The X-Files, Person of Interest & 8 Writing Techniques

[I totally blame @missmaclay for this. You and your POI obsession. It’s all your fault.]

What do an episode of The X-Files from 1999 and an episode of Person of Interest from 2015 have in common?

It turns out: a lot.

But not because of someone plagiarizing or stealing ideas. Instead, the writers of both shows have a good understanding of some fundamental writing techniques (flexible “rules” if you want). With the help of these techniques, they put their own spin on a rather limiting premise: being stuck in a time loop or situation that keeps repeating itself. In other words: Groundhog Day.

So if you wanna improve your own writing, take a look at the following two episodes and check out how professional TV writers turned these simple writing techniques into complex stories that are praised by viewers and critics alike:

The X-Files S6xE14 – “Monday” (written by Vince Gilligan & John Shiban; you can stream it here)
Person of Interest S4xE11 – “If-Then-Else” (written by Denise Thé; you can stream it here)

[spoiler alert from here]

Plot Summaries:

TXF: In this stand-alone episode of The X-Files, Mulder & Scully end up in the middle of a bank heist gone wrong, and it’s just downhill from there. Mulder gets shot. The bank robber reveals he has a bomb vest. And when the cops arrive, he freaks out and blows up the whole building – with Mulder & Scully still trapped inside. But then the whole day starts anew. Over and over again. The question is: Will it ever end? And how?

POI: The Person of Interest episode is part of a longer arc but tells a complete story. Finch, Reese, Fusco, and Root need to install software on site at the NYC stock exchange in order to stop a rogue Artificial Intelligence system from crippling the city’s financial markets. Meanwhile, Shaw is in the subway spying on a stock exchange employee with the security codes required to complete the job. But things go wrong when a suicidal man with a bomb vest delays Shaw’s mission, while operatives of the AI ambush Finch’s team and trap them in the basement of the stock exchange. Now, Finch’s own AI system – the Machine – plays through all variations of this scenario in order to find a way out for the team.

Eight Simple Writing Techniques:

The two 44min episodes could feel very repetitive, with the same things happening again and again. But the writers stuck to a well-known formula without being formulaic and thereby ensured that their time-loop plots feel compelling and unique.

1. Hook your audience right from the start.

Don’t start with boring exposition. Grab your viewers (or readers) with something intriguing.

TXF always has a teaser before its opening credits and literally starts with a bang. We’re in the middle of the bank heist. Mulder is already on the ground, bleeding. And then the robber (Bernard) triggers his bomb, and everything is blown into pieces. There couldn’t be a more explosive way to get this episode started.

POI doesn’t use pre-credits teasers, so their intro can be longer. But nonetheless, we jