If the antagonist has their own plan, and it has a series of steps, not every step has to correspond to whatever the protagonist has done. Yes, the protagonist’s later steps (any step after the first point where the antagonist and protagonist cross paths) will be somewhat in reaction to the antagonist, but some steps won’t have an opposing partner. Some can’t. If the antagonist is robbing banks, and stops to also rob an armory to get weapons, the protagonist can secure the last bank without also stopping to defend the armory. The lack of direct parity (the name for the move-countermove concept) gives a story extra tension and increased stakes for later conflict.

Assumption: Both the antagonist and the protagonist need to be complete opposites. No, they don’t. This is a holdover from early media, where the good guys wore white hats while the bad guys wore black. Again, the binary here is at times true, where you have a criminal and a lawman, or a victim and an attacker, or something with a power dynamic. However, there’s interesting story fodder in the space where the characters aren’t diametrically at odds. I tell people, “Every character thinks they’re the protagonist, and you can too,” which is an effective tool for avoiding the more moustache-twirly cliche packed baddies.

Binary: The antagonist can only do bad things, while the protagonist can only do good. Not true. What a character does is based on their motivations, philosophy and skills. All three of those things are a wide range of variables. Also, this is the binary where we seem to forget that “good” and “bad” are subjective. You might think my dislike of peas is bad, while I think your liking cheesecake is stupid.

Binary: Ultimately, a protagonist will always defeat the antagonist. Nope. It’s nice to see. It’s encouraging and rewarding (I just saw Creed, and I do love an underdog-makes-good story), but media where the good guy wins aren’t the only media out there. Look at the first Rocky movie. He doesn’t win the fight. He may win over the crowd, he may impress Apollo, but he doesn’t beat Apollo. The protagonist only needs to complete their arc and resolve the plot. Resolve isn’t a synonym of “win”.


The same way we’ve mapped protagonists over the last few days, do the same for the antagonist. But PLEASE, PLEASE don’t hold them within the goodguy-badguy dynamic while you do it. The antagonist is a character just like any other.

Where the two characters intersect tells a reader a lot about what sort of story to expect. Many of us are taught that at the climax of the story, the two characters have to square off: Luke duels Vader, the scrappy sports team faces their rivals for the championship, the previously fired lawyer squares off against his old employers in the big court case. This set up is called a direct opposition, or direct confrontation. While it’s not always a physical brawl, it is an encounter that puts both protag and antag in the same space and sets them against one another.

In order to reach direct confrontation, the plot features many scenes and developments that set the characters on a collision course. As the story unfolds, one character is often one step behind, or analyzing consequences to predict future events (a detective at a crime scene, for instance, since the crime already happened, but it may leave indicators for what comes next). While the antag may not be in the same space for the these moments, the antag’s presence is felt through what is said and described. In keeping with the idea that an antagonist perceives themselves a protagonist, make sure the antagonist is somehow looming or is felt in any scene where they’re not directly involved.

Sometimes though, there isn’t direct confrontation. Often this happens because the antagonist isn’t personified, or because the antagonist is conceptual. In a story about civil rights, the primary antagonist isn’t the town mayor, it’s the concept of segregation. Our racist bigoted mayor is an agent of the antagonist, someone who buys into the set of beliefs and takes appropriate actions to further those beliefs. This kind of development is an indirect confrontation. People run the mayor out of town, or stage protests, or change the legal system somehow, so the mayor is out on her ear, and segregation suffers defeat. Eliminating the agent doesn’t eliminate the antagonist fully, it only reduces the danger the antagonist poses. Think of antagonist-agents as horcruxes: it won’t stop Voldemort, but it does make things easier.

Note: If you’re wondering now if the protagonist has agents, we’ll talk about them tomorrow on Day 12, since they’re not called agents.

It’s through the plot that the protag and antag have the most intersection, either in quantity or quality. An example of a quantity of intersection is a detective stopping a serial criminal, since there are a number of scenes where they oppose one another, it’s the cat-and-mouse atmosphere. An example of quality intersection is Moriarty against Holmes, where you don’t see Moriarty until practically we’re at the Falls, but we see Holmes’ reactions to Moriarty’s presence throughout the story.

By reducing dependence on polar characterizations, by challenging binary assumptions and hopefully shedding cliches and archetypes, you’re opening yourself up to create characters that feel vibrant and dynamic, not just static templates. They occupy a world wherein they have agendas that conflict, and from that tension, a story arises.

Spend some time today mapping your antagonist. After we talk secondary characters tomorrow, it’s onto plot for a few days after that.

See you tomorrow

FiYoShiMo Day 10 – Character Goals

Hello! Welcome back to FiYoShiMo. Today’s Day 10, and it’s the last day we spend on character development. The next two days of character stuff we’ll focus on types of characters based on the information of the last four days.

Having covered all the whats and hows so far, we can look at the whys of a character. The tricky part here is that the character’s goal overlaps too closely with their motivations.

A goal is what the character wants to specifically accomplish, earn, receive or have at the end of the scene, story, arc, or series. A motivation is a driving force that puts momentum and a vector under their efforts.

There are goals to every unit of storytelling. In a beat, scene, or chapter, every involved character has a goal. In a book, every character has a goal. In a series, every character has a goal. And sometimes those goals are shared by other characters, and sometimes the goals parallel other elements of storytelling (a goal within a series may mirror the goal within a beat, but on a larger scale, for instance)

If you’ve got unclear goals, then the moment in the story isn’t going to fit in with the other moments around it. Two people have been arguing all day in other scenes, so it makes sense for them to continue arguing if they’re not near resolving anything. It would not make sense for them to suddenly be all chummy when they get to the frozen food aisle of the grocery store.

To help distinguish the goal from the motivation, you need to look at where the element of storytelling is taking you next. So we have these two arguing characters, they argue when they wake up, they argue over breakfast, they argue after breakfast, they argue in the grocery store. Looking at their activities, we’ve got them starting their day together and needing to go shopping.

Each character’s motivation doesn’t determine whether or not they go to the store, it determines the reasons for the arguing. They’re going to the store because the plot needs them to be shopping. It’s the arguing that’s the variable here, so here we have motivations informing their actions so they can get their goal – each character wants to be right, each character wants to be heard, each character wants to “win” this argument.

Where this gets tricky is when we start to see the plot tree branch away from the main storyline (the villain is going to strike again!) and give us subplots and character arcs (the villain is going to strike again, but we’re over here bitching about cauliflower). When we write, we are aware that we can get off track. We can get distracted while we’re putting the words on the page, as well as within the story as we’re building our worlds and telling our stories. Those deviations from plan affect us in many ways. We start to feel like we’re bad writers, we start to lose readers when story meanders. So we buckle down and we overcompensate. The story gets streamlined and we lose some of the secondary stuff because we didn’t want to risk losing anything.

This gets done a lot. Like your friend’s mom. And like your friend’s mom, it’s not always a good time.

What’s the fix? Clarity.

Yes, the writer has a goal of finishing the story and getting it published or read. Or to make a living as a writer. Those larger goals are important, for sure, but they’re not what we’re talking about here. We’re just cover to cover here, so we have agree that we as humans have that bigger goal, and it’ll get talked about later.

Inside the story, everything has two goals – to keep the reader engaged and to do whatever storycentric thing it has to. Here the tricky part is not inducing panic that any misstep will immediately send the reader running away, because they won’t. Yes, too many mistakes will send them away, but your reader would have to be a complete ((word deleted because while it is one of my favorite words to use, it makes people upset, and probably not because it rhymes with “stunt”)) in order to look at an unclear sentence and declare your work awful.

And frankly, if your reader is that difficult, I don’t think you’d mind seeing them next Tuesday.

Every sentence is a brushstroke in the painting of the mural of your story in the mind of your reader. Whether that sentence is part of a beat, or the closing of a chapter, or a piece of dialogue, or whatever it is, the sentence has to deliver the reader some information. It has to connect the previous one to the one that comes after it. It has to all cohere in a way that makes sense when expressed both individually as as the greater whole.

That’s why we place a premium on structure. That’s why you label your beats, why you map so many facets to your characters, that’s why your characters have something to do. The goal of a character is as big or as small as it needs to be within the confines of the pages, but to that character, it’s a big deal. If it’s not a big deal, why hasn’t it been accomplished yet?

For instance, it’s really important to me that I communicate clearly. It makes my job easier, it makes my relationships with the world easier, it makes good things possible for me. It’s how I get nachos, cocoa, time to play video games, clients, whatever. Wherever you live, my communicative skills aren’t as big a deal to you. You have whatever you have in life. My ability to describe my headspace isn’t going to pay your mortgage or keep your kids from complaining about how grandma smells, or get your boss off your back after you said that you’d handle the Johnson account last week. But if we’re looking at my story, then communication becomes a big deal. If we’re looking at your story, my goal is minor, if not negligible. If we’re looking at our story, my goal has to split time with yours, assuming we’re both protagonists. Seriously though, you said you’d handle the Johnson account. Go do that.

Here comes push-pull again as we move the characters nearer to and then away from their goal. That dynamism is what keeps the reader engaged. Will they accomplish their goal? How hard will it be? What will happen next?

You have to adjust the path of the character to their goal. Keep it too easy, too linear, you’re removing the doubt they could accomplish it, even if you challenge all their weaknesses. Even with objects of weakness, you’d still have to find a way to shoehorn it into the story (how many times does kryptonite just show up because Superman has to have a page of difficulty in a comic?), and that still doesn’t mean the character won’t come out ahead.

Make it too hard, or slow the character’s progress towards the goal, and you’re not making the accomplishment “more worth it”, you’re actually devaluing it. We have a fundamental understanding that the amount of hard work is proportionate to the accomplishment. A doctor performs a difficult surgery to save a life. A cop goes all over the city to catch the criminal. The harder something is, the more satisfying the payoff is.

When we build up a goal and then too quickly pay it off (like in those moments where we realize we’ve written 20K and just now get around to putting in an action scene), that payoff feels out of place, unless you’re going for comedy – all this guy’s hard work, and he just wants a Coke.

In role-playing games, there’s often a difficulty assigned to a goal. Want to get that treasure chest? You need to roll a die and get a certain value or higher. This is a really elementary solution to the problem, but it requires there be a scale for any difficulty a character encounters. How would you compare picking that chest’s lock to finally working out their relationship to their dying parent? Not everything can be made mechanically comparable and still hold impact.

A goal should not only have a reward, but it should carry some element of necessary change to it. Sure, the cop can catch the killer, but along the way they’re going to learn to be okay with their new partner. Yes, the defense attorney can finally find time for love, but she’ll learn this moment while in court, right at the peak of her toughest case. A goal that doesn’t require effort and change to accomplish is not a goal that tests a character.

I have a weak heart, and it’s tough for me to be as active as other people. (Forget for a minute that I’m not supposed to be that active in the first place) I have to do a lot of sitting and breath-catching in the course of anything that isn’t sitting and typing (although lengthy bouts of typing do exhaust me). This stress makes what I say and how I blog it important, a premium over the simple text messages that I send or notes to myself about needing bread on the grocery list. So when I go write 1565-ish words, that’s a big deal to me. The amount of satisfaction I feel is relative to the hard work I had to do. It’s important to see though that the character is the arbiter of the work-satisfaction relationship, not the reader. Too many books make the reader handle the judgment about what is and isn’t good enough, and that leads to softer weak characters and weak actions.

Take the reader along for the ride by demonstrating over the course of the story what the character wants and what they’re doing about it. Be clear and expressive about it. Use the best sentences you can muster. The reader will buy in, and doesn’t need to (or want to) be the boss of your story’s decisions.

What are your character’s goals? How do their motivations and philosophies influence their approach? How do their skills and weaknesses make that goal easier or harder to accomplish?

Tomorrow on Day 11, we’re going to look at what it means to be a Protagonist and an Antagonist. See you then.

FiYoShiMo Day 7: Character Philosophies

Welcome to Day 7 of FiYoShiMo, and welcome to the end of the first week! How’s it going for you? Ready for this?

Today you’ll need your protagonist and antagonist in mind, although later you’re going to apply this to all the major characters, we’re just starting with the primaries. If you don’t know, a major character is a character that interacts with other characters AND the plot through both dialogue and action. So this isn’t the story of guy filling the gas tank on the police chief’s cruiser, just because he has a name and he pumps gas in chapter two. We’re looking at bigger characters than that. People who matter to the story. Sorry gas station guy, you don’t really cut it (but we’ll see you again on Day 12, I promise).

We can sum up today’s lesson with this image:


and I could just stop there, but you know I won’t.

I want you to stop thinking about your characters based on their labels. Forget protagonist and antagonist for a second, consider them as characters in your story. They’ve got plans, based on their goals (we talked about that yesterday with motivations), and now we’re going to marry those plans, motivations and their personal philosophy together.

If their plan is what they’re going to do, their motivation is why they’re going to do it, and the philosophy informs how they’re going to do it.

A person’s code is developed based on both their experiences as well as their ambitions and interests. I have a distrust of lawyers, stemming from a number of bad relationships and experiences, so I believe that the law, on the whole, does more to pervert honesty than preserve it. You may believe that everyone should own six attack dogs and have a room full of munitions, based on whatever your experience and beliefs are. These ideas form the core of who we are, and they help determine what we’re going to do or not do, or how we react to events and other people.

It’s no different for characters. Just because you label a character as an antagonist doesn’t mean they have to go be the most evil of evil characters doing only evil things to earn evil points they can trade in at the evil prize booth. A label on a character only exists so that characters can be compared to other characters. Over time we’ve let that label stretch out so we have a set of expectations to go along with it, but there’s no reason you can’t muddy the waters and subvert expectations.

I don’t always think there should be a clear line between protagonist and antagonist. Yes, I admit to having a deep love for the “we’re not so different you and I” moment in stories, but as I’ve gotten older and been working with more writers, the stories with really clear white-hat/black-hat distinctions are boring. We live in a world with a whole lot of grays. (If you ever want examples, listen to a conversation between family members about hot-button issues. Once you get past the intensity of belief, there’s tons of nuance there)

To blur those lines for the reader, you as a writer need to have crystal clear blueprints. The reader will never see them, but the sharper your image of the character, the easier it will be to present a smudged projection of the character. So let’s build a blueprint.

I’m going to assume we’ve already got the character physically described. Height, weight, race, sex, all the visual elements. That’s the easy stuff. Now we’re going to look at the interior elements, the stuff not seen directly, but the stuff that’s expressed directly … sometimes.

See, a character can express their philosophy directly, like this:

That’s actually a line in the comics, and I think in the first movie. (The one where Superman doesn’t snap a dude’s neck). That line gives the reader/audience TONS of information about what the character believes in and sets up the expectation for how they’re going to act (or not act). The visuals (or in text, the description) help sell that idea. He appears strong, credible and honest. Wholesome.

There’s a fine line between clearly stating the philosophy and jumping all over the place with it. Here’s another example:

I’ll wait here, you go tell me the character’s belief system. See, if you say “anarchy”, or “he doesn’t have one” I’m going to tell you to look again. Every iteration of the Joker has some kind of philosophy. You can’t have a not-flat character and not have a philosophy. And no, psychopathy is not a philosophy, it’s an influencer on philosophy. Everyone believes in something, even the nihilists and solipsists.

This comes down to making decisions. You’re going to build a box and put the character in it. The four walls of this box reflect the character’s limitations, regardless of whether they’re self-imposed or not.

Here’s today’s project:

1. For every major character you have, draw a box. Put the character’s name in the box. (This box is gonna be big, so plan accordingly)

2. On the left side of the box, that’s the hopeless boundary. That’s what it would take for a character to lose all hope regardless of opportunity. Would they have to be rejected romantically? Would they have to lose their family and income? Would they need to be accused of a crime? What makes the character lose hope?

3. On the right side of the box, that’s the hostile boundary. How far is “too far” for this character? Will they kill? Will they kill a child to prove a point? Will they blow up a city to get one person? Will they torture? They might be comfortable going pretty far, but even the most ardent killer has a limitation in terms of environment, interest or external factor (time, attention, that it might slow her from her agenda, etc)

4. The top side of the box, that’s the success boundary. What does success look like for this character? No, not just in terms of this plot, but what’s their relationship to success? Do they say they want to succeed, but if they ever did, they wouldn’t know how to handle it? Do they know they’re capable of getting an A, but the pressure scares them so they manage to do straight B+ work? Do they think they will always succeed? Do they reject all notions of success?

5. The bottom side of the box, that’s the failure boundary. What does failure look like for this character? How do they handle it? Sulking? Do they go have a burrito, watch a lot of porn and then cry while playing video games? Do they swear vengeance and then go push old ladies down stairs? Do they expect failure no matter what?

A character and their philosophy exists larger than the plot. The plot is just the snapshot during which we encounter them.

Box out your characters. When they’re all done, see if you have characters whose boxes share a boundary (if they share more than one, I challenge you as to whether or not you can’t collapse the characters down, so pick one), and then put their boxes next to each other, redrawing them if you need to.

When I say “Share a boundary” I mean where one person has a hopeless boundary, that’s practically another character’s hostility boundary. Or someone’s success boundary is someone else’s failure boundary.  There’s no rule that says you can’t rotate these boxes to see how character philosophies conflict or connect.

And it’s through those conflicts and connections that you have reasons for tension in your story. Two cops, one who follows the rules while the other hates Jews:


Nailed it

brings inherent tension that can extrapolated across the story as an arc unto itself. We’ll talk arcs on Day 13.

Tomorrow, we’re going to look at character skills. Go draw some boxes.

A Roadmap Of An Outline

Well, it’s Sunday night as I write this, so you know what that means – yes my fantasy football team completely went out and sucked. So rather than mourn the inability of grown men to satisfactorily run up and down a field or catch a ball, let’s talk about something really exciting.


No, seriously, we can make them exciting again. But first, we need to cover the not-exciting basics. Which means I get to talk about my relationship to outlines.

I hate them. I hate them the way I hate peas. I hate them the way I hate snow. I hate their stupid preoccupation with order and structure. I hate their completely dull way of sucking all the joy out of my art.

Ever since high school, where my English teacher embarrassed me publicly for not writing one to meet her standards, I have battled outlines both in the practical sense (they take too damned long) and the cerebral (if I have to use one, does that mean I’m not as smart as I think I am, that I just can’t whip up an idea from the top of my head). It’s an ongoing war, and many publishers have routed me on the battlefield for my guerrilla approach. It may be too cavalier, too arrogant, too disorganized, too needing someone else to give me structure.

No, I don’t know why I’m still not making friends with outlines.

But, know your enemy … I think the Wu-Tang Clan taught me that. So let’s meet our foe.

Our first encounters with outlines are probably academic ones. In fact, the majority of outlines you’ll write (assuming there’s not a template for you, but more on that later). The academic outline has Roman numerals, capital letters, and then subdivisions under it. Like this:


I swear I’m going to work on my anger issues.

This builds a staircase of ideas, breaking things down to smaller and smaller units of idea, and keeps it all orderly via indentation. It’s not a bad system, but it can be rigid, and it’s easy to lock in and end up lost if you have to jettison some parts of it later.

The other significant shortcoming in this system is the lack of clear segue between Roman numerals. In all other cases, the letters and subdivisors share a connection, as they’re all facets of the larger idea. But if we’ve stepped on and down this hierarchy for several divisors, and then we jump back up to the next Roman numeral, might that be a little confusing, especially if you revisit the outline after a few days away from it?

Enter the columnar outline. This method doesn’t rely on indentation as a structure giver, it just has lots of small chunks kept under one umbrella idea.

2015-11-22 18.27.03

This is the outline for today’s blogpost.

If this method seems familiar to you, it’s also how we write to-do lists or grocery lists, or if you’re me, practically any thought I need to keep straight beyond binging Netflix or scouring the internet for British televisions shows involving science fiction and people with accents.

If there’s a downside to it, it’s the presumption that all the information on it has equal value. In our example, it’s about making sure all the outline types have equal importance to the topic (they do), but if this were my listing of things I want to do before going to bed, I’d juggle the order around so that my usual evening phone calls and emails to people take precedence over things like making art notes for Noir World, or figuring out a Spotify playlist.

Additionally, there’s the idea that the elements fall in order of priority. Again, for the photo above, they do, but if I put up my to-do list for tomorrow, the coaching sessions with clients, therapy, and paying the cable bill have much more immediate priority to me than making sure I put away the socks I washed today, even if I put socks higher on the list because I was thinking about it while writing.

The structure is pretty baked into the academic and columnar outlines. Let’s look at one that isn’t so linear.


Bonus: I didn’t capitalize or punctuate this idea

This is a visual outline, also called a mind map or mind web or a spatial mapping. This method works really well for visual thinkers (if that’s you, go check out a program called Scapple), but for people like me who don’t process things like they’re CGI elements in Minority Report or an Iron Man movie, this leaves me feeling confused.

With a focus on connections, a visual outline can seem like a great compensation for the janky segues (or lack thereof) in the academic outline model. Here, it’s all segue – how do the ideas connect?

But, when you fail to capitalize or punctuate, it’s tough to immediately get a sense of starting or ending points. Or how to move from connection to connection in a way that I can explain to other people. I mean, I get it, but that’s because I wrote it … hold onto that idea, we’ll come back to that later.

So let’s take this in a different direction. Here’s the method I’m a huge fan of, but that’s because it’s not structured thanks to fancy word processing.

There’s this model of outlining called structured storyboarding. It helps you picture the scene as though it’s paused in your mind, then you Socraticly dissect it and help build it. Like in those movies where people move fast, so everything slows down around them, and they can make adjustments to things.


Like this.

I love this model, because it gets a writer not just thinking about what happens in the moment they’re writing, but also how to describe that moment with some manner of detachment, so they can later apply that same writing to pitches or queries or just plain old talking about what they’re doing.

To do it, you start breaking down the scenes and chapters of what you’re writing into small moments, called beats. We’re gonna talk about beats early on next month in #FiYoShiMo, so for now, let’s say that beats are the foundational element in your story. All the actions, all the stuff people do or think or all the stuff that happens, those are beats. And this method has you writing them down.

There’s a bit of structure here, but it’s designed to get the you thinking. You can check out the nice PDF I made all about it, right here: JOHNBEATBREAKDOWN.

In this beat/slice model, you package your thoughts as more complete constructs than just as items next to letters or numerals, and in a chrononarrative order (meaning: the order they happen in the story) rather than just a vertical columnar to cross off as you write.

You might find many similarities between this method and my preferred note card method, for good reason – they work well together.  So use them. Bring structure to your chaos. You can do this. It’s helpful. Yes, it takes time, but it’s time well spent if it makes writing happen with less difficulty, right?

The negative strike on this method is that it requires time to do, and it asks you to be objective and descriptive about what you’re writing. That might not come easily to you sometimes, but I can stress how critical that skill is when it comes time to query or discuss your work with interested people. Don’t fall down the rabbit hole that you need a lot of research or a lot of prep, since both can become a stall or procrastination, and ultimately an excuse to keep you from writing.

It doesn’t matter which (if any) outline method you use. One is not superior to all of them (we’re talking outlines, not Rings or Highlanders).

I confess to enjoying writing out the beats into chapters or larger chunks of text (called slices, as in slices of pie, because old slang is totally how writing and old Hollywood described anything). It lets me straddle that line between wholly creative and illustrative enough that I’m letting someone see how the story-sausage gets made, without risking my ego that if I show people how this gets done, I somehow lose my value to them.

We’re all tribal primates, organizing information and showing it off informs everything we do from painting on cave walls to sexting to enduring political debates to game playing.

It’s not that stories die in the face of structure like they’re plunging face first into an electrified fence of limitation, but that given structure story can flourish, like the plant you have to tie to a stick so it can support its own weight while it bears fruit.

So find good structure for yourself. And then use it to kick ass.

Do you have a preferred method of outlining? How do you map out the ideas? What works for you? What doesn’t? I’d love to hear from you, either below in the comments and/or on Twitter or Google+.

On Wednesday, we’re going to talk Jessica Jones’ opening five minutes. Bring a legal pad. See you then.

Happy writing.

FiYoShiMo Day 2 – Push-pull, direct and indirect beats

Welcome back. Let’s keep fixing our shit in FiYoShiMo day 2. We’re still looking at beats, and yesterday we talked about some of the beat categories that we use to push and pull the audience along through the journey of our story. I think before we talk more beats, I need to describe what I mean by “push and pull”, since you’re going to see a lot of that phrase this month.

Push-pull isn’t originally a story concept. It started as a communication strategy, something that people do when selling or presenting to an audience (or potential consumer). It was later co-opted by the completely scummy pickup artist movement, and by the time I learned about it, it was thick with near-rapey stigma.

At it’s heart, push-pull is the idea that you lead the listener forward and deeper into what you’re talking about by creating moments of interest and separation. Since they’re talking to you, you assume they’re interested and already invested, and then you encourage more investment of their interest by adding details that keep them interested. That’s the pull. The push (and where this distinguishes itself from its past) comes NOT from pushing people away to rope-a-dope them in later, but instead from pushing out information that may be of interest maybe immediately and maybe later, but the listener won’t know unless they follow along the whole way through.

Let’s use an example. You’re you, and you’ve just done something awesome. Doesn’t matter what it is, but let’s say it was something big, something you didn’t think you could do, and you’re in a celebratory mood … let’s say you’ve just done your first NaNoWriMo, and you feel you’ve accomplished something. You’re talking to your friend, who in this example isn’t a writer. They read books, sure, they’re not a troglodyte, but they’re not a writer. So, you start talking to your friend about what the novel is about. They might not “get” the parts where you talk about craft, they might glaze over the sentences where you laugh about your dependent clauses being co-dependent clauses (no, you’re not the first person to make that joke) … but that’s the push. You’re putting out that information which might interest them later, but it’s not directly related to the parts that do interest them, which is the pull, and for our example, it’s the parts of the plot that your listening friends wants to read.

You can’t tell the whole story without both the push out and pull in of information. Why? Because you can’t account for everyone’s likes and dislikes and interests. So you broadcast the whole story, and trust people to pick the parts they like. (Bonus points if you see the parallel here to how you deal with critics.) If you skimp on the push, you’re suggesting you can predict what your audience wants, or you’re deciding for them what will interest them, because they’re not capable of deciding for themselves. If you skimp on the pull, you’re not providing spots for the audience to invest, and you’re suggesting you don’t think yourself worthy of your audience or that your story isn’t good enough to be cared about. And that’s bullshit. In our example, this person you’re talking to is your friend, and they do care, otherwise you would just go find another friend-human who would.

Take advantage of every opportunity to push and pull with your audience. This is your connection to them, and like any relationship, you want that connection to be as stable as it can be, even if it’s fluid. Don’t walk on eggshells thinking that if you start going off in some story direction, you’re going to make people hurl the book across the room and they’ll swear off reading things forever. Sorry, you’re just not that powerful. They might not like the book, they might not read any more of your stuff, but you’re not going to send them running to watch vapid half-hour comedies about nerds or fat husbands with shrew wives. The audience comes the book to take the ride, and you’re going to give them a hell of one. You’re not minding baby ducks, you don’t need to hover over them to make sure none get lost. Trust them to make their own decisions about how they invest their time and energy, and don’t restrict yourself by trying to predict how they’re going to respond – there’s one of you, and how many of them? Chasing down all their responses is a quick road to madness and writer frustration.

I’d love to be able to tell you that push-pull can be mastered after one novel. Or one year. Or ten. Like so many other writing tools in our toolbox, mastery is an ever-fluid process. Don’t hunt it down. Go for fluency. Go for comfortable using it, that you could use it well enough to get by and have it be helpful, sort of like how people view Microsoft Excel or social media – you don’t need to be the number one go-to guru, you just need to know which end is up.

We’ll revisit push-pull a lot this month, it’ll come up when we talk about things like character traits or plot resolution. It’ll be seen in exposition and narration. Like your friend’s mom, it gets around.

You can see the impact of push-pull on the beats we’re going to talk about today. Yesterday we outlined action, investigation and emotional beats. Now we’re going add some depth to beats. Let’s see how we can torque beats to give them some extra weight, sticking power, and impact.

There are two ways to approach any beat. So, to follow along, I want you to get some of what you wrote. You can use the stuff from yesterday if you want, or you can find new stuff. Doesn’t matter, so long as you can pick out some beats. I’ll wait right here for you.

All set? Armed with words? Onward then.

Pick a beat. If you haven’t already, identify it. Don’t worry about the consequence yet, we’ll get there in a few paragraphs. For now, just label the beat. As an example, I’ll do an action beat:

A woman robs a liquor store. She draws a gun on the cashier and tells him to fill a pillowcase with money. The cashier complies, but moves too slow for the woman’s liking, so she shoots him in the chest. She leaves as the cashier bleeds all over the instant lottery tickets behind him.

(what? I swear the next beat will be cheerier, quit looking at me like that)

That’s an action beat with an expected consequence. It’s got several moving parts that we know about:
i. We know she’s got a gun, and that it works.
ii. We know she makes an overt demand for money.
iii. We know the cashier complies.
iv. We get a sense of the robber’s impatience.
v. We see the end result of the bullet entering the cashier.

Here’s what isn’t mentioned:
a) We don’t know why she’s robbing the store.
b) We don’t know if the cashier actually is moving slow or not.
c) We don’t know what the cashier is feeling or thinking as the blood leaves their body.
d) We don’t know what the cashier is thinking while the robbery is happening.
e) We don’t know any of what happens next.

Now maybe in that beat, we like some parts more than others. For me, I like the moment she pulls the gun. I like her impatience. I like the gunshot moment. Maybe you like the blood. Maybe you like the cashier putting money in a pillowcase. We don’t have to like the same things, let alone for the same reasons. Those things we like pull us in.

The stuff we don’t like, the stuff that’s necessary for the beat to develop but it just isn’t making us as excited as the other stuff, that’s the push. We need the whole beat, and in order to get the whole thing, we need those parts that don’t jazz us up. We wade through the not-so-cool to get to the cool stuff. Was it really so torturous? In our example, it’s a chunk of sentence.

So that’s an action beat. It’s also a direct action beat. A direct beat is a beat with some kind of consequence that immediately connects to and furthers the plot. Let’s say that our action beat example is the opening scene for our story, and our story is some crime fiction about a lady robber making her way in the city. Even if this is a flashback to her lowest moment, even if this isn’t an opening to the story, so long as this ties to plot, it’s a direct beat.

Direct beats form the spine for a story. Everything in the story from beginning to end is going to get framed by those direct beats. They’re both a boundary and a foundation, they’re the results of the decisions you’ve made in writing (Remember – Rule #1: Writing is the act of making decisions.) If you’re still not sure what direct beats look like, they’re also the things we tell each other when we summarize things we’ve read or watched:

Girl gets selected for membership in dystopic youth Thunderdome
She impresses people by being the most special
She fakes her way into a romance, then falls in love with her co-competitor
She spins this love into a plan of action to topple a government, somehow Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up in one of his final roles.

There, I gave you (my slightly biased) direct beats for The Hunger Games films.

Now, summarize for me your NaNo novel. Go ahead. Give me as much detail as you want, take your time. This isn’t a pitch, I just want you to summarize what happens. How does it start? And then what happens? And after that?

You probably told me a lot of direct beats. Yes, you paraphrased, but you’re still giving direct beats.

Now let’s flip the coin over. If there’s a direct beat, what’s an indirect beat. An indirect beat is something that happens as a reaction to a direct beat, but isn’t a direct beat itself. This gets a little tricky for people, since we’re not only talking reactions. Reactions can be direct beats – our example robber shoots the gun, the cashier bleeding is a reaction and direct beat that advances the plot, especially if we kill the cashier off. So now we have to zoom out a little. Let’s look at the scene we’re breaking down in order:

1. The woman makes a decision to and then acquires the gun.
2. She robs the liquor store and kills the cashier
3. The police begin to track her down after talking to the cashier’s family

That’s the flow of the story. Maybe you’ve got them on notecards or an outline. There are indirect beats throughout those 3 scenes. Does this woman argue with anyone about the decision to get the gun? Is the cashier’s family grieving? Are they angry? Those are all reactions to the direct beats, but they themselves don’t become direct beats until acted upon.

If she does argue with someone, say a girlfriend, if that girlfriend moves out, and because the girlfriend moves out our female robber descends into further crime, then we’re talking direct beat. But just moving out with no “and then” attached? Indirect.  Same with the grieving family. It’s all indirect until the parents of the cashier decide to seek their own justice.

An indirect beat doesn’t forward the plot, it enriches the story by adding emotional weight, or emphasis on character decisions or actions. It’s the realization you like Hamilton, and you’re worried that if you confess the number of times you listen to the whole soundtrack during a workday, you’ll be shunned from the writer/editor colony.

Indirect beats inform future plot. It helps shape the “why” things are happening, leaving the “how” for direct beats later. If you look at the notecard trick linked above, those additional vertical layers we built, those all frame out as indirect beats.

Yes, the potential of the indirect beat is that it could be made direct. It’s all about potential, a unit of stored energy you can tap or not, and it’s fine either way. You don’t have to turn all the indirect beats into direct ones, and you don’t need to have corresponding indirect beats for each direct one. Going one step further, you aren’t limited to a one-to-one ratio. Who’s to say that the dead cashier doesn’t have both grieving parents AND a secret lover? Who’s to say the robbery wasn’t the best thing to happen to our lady because now she gains street cred as an unintended benefit of her efforts, even if the guilt sends her spiraling into addictions or insomnia?

This is all part of the construction of story. Look at your scenes. You’ve found the direct beats already. Do you see the indirect ones? Are any there? Could you find space to add some? Do you have too few, meaning you’re not letting things go unsaid, which means you’re not letting the reader fill in any blanks, which means they’re not really investing in the story (because you aren’t giving them space to)? Do you have too many? Are you cheating yourself by letting the reader fill in too many gaps?

That last part there, that balance, that’s the tricky bit. There’s no formula, it’s done via a lot of feel and drafting and revision. So, practice. Rewrite the scene where you think you can do a better job with direct and indirect beats. Share it. Share it on Twitter. In an email. To your friends. To me. To whomever. Just go practice.

Tomorrow on FiYoShiMo, we’re going to talk tone. You’ll need your opening chapter handy.

See you then.

FiYoShiMo Day 1: Beats, beats and more beats

So here we are. The first of December. NaNoWriMo has wrapped up, and regardless whether you wrote 50k or not, this is Day 1 of FiYoShiMo, or Fix Your Shit Month.

What we’re going to do every day in December (not on Christmas though), is take a look at what you wrote in November, and we’re going to take it apart, so that you can see the moving parts, and figure out what parts work and what don’t. This isn’t meant to convince you that you are completely worthless and shouldn’t be writing, this is going to show you that what you’ve written in November HAS merit and value, and that you have some ability to write – you just need to focus and practice, and learning some writing craft would be good.

For today, you’re going to need some of what you wrote. Get some scenes. Doesn’t matter if they’re sequential, or even if they’re from the same chapter. Go grab some text from your manuscript. How much? How about 3 scenes? I’ll wait here.

We good to go? Awesome.

Before we get our hands dirty, we have to look at the craft element we’re talking about today – beats.

A “beat” in a story (whether that’s a novel, a script, a short play, a whatever) is a moment of action or reaction. It’s something happening. In screenwriting, you get a beat about every few minutes or so. In novel writing, you get a beat just about every paragraph or two, unless you’re running a long stretch of description or set-up.

By most accounts, the beat is the smallest unit in storytelling. A bunch of beats together forms a scene, a bunch of scenes together forms a plot, so really, beats build your plot. Beats come in a couple different flavors, all with their own purposes. A beat always has some kind of consequence. There are a few different kinds of consequences to talk about.

The expected consequence is the reasonable assumption and reasonable outcome of a beat. The gun goes off, the bullet has to go somewhere. The timer hits zero, the bomb has to detonate. You step on the gas, the car goes forward. When the expected consequence happens, the reader is (ideally) satisfied, excited and is encouraged to move forward in the story to see how the rest of the dominoes topple as the story progresses. More often than not, you’re going have more expected consequences than any other kind.

The unexpected consequence is the outcome that doesn’t happen, even if it’s expected. This is less frequent than the natural consequence, and ideally, it’s a small boost of tension to a scene. A gun jams or a clip runs dry. The car doesn’t start, even though it’s got a key in the ignition. You take the expected outcome and you deny it, for whatever reason (you need a reason for it to be an unexpected consequence). This doesn’t generate reader satisfaction usually, but it does propel them forward, it makes them want to keep reading to find out what’s next. The danger here is that if you have a lot of unexpected consequences, they become expected, sort of like how everyone expects M Night Shyamalan movies to have some kind of twist. (This is separate from the expectation that Shyamalan movies are going to be awful suckfests that you’ll only find enjoyable through mockery.) What makes them exciting and special is their rarity.

The unnatural consequence is the outcome that happens, but we don’t know why it happens and often it shouldn’t have happened the way it did, so we’re driven to read more of the story to find out why. These are most often big moments in a story that set up a significant element – like why didn’t Harry get killed by Voldemort or why can’t Jason Bourne remember who he is. Again, these consequences are rare in frequency, and rarity often leads to significance.

An action beat is a moment of something happening. Not necessarily limited to something blowing up or a fight or a gun shot, but something physical that happens is the most common way to describe an action beat. An action beat is decisive, and the story gains momentum through them.

Action beats are the cornerstone in most genres. Again, don’t think they’re just physical, you can have mental action beats where you have your great detective puzzling out the solution to the mystery and builds an elaborate maze of string on a corkboard, or social action beats where the team is rallied by a passionate halftime speech. A beat is a moment, and practically everything you’re writing is either a moment unto itself, it expands on an existing moment, or it sets up a future moment.

There are also investigative or mystery beats (I’m going to call them both). Whereas the action beat is a moment where something happens as a result of often a physical stimulus, the investigative beat happens due to the need to gain more information, and it’s often the search for information that leads to other things happening. Your intrepid detective sits down, lamenting to their sidekick that the mystery is tough, then the sidekick says something and whoosh, the detective is out the door with the solution. Or the detective scours the crime scene, and the text describes how odd this looks to other people (because oddity is evidence of genius). Or the suspicious mother presses redial on her daughter’s phone. Or the nervous student asks a follow-up question. Yes, you can argue that investigation is itself an action, but the critical part of the investigation beat is the stuff going on in a character’s mind.

Now if we’re in first-person, and we have access to this character’s mind, the investigative beats become responses to the world around the character, all of which we interpret as narration. However, if your character is mystery-adjacent (if they’re the civilian who won’t have access to the material the cops do, for instance). then mystery beats require there be some sort of way for the character to reach the same conclusions as the cops, just by taking a different route. This is most often accomplished by going through a second character referred as a knowledge proxy (often someone with a specialization in the exact stuff the character needs to know to solve the mystery). In The Dresden Files, Bob the Skull is your knowledge proxy. In Harry Potter, it’s most often Hermione, though occasionally it’s Neville or a ghost or someone else just roaming around the fifteenth chapter or so.

If we’re in third-person, there’s a tricky line to tow around the show versus tell balance. Show versus tell, for me, is always a barometer about how much or how little the writer trusts/likes their audience. Showing them, allowing them to reach their own conclusions or have their own feelings, shows a great deal of trust, it suggests that the writer knows the reader will “get it” (whatever it is). Telling them, dictating how or what they should think or feel suggests the writer thinks the audience won’t “get it” (and this is where you’ll often see a writer desperate to be recognized as good enough or smart). Hitting that balance, frankly, means doing a little bit of both from time to time. It’s experiential, and my best advice to you about it on day 1 of FiYoShiMo is to aim for more show than tell, but know that telling can be a great way for a reader to get a starting point for showing. Again, this is a practice thing.

Action beats are telling that masquerades as showing. We are shown the gun going off, but we’re told the response. Mystery beats are showing that masquerades as telling. We’re told how the detective solved the crime, but we’re given enough room to see if we can piece it out ourselves.

Where do those consequences fall here?

The expected consequence to a mystery beat is that the plot advances. We see that the gun found at the scene is or isn’t the murder weapon, and then we’re led further into the story. A mystery beat’s expected consequence (at least prior to the mystery’s solution) should lead the reader to ask a question, often “What happens now?” Once you reach the moment of the mystery’s solution, the question shifts to “How does this wrap up?” which is the obvious question to ask at any story’s conclusion. Expected consequences in mystery beats act like accelerators. They often move the story forward, possibly too fast, and they can lead to boring scenes. If we always know what’s coming, what’s the incentive to read? Where’s the challenge? For minor developments, expected beats confirm reader thinking, but keep them small and incremental.

The unexpected consequence to a mystery beat is also plot advancement, though often with changes to the mystery-information we already have. (Another word for mystery-information is clue.) With an unexpected consequence, we change the amount of suspects, motives, alibis, and other clues. The pieces of the mystery that we’re building don’t connect in the way we expected, so that drives us into the story to find out both how the pieces connect, or what we’re missing to make them connect. This makes unexpected consequences a regular occurrence with mystery beats.

The unnatural consequence to a mystery beat is often an action beat. Look at any crime-solving show with a male protagonist. Rockford Files. Magnum PI. Even the formulaic CSI shows. They find something out, even if it fits perfectly with existing information, it segues into action. The footprint means that guy really is guilty, go arrest him. The butter melted an extra eighth of a centimeter, she totally killed her husband. (Note: this is also true for shows with female protags, though often the action beat is indirect, since other people get called in to do the action … but we’ll get to direct and indirect tomorrow). Whereas with action beats the unnatural consequence is rare, they’re pretty common with mystery beats, since you have to winnow down suspects and increase tension.

The emotional beat, also called the meaningful beat if you suffered through some of the same classes I did, is the third major kind of beat we’re talking about today. Yes, others exist, but I want to keep the focus here for Day 1. When the others crop up, we’ll talk about them this week. The emotional beat adds an additional layer to whatever is going on, no matter what it is. This often happens through dialogue and reactions to dialogue (and when it does, we call them emotional dialogue beats, isn’t that original?).

The crying child embracing his mother. The tearful man being vulnerable to the love of his life. The farmboy staring off in the distance under his desert’s planets twin suns. Film underscores the emotional beat by usually having a swell in music (especially true when there isn’t talking, but there needs to be some sound to help convey that this is a moment where the audience should be feeling something — see the show, not tell — but it’s left to them to feel whatever they do). Emotional beats help punctuate and emphasize scenes. They provide signposts to the reader suggesting that they should be so far along in their commitment to the story, and points out the path to go forward. A story without emotional beats can seem like a summary, or leave the reader wondering why they should invest any further. Don’t neglect these beats.

The expected consequence of an emotional beat is by definition unclear. That’s what makes it tricky (and vital) to a story. It isn’t about the gun or the gunshot, it’s about the feelings of the people involved and the moment they’re in. Is this the moment where you can’t believe that they’re going to kill Sean Bean (again)? Is this the moment where you reveal he’s been dead the whole time (I either mean Sean Bean or your character)? The story is free to go in whatever direction you want, but remember that you’re going to need to give the story momentum here – an emotional beat might be important, but it can eat inertia. A little push is often a good idea here. Keyword is little, though that’s variable depending on what you’re doing or the scope of what you’re talking about.

The unexpected consequence of an emotional beat is called subversion, which is where you set up a scene to suggest that it’s going to pay off a certain way, then pay it off another way. This is where you, for example, get the classic double-cross, where a character turns on another character as plot advancement. An unexpected consequence is most often an action beat – something happens and that’s what left our jaws hanging.

The unnatural consequence is reader confusion. If your reader is left scratching their head about why this effect follows that cause, you’ve raised a red flag. Don’t do that. Always make sure you and your reader can time the emotional beat to something. Yes, they might not fully understand what you’re putting together when they reach page 20, but by page 120, they should be well on their way (I’m making page numbers up here). There’s a difference between needing more information and having no freaking clue what’s happening. Usually a reader looking for more information will keep reading, but if this is part of a pattern they’ve experienced with your story, expect them to discover alternate uses for the pages. Maybe an end table needs leveling. It’s wintertime, tinder is always a good idea.

Having now laid out three types of beats, I want you to take a look at the scenes you have in front of you. Can you spot the beats? Can you find the moments that build this story’s skeleton? When you find one, mark it in the margin: A for action, I for Investigation, E for Emotion. You can track consequences if you want, marking them little “e” for expected, “un” for unexpected, and “x” for “unnatural”.

Once you get all the A’s, I’s, and E’s marked, do you see any patterns? Are there not many E’s on the page? Are there way more A’s than you expected? Do your beats fall in one consistent order, even when you think you’re trying a new approach?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single unifying theory that says how many of each beat-type you should have. But here are three things I want you to look at today so we can go forward with this tomorrow:

i. You should be able to tie an emotional beat to an action beat that brought the reader to it, and to an action beat that leads from it. Like we’re making an action-emotion-action beat Oreo.
ii. An investigative beat should produce new information that leads to an action beat somewhere, if not right away. Even if that new information is a unit of “we eliminate old info”, there’s a corresponding action beat prompted by what’s been learned.
iii. Your expected consequences should vastly outnumber your unexpected and unnatural consequences.

Tomorrow, for FiYoShiMo Day 2, we’re going to look at Direct and Indirect beats, which is going to build on what we’ve got here.

See you then.

What Did I Just Watch – How To Get Away With Murder, First Episode

As I’ve done elsewhere (here, here and here), I watch a TV show and poke at its writing, its characters and its plot. I get critical and snarky and often offer a more compelling rewrite when necessary. It’s been a long time (5 years) since I dusted off my screenwriting skills, but I still keep abreast of good writing and writing analysis when it comes to things on screen.

Today I take a look at How To Get Away With Murder, because six people on Twitter told me I should, and because Netflix thinks I might like it. Did I? Kinda. Enough to want to watch more.

It’s a popular show, and I can see why. But it’s by no means without weaknesses. So let’s talk about them.

First, Let’s Cover The Characters (thanks to Wikipedia, I have character names)

Wes Gibbins – Let’s call him Slack-Jawed Eager New Guy. He’s the character we follow the closest in this ensemble. He’s marked by eagerness, newness, and I think there’s something wrong with his neck and face, but we’ll get to that later.

Professor Keating – She’s the tough as nails and therefore badass and strong law professor around whom the show orbits. She’s complex, she’s mean, she’s intentionally unlikeable and therefore mysterious, and plenty of characters tell me that she’s a good lawyer, so I don’t have to bother discovering that for myself. Thanks for all the TELL to save me from having to work on the SHOW. Let’s call her Mean Lawyer.

Connor Walsh – The gay narcissist part of the law student ensemble. Let’s call him RuthlessGuy because I don’t think anyone told him he wasn’t a rom-com badguy.

Michaela Pratt – Another tough as nails, strong, badass. Let’s call her UnlikeableWoman. We’ll talk about her in some detail later.

Asher Millstone – Still one more guy from the law student ensemble. I think he’s the token white character among all the diversity. I have very little idea what he brings to the group other than helping it appear more diverse. Oh, he’s got a terrible name that should be on someone who ties a sweater over his shoulder and worries about a regatta or stock portfolios. Let’s call him PreppyGuy.

Laurel Castillo – She’s an idealistic law student, she’s also the check mark on the obvious Hispanic demographic. And being that this is a primetime show, I bet at some point she’s going to (a) have a troubled backstory with a broken home (b) start an inappropriate relationship where she has to trade idealism for success (c) go full skank and use discovered sex appeal to get what she wants. Call her the Idealistic One.

We’ll add some other characters as we go along.

I’m watching this episode (sadly) in 480p, so my screencaps may be blurry. I apologize. You can also follow along yourself, on Netflix.

The Breakdown

Opening 20 seconds: Staccato intro – imagery of TP, people bunched together, tension, anger, energy. Music underscores this. I like this intro, it’s got a good sense of interest, it’s visually engaging. In text I imagine a few paragraphs of various vignettes, not completely spelling everything out, but giving the highlights.

Cluttered. Underlit. The visual equivalent of about three paragraphs of worldbuilding.

Cluttered. Underlit. The visual equivalent of about three paragraphs of worldbuilding.

0:34 After a harsh sweep from hot color to cold color, we see a man blurrily running. The implication is that this is a character we’re going to follow. The move from hot color to cold color is visual, it’s the same thing in text when we start a paragraph with a name just after spending some time doing a little worldbuilding. I prefer this in text. The underlighting and over saturation of blue makes things look unclear.

0:37 After following the running man, we come to another poorly lit moment. An argument. It’s the first use of the word “bitch”, and it gets a response of, “Don’t tell me how to feel right now.” By putting the characters at odds with one another but only through dialog, you’re expediting the audience’s connection to the tension and the momentum of a story in progress. It’s not a bad thing to do, but it can be overdone and it makes really big assumptions on behalf the audience as to how they’re to connect with characters depending on what they’re saying. The tension of the moment is revealed in the dialogue’s delivery, which is preferable to outright saying what the problem is by saying it. (We’ll talk about that in a second.)

0:42 The revelation of an object is the first major camera move, and the first major visual cue that this item is important.

Look at where the light falls on this thing. It's screaming

Look at where the light falls on this thing. It’s screaming “PAY ATTENTION TO ME”

The fact that we are so blatantly told to pay attention to this item tells the audience it is important. It tells me, as I critique this, that the writer(s) don’t trust the audience to figure out that the first individuated item shown on screen since the opening montage would by default be important. This is the sort of things that earns a “WHY DO YOU HATE YOUR AUDIENCE” comment from me.

** For the new people, I often challenge the writer with why they hate their audience or reader when the writer fails to show that they believe or trust their reader/audience to be competent enough to follow along or get what’s important. It’s one of the things I’m known for **

0:48 The show’s first legal citation, Commonwealth v Deloach. Spoken by Idealistic One, it shows her character is brainy, and that during this crisis-argument, she speaks less emotionally. I have zero idea who these people are or what they’re doing, but it has something to do with this trophy. And the show title gives me an idea that murder is a thing that happens. I can draw from these facts that the idealistic one knows something about the law. It would be great if I got some character names so I could distinguish people.

1:00 Oh look, I get some character names – Connor, Michaela. If these characters know each other, why name-check? Is it because there’s an audience and we’ve gone 60 seconds without any proper nouns aside from a legal reference? When my friends and I talk (and generally not in poorly lit forests), I seldom name check them when we’re all together because we are all smart enough to figure out who’s talking to and about whom, and if for some reason it’s unclear, someone asks. Ding the “Why do you hate your audience” bell again.

Yes I know, we have to introduce characters, and we often do that through names spoken in dialogue. Yes, I know that during exposition text, we don’t need to speak the character’s name, especially in third-person POV. I just wish the dialogue was smoother. Not less calm, smoother. Less I-am-using-your-name-so-the-audience-associates-it-with-your-stupid-face” and more I-am-a-real-person-in-this-situation-and-this-is-my-reaction.

1:14 The dialogue continues doing a whole lot of telling and not a lot of showing. We learn this is a campus and that this is a busy time of year, even though we saw that visually about seventy seconds ago. The fact that this has to be told to me does two things:

i. It dings the “Why do you hate your audience” bell
ii. It makes me dislike the character saying this line even more.

Because it’s a bossy, I’m-trying-to-be-tough thing to say. It’s not a quip because it’s not played for comedy, but as the line of dialogue is so lengthy and delivered so aggressively, it’s more TELL and less SHOW. I don’t know why we couldn’t have been trusted to figure out that a bonfire and a sports coach saying they were going to kick Ohio’s ass (or whatever) didn’t clue us into it being a campus sufficiently. Are there people who actually see that and think there’s a border dispute or state-to-state hostility branching out? If so, you’re on notice South Dakota, it might be time for you to become West New Jersey.

1:24 “This is murder none of us know what we’re talking about.” Cue the suspenseful organ music. This point of speech is way on the nose. It reveals plot – these people killed someone – and dialogue should not reveal plot, dialogue is a reaction to plot (you don’t need to talk about the plot, because these characters were presumably present for it happening)

It’s like saying:

“What a car wash.”
“Yes that car wash we were at sure was interesting, right my three friends who attended the car wash with me not ten minutes ago before we came to this malt shop?”

Here the audience gets spoonfed  because it’s clear this show doesn’t trust anyone enough to pick up what’s going on. They’ve talked evidence, wiping prints and putting an item back, it’s a show called “How To Get Away With Murder” as the title. I’m sure people can put two and sixty-five together and see what’s happening. But no, we get this line of dialogue from the Idealistic One. Much like explaining a joke, if you have to spell out what’s going on, you’ve already lost.

These characters circle the plot somewhat or at least sort of dance around the shadow of the crisis that’s led them to this moment, before finally flipping a coin to figure what to do with a body. Have these people not seen a TV show, movie or video game? If the death was accidental I could see a sense of surprise (“Oh gosh I’m sorry I didn’t know caving in your head would kill you), but with this many people involved, I don’t think someone tripped, fell and landed repeatedly on a blunt instrument in someone’s hand.

My first suggestion was that they’d use the bonfire from the opening in some way, because when you set up a thing, you should use it in some way, and because maybe I’ve spent too much time enjoying media with body counts so the story development around murder isn’t so shocking. I also suggested they take the corpse out in a boat on the Italian coast and toss it overboard before impersonating them for a while.

So they circle the plot and stall their argument (so we really know they’re conflicted, you guys) and then flip a coin.

2:10 The toss of the coin cuts to the spinning of a bicycle tire because someone struggled I guess to think of a worse transitional device. Is it because both objects are round? It can’t be because both are spinning – the coin is flipping, the wheel is rotating, it’s not the same axis of movement. Either way, we transition out of cold blue light to bright day, which means this is a flashback to simpler happier times. The text on screen tells us it’s 3 Months Earlier, and immediately establishes that this show will cut back and forth between MurderTime and ColorfulTime.

THERE ARE NINE SECONDS OF BIKE RIDING. NINE. Are we showing off his pedaling skills? He’s not doing tricks. He’s just riding in a straight line. It’s not a custom bike. It’s not about the bike riding, is it? Whatever it is, this is filler.

2:35 We see our viewpoint character looking up at the name of the building he’s entering. Middleton Law School. The shot
lingers on the sign SO THAT YOU KNOW HE IS GOING TO LAWYER SCHOOL. Again, audience, eat your nom noms.

2:44 We move inside the building for the first reveal of a missing girl who sort of looks like Avril Lavigne. The camera is starting to stick on shots, which is the visual equivalent of writing multiple sentences about a thing. We’re one step away from having a giant arrow appear to tell us what’s important.

Our POV character, it’s worth pointing out, has some issue with his face, because for the last nearly 3 minutes, he’s made essentially one face.

See the half open mouth? Maybe it's a jaw issue.

See the half open mouth? Maybe it’s a jaw issue.

If this look is meant to show amazement at him being a fish out of water (we’ll later learn that he is, because he’ll TELL us, not show us), then the look should have happened AS he was coming into the scene, not brought with him from before. Now he just looks like a bipedal trout.

3:04 We endure some famous real-world lawyer name checks to help reinforce that we’re in lawyer school. Again, we’re TOLD that Keating is as good as, or better than other people. It’s not questioned. It’s just a fact in this universe. This saves us the trouble of drawing our own conclusions about how good a person is at a job. Notice how we’ve lingered on a few people with that sticky camera. Think about this in terms of an exposition paragraph. Does each one of these lines of dialogue warrant its own sentence? Could this get summarized? How could the audience care more about this stuff?

3:16 Warning! Annoying trope ahead! New Guy meets Unlikeable Woman. And we see her as a ubiquitous “strong” character who doesn’t put up with anything. She’s holding a highlighter in her hand so you know she’s focused and dedicated. The fact that she’s black and a woman helps fill out the show’s “Necessary to pacify the internet” bingo card. The idea of the “bitchy” character being synonymous with strong propagates the idea that a woman (especially a black one) has to be so tough in order to be perceived as strong, else she’s played for nearly racist comedy

This is the moment where I put the brakes on and write this out in large letters on my notepad:

Bitchy =/= strong Sassy =/= strong

Yes, sure we can “relate” to bitchy characters in the sense that we know of them in our real lives, but do we really enjoy
their company? Do we like to hang out with them? Do you want to get to know someone so forcibly tough and spiky on purpose? Does their hostility and arrogance make them attractive to you?

3:21 The assigned seating dialogue concludes the meet-not-cute and prompts the subsequent scene. I highlight this because New Guy never struggles to find his seat, although in a few seconds he’ll be in the correct seat without difficulty. For a fish out of water, he’s not demonstrating a whole lot of struggle. He’s not showing a lot of competence either.

3:37 Intro of Axis Character. An Axis Character is the character around which the whole show moves, they’re often the title character (House, Sherlock, Frasier) or they’re the biggest star in the cast (like here, it’s Viola Davis) She’s also tough. We know this based on her first line and how she delivers it: “I don’t know what terrible things you’ve done in your life up to this point but clearly your karma is out of balance to get assigned to my class.”

Remember how we just talked about tough as nails not being the same as strong? Teeth bared, claws out posturing isn’t
strength, it’s aggression. It’s a response to perceived threat, the way that strength of character is perseverance or strength
of body is bending bars and lifting gates.

The more hostile and in-your-face, the harder it is for the audience to connect, or want to connect, unless your audience
is packed with people who either submit to strength quickly, or they’re looking for aggressors to emulate so they can mask their own insecurities.

4:00 Viola Davis (I’ve now decided to just imagine that this is how Viola is everyday, that this isn’t a role for her) sells the title. For those that don’t know ‘selling the title’ is when you reference the title within the work, usually in dialogue. It’s a little cute, but it happens here.

You noticed how her head obscures part of the title, right? That's a pretty crappy shot.

You noticed how her head obscures part of the title, right? That’s a pretty crappy shot.

4:18 There’s a line here about “a real lawyer” which I think is meant to reinforce that Viola Davis isn’t the in the fucking around business (more on that later), but the delivery here makes me think this line was supposed to have more to the paragraph, like she was supposed to trash some people to set herself up for genius.

4:28 We’re just now getting to the plot. If we hold to the screenwriting maxim that a page is about a minute of show, we’re 4.5 pages into our script. It’s hard to parse that into novel terms, but I’m willing to say we’re about three pages in at least. Now, I’ve taken a lot of slices here every few seconds, but is it me, or does this show feel like I’ve been watching it for 13 hours?

5:22 About a minute goes by and we’re getting plot, but then we go make New Guy a fish out of water by asking him what the mens rea for the plot is. My issue with this scene, aside from the camera shot, is that this is a law school, yes, and presumably, he had to take the LSAT to get into this law school. And presumably the LSAT included the term mens rea on it … so why is he acting like he’s never heard of it? Is that because the average audience member isn’t up on their legal terminology? Or is the writer hating the audience again because they’ve managed to make the Axis Character look smarter than everyone else (which she should be, she’s teaching) and the POV character dumber than everyone else (which he shouldn’t be if we’re supposed to believe he belongs in this environment)?

In this setup of plot, we also learn that New Guy is a transfer student, so he’s unprepared. Why he doesn’t speak up and say this until he’s spoken to first, I don’t know. We also get to see glimpses of our ensemble as the aspects they represent.

New Guy – creativity and eagerness

Ruthless Guy – intelligence and focus

Idealistic One – Validation seeking

Unlikeable Woman – Take charge attitude

Other Guy – Other stuff

Often what happens in ensemble pieces, individual characters represent aspects. There’s the brave one, the smart one, the outgoing one, etc. This concept shows up in a lot of media.

7:30 With the plot thoroughly explained and the characters roughly sketched, we go forward to a new scene. Where an entire classroom is now in an office listening to the “client”. Aside from my complete confusion as to how this is allowed, because I’m pretty sure they all gained knowledge about an ongoing case and there’s gotta be rules about that I think, there’s a logistical issue.

Here’s the classroom in the previous scene:

Big room, lots of people in seats.

Big room, lots of people in seats.

And here’s the classroom inside her office:

How can all these people hear one woman at the far end of the room?

How can all these people hear one woman at the far end of the room?

Really? All these people in that space? Is her office the TARDIS? I’m calling disproportionate description. My rewrite (later in this blogpost) will reflect changes to avoid this setup.

8:41 Introduction of Frank. I really wanted him to say “badabing” or “badabing badaboom”, but instead he’s the token sexist not-a-lawyer-but-a-guy-who-gets-things-done guy.

8:50 Introduction of Bonnie. She’s pretty generic here. She pops back up later and we’ll discuss her then.

9:05 Hey you guys, remember that item we set up about eight minutes ago? Now it’s back! We’re paying off our setups, right? We all took screenwriting 101 and we were all in class for the third week, right? All we have to do now is save the cat!

The fact that this object gets called out to give it additional importance (it’s a motivator for characters to perform well, it’s only coincidentally the murder weapon or vice versa) is unnecessary. If it were just an object in the room that the camera didn’t center a shot on, this would seem more natural. And it would keep the focus on the murder and the statue’s use as a weapon or evidence. Again, this gets changed in my rewrite.

9:08 We cut BACK to the MurderTime. I’ll remind you that we were there about eight minutes ago. Eight minutes, maybe one commercial break has passed. Referencing something that happened in less time than it does to get up, put on a pot of tea, heat tea, steep tea and sit back down to drink it is not vital. It’s lazy. It’s spoonfeeding us more and more show. I know, this is Episode 1 of a show, and they want to give all the interesting stuff a chance to hook the audience, but when you’re hooking people in ways that don’t assume their intelligence, how long do you expect them to keep watching?

10:41 After a jump back to ColorfulTime to show New Guy discovering just how much out of water he is, we’re back again to MurderTime. It’s been a little over a minute since we were here last, and the swapping back and forth without a montage can be jarring. Our lawyer school student ensemble is rolling up the body in a carpet, and UnlikeableWoman is defiantly standing there so she can deny knowing what they were doing. That sounds like it should be a great line, but the narrative assumption made is that none of the other people would roll over on her for a reduced punishment. That’s a pretty telling decision, suggesting that ultimately this group of characters is bonded so tightly, and none of them would act out of self-interest. We haven’t been shown this bond, but the show has gone ahead and told us this is happening.

12:40 Here we see the bond when UnlikeableWoman throws a campus cop off their trail, and because a TV show can’t resist taking a chance to have its threats reduced, the cop has to go stop invisible offscreen looters. Neutralizing the menace is supposed to lead us to believe that the group is lucky, but it’s hard to be lucky when the writing is so packed with convenience and spoonfeeding. I’m sure if there weren’t offscreen looters, the writers would have had his walkie talkie chatter or maybe his shoe would need tying. Convenience is poison to tension and pacing.

13:33 ColorfulTime again as we watch lawyer school, and our ensemble (who we completely know now has to advance in this “competition” so we’re only really watching it so their roles (see above) get reinforced. The shock that NewGuy makes it is completely invalidated by all the flashbacks. It doesn’t matter if his character is surprised, WE aren’t. And if he’s supposed to be our surrogate, our entry point into show, then we’re BOTH supposed to be surprised. Again, this is something my rewrite will address.

19:40 NewGuy goes and talks to Keating, and discovers she’s getting some Night in her Rodanthe (IMDB it), with a guy who I thought was the Tae-bo guy (it isn’t). She gets up off the desk and goes to talk to NewGuy, and when she discovers the unlocked door … she CALLS FRANK (her associate) to yell about it. She doesn’t yell back at her paramour who clearly either teleported into the office or used the door – even if she was waiting in the office for him – so there’s no reason to call Frank. If you’re saying, “But John, clearly Frank doesn’t know his boss is enjoying the company of her not-husband and fucking around while being in the business of not fucking around, so we need to know that Frank was the last in the office and responsible for the door.”

BUT … she’s doing this in front of NewGuy. The issue really isn’t the door. The issue is that NewGuy now has information he isn’t supposed to. Why not keep the scene tense? Why give any amount of shit about getting Frank in trouble?
22:13 Here we see Ruthless Guy is gay, because he’s exploiting a one night stand for information that the team can use in this plot. It’s not all that bold a move to make a character gay, and it’s not all that racy to imply gay sex. So, this is just to rile up some viewers who want to see some pecs and watch a sort of nerdy Asian guy get a little something something. You go completely unnamed Asian guy, you go.

It’s not even a shock that a guy we’re calling Ruthless Guy would act like this to get what he wants.

Though I do like the fact that this wasn’t done by a woman. Kudos. Onward though, things are about to suck for a few minutes.

28:11 A lot has happened in the 6 minutes, and it’s completely unnecessary. All of it can go. We learn that they’re almost caught disposing of the body (there’s no need to have that happen, it doesn’t make it more tense); we meet Keating’s husband and there’s a tense moment between NewGuy and Keating (there doesn’t need to be one); and we have a scene between Frank and the Idealistic One that ends with Bonnie telling Frank to stop screwing the students. Which means Frank is going to bang the idealistic One (and while this reveals information about Frank, it means Idealistic One won’t stay Idealistic, which muddies her character arc).

Why? Because the minute she gets it on, she’s no longer idealistic. If her arc is to slowly decay under Frank’s advances, then this scene needs to be much softer, the start of a chain of dominoes, not a ham-handed clarification that Frank gets into peoples’ pants.

29:56 We’re back in time again (oh, right, I have no idea when that scene between Idealistic and Frank happened, it’s unclear, and that’s a HUGE problem in a show that’s going to regularly manipulate time to tell me a story at both ends). Now we’re with NewGuy and Keating, moments after they shared a tense look while meeting her husband. She’s cornered her student in the bathroom, and she reveals that she and her husband are trying to conceive and it’s “putting pressure on the marriage”. This means the dude she was in her office was … going to release some pressure? She and her sexual plumber don’t need a reason to be paramours. They can just be paramours. Let her reason be unknown, or later, just show a dead bedroom situation.

33:00 We finally get to some plot tension (the episode runtime is 43:40, we have 10 minutes left, and we’re just now getting to episode plot-based tension) when Bonnie has failed in her job as associate because she didn’t get some camera footage. This results in a fight as Keating gets pissed at her, and because Bonnie is a secondary character, she buckles. So this isn’t a fight between two developed characters with respective motivations, this is a chance to the audience to wonder how Keating is going to be amazing at her job. Which should be less in question because twenty-something minutes ago, all the students did was say how amazing she was. Again, this is a tensionless scene, as we have little reason to suspect that our Axis Character is going to lose in our initial experience with her.

To resolve the plot, Keating makes the move to have her sexual plumber take the stand (and thanks to yet another don’t-worry-audience-you-won’t-have-to-think-too-hard flashback, we see the sex plumber to be a cop who was supposed to be doing police-things instead of Keating-things. I guess this is meant to show us that she’s willing to risk everything for a win, but this is the first time we’ve met this whole environment, so it’s hard to know if this infidelity mattered to her. It’s hard to know if this infidelity has even been going on for a while (maybe it’s a one night stand, who knows). It’s under-established, so the risk doesn’t have any tension you’d expect it to if you want to make us care about risking it. Again, the rewrite will do something about this.

37:43 Of course our heroes win the day, and just because we can’t leave well enough alone, UnlikeableWoman delivers this line: “I want to be her”, meaning she wants to be like Keating when she grows up. That’s not a quip, that’s not sharp, that’s sort of obvious. Unlikeable and Keating are the most similar characters, it only makes sense that a possible arc for Unlikeable is that she rises up to challenge Keating’s alpha-bitch status.

Here’s the shot:

The guy in the background behind Ruthless IS NOT David Tennant.

The guy in the background behind Preppy Guy IS NOT David Tennant.

See how she’s fidgeting with her engagement ring? This is a visual cue that’s willing to sacrifice her engagement (and therefore her life as it is or as it could be) to be Keating. But look at the giant spacing next to Idealistic (also, what the hell is she wearing? Everyone is all jacket and shirt, and she looks like she’s ready for Cosmos after work with the other au pairs). There’s a huge gap that ideally would be filled in, maybe by sliding Ruthless out of the foreground and into the midground, so you get a sense that they’re all equal here as a team. But that’s probably asking too much.

41:10 We also get the arc for the bigger season (presumably), referencing back to that Avril Lavigne missing girl at the top of the show. Yet again dialogue tells us plot details, as Keating and her husband discuss it, and Keating says “I bet the boyfriend did it.” Now, had the camera moved back to the TV screen, we’d be left in suspense. But no, that damned sticky camera stays on the two of them:

Again, who taught the camera guy his job, why are you showing us this damned lamp?

Again, who taught the camera guy his job, why are you showing us this damned lamp? Product placement?

practically screaming that the husband was Avril Lavigne’s boyfriend. Now, the look Keating is giving him, that’s almost announcing she knows what’s going on. If she knows he cheated, does he know about her affair?Is that suspicion supposed to drive us anywhere? I’d flag this so hard for a rewrite.

42:50 We’re back to MurderTime where the students have finally gotten the body prepped for burning, and the last moments of the show? Who’s the body? KEATING’S HUSBAND! Yes, that was an interesting development, I will give credit for it, but that means on some level you’ve just made the students and Keating adversaries rather than partners, especially if it’s later revealed that Keating actually loved her husband. We have no mention of motive, which is supposed to make us tune in to find it, and we have no idea how this reached this point.

The show goes to credits.

Before I get to my rewrite, let me point out a danger in manipulating time the way this show does. We’re starting at both ends (forget the run time of the episode for a minute, we’re talking narrative ends) – we have events around a murder contrasted against how the group of murderers all got together. If each is developed in their respective vectors (meaning the intro timeline moves us from Day 1 to Murder and Murder moves backwards to show how it was done, then planned), ultimately at the end of the season, we’re at the dead middle between Day One and Murder. Since we like to end seasons with a cliffhanger or something big to lead us forward, a reasonable middle point would be Keating discovering the plan, or at least suspecting something’s up. But that nullifies the idea that we’ve set Keating vs students as opposing forces. Which means it’s unlikely to have a Keating discovery as the midpoint-turned-finale. See what happens when you bend time? It requires far more planning, maybe too much. And when the show spoonfeeds as much as it does, why keep watching?

The Rewrite

Before I can give you my version of this show, we need to make some substantial changes to the ensemble.

1. We’re going to cut out Preppy Guy. He didn’t do anything, so out he goes. Any emotional arc he had we can fold into RuthlessGuy.

2. We’re going to combine Bonnie and Frank, and we’ll call the character Bonnie. And Bonnie is both an associate lawyer (so we can put her in courtroom scenes) but also the willing-to-do-anything goon, only we’re not going to make sex her primary weapon. She’ll be sexy, but we’re going to make her bi or pansexual. You’ll see why in a minute.

3. Keating isn’t teaching law school, she’s running a law firm and our students are her first-year associates. Each associate, rather than be students representing different emotional facets, will now represent different legal experiences. Idealistic One will be an inner city public defender, UnlikeableWoman will be a career lawyer from a family of lawyers, RuthlessGuy has ambitions of politics, and NewGuy is a quiet small-town lawyer who got recognized because of some articles he wrote. This way, everyone is already good at their jobs, and we can dispense with the classroom/collegiate necessities.


My rewrite – Our show opens on a nightspot. A graphic tells us this is early November, X number of days before the election. The place is packed, the music is loud and the bar is lined up three deep. The camera tracks through the room over someone’s shoulder until we get to a booth in the back, where RuthlessGuy is flirting with a guy, and the two men vibe strongly. Once the shot widens, the guy we were following (who turns out to be NewGuy) gives RuthlessGuy a nod. RuthlessGuy excuses himself from the table and his flirting to make a phonecall, maybe under the auspices of “making sure his roommate isn’t going to be home” to give the flirting a hint of sex to come. What he’s really doing is calling UnlikeableWoman. 

UnlikeableWoman takes the phone call after stepping away from a very fancy cocktail party, where she’s chatting with powerful people (one of them is Keating, but we don’t know that yet). Ruthless tells Unlikeable “You should come hang out with NewGuy for a drink, he looks lonely” which sounds like something flirtatious, but is in fact a code to relay information. She nods and responds affirmatively, then goes back to the cocktail party. 

We cut to Bonnie and Idealistic One, they’re just getting out what was likely a mutual shower, they don’t talk, and Bonnie tells Idealistic “not to get too comfortable, she isn’t spending the night.” The camera lingers on the bathroom floor, we see a lot of mud and blood smear the shower stall floor, and wet clothes hang in the back of the shot. 

A title card and some credits hit the lower-third of the screen, and they fade to reveal a graphic of “3 months earlier”, and that we’re now on a subway platform. It’s crowded, and must be a morning commute, as people are half-awake, propped up by coffee and locked to their phones. The camera weaves through the crowd, showing us NewGuy, Idealistic One, Unlikeable Woman, and Ruthless Guy, all looking more awake than most. They all board the train, endure the ride and we cut from closing subway car doors to opening elevator doors, as the foursome gets off an elevator and walks into a large boardroom. Seated at the center of the large conference table is Keating, and she’s got her back to us. She’s yelling into the phone, and from behind her back, waves the foursome to seats. Bonnie moves in from out of frame to hand each one of them a maroon folder but warns them not to open it yet. UnlikeableWoman and Ruthless Guy both disobey this order, to the glare of Idealistic One. New Guy waits patiently. 

Keating slams the phone down and spins in her chair to jump us right into the plot – A woman she knows personally is accused of murdering her husband, and Keating is sure she’s innocent. The team is tasked with building a case. The problem? The evidence all makes this woman (who we’ll call Jen) look guilty, even if they come at it from several different directions. Each of the foursome propose different defenses, all to Keating’s frustration. Finally NewGuy asks if he can open the folder, and when Keating agrees, he reads and then proposes a possible defense that Keating likes. The trick though is that in order to make sure this works, they have to get a cop to admit he screwed up while on duty. The camera lingers on Keating’s face, although she agrees while trying to hide her real feelings. 

The team compiles evidence, talking to different people, doing research, and then eventually Idealistic One says they need to talk to the cop. Keating says no cop would talk to first-year lawyers, so she’ll do it. Cut to Keating laughing in the shower with the cop. They spend some time in the afterglow, but Keating rushes the cop out of the apartment a few minutes before her husband comes home. He’s cold to her, not because he knows of the affair, just because he’s antagonistic. She tries to engage him, even seduce him, and he’s too far gone into complaining about work to care. He stomps out of the room and she picks up her phone to text Bonnie to “keep an eye on them.”

Cut to Bonnie, watching a meeting between NewGuy and Idealistic One. The shot makes it look like Bonnie is interested in NewGuy (so the exploited twist of her being into Idealistic One gets some interest), and we cut to Idealistic and NewGuy arguing about the ethics of how it isn’t right that they’re getting a cop to lie or something. NewGuy trusts Keating, saying she hasn’t led them wrong before, though Idealistic is pretty sure this is them risking too much one time too many. 

The camera comes up on the packed courtroom, where Keating is working on the defense of her client, talking to some doctor or something. RuthlessGuy keeps handing her notes and everything seems to be going along quite well. We cut to the bathroom, and we intercut between Keating talking and gesturing, and Unlikeable Woman doing much the same thing in the empty bathroom. They move motion-for-motion. Unlikeable Woman drops a pen she was using to gesture with, and when she comes up to look in the mirror, there stands Keating, for who knows how long. Keating asks if Unlikeable’s impression has gotten any better, and the two share a tense moment. The two women exit the bathroom and wait in the hallway. 

Joined by Ruthless and Bonnie, who gives them an update on what the jury is up to. Keating’s phone rings, it’s her husband and he’s trying to get her to say yes to attending some event she isn’t interested in. She eventually says yes, and returns her focus back to her team, asking where NewGuy and Idealistic are. Ruthless shrugs, Unlikeable Woman makes excuses, and Bonnie tries to call them – which is when they arrive. They can’t find the cop. Keating is furious.

Keating tracks down the cop, he’s out with his wife and newborn child, and she convinces him through a dicey conversation that if he doesn’t testify in court that he screwed up, she’ll reveal to his wife about their affair of the last several years. The cop agrees, and his wife is left completely clueless. 

Cut to the cop on the stand, and rather than implicate himself, he deviates from the agreement to implicate the doctor Keating was previously questioning. Everyone rolls with the punches and the client is found not guilty. During the celebration, Keating takes another call from her husband, saying to Bonnie, “I could kill him if he doesn’t get elected.”

We jump forward in time back to the pre-election November. The foursome meet in an abandoned lot, a pile of bags and tools in hand. From a parked car emerges Bonnie, and she explains if they want to do this, here’s how to burn a car. Idealistic One sets about removing the plates and the paperwork from the interior, and we catch her looking in the backseat – at the corpse of Keating’s husband. The team preps the car for demolition, but waits… until Keating pulls up in another car, walks up to the scene, and tosses in a whole box of lit matches. 

Our first episode ends with the sounds of the car burning.

I’ve told a tighter, darker story, with far fewer time jumps and more reasonable, if unknown, character motivations. But that’s just how I’d do it, because that’s the sort of show with this title that I’d like to watch.

Hope you enjoyed this longer post, hope it gave you a glimpse of what writing critique can do when you apply it to a TV show. Let’s talk later this week.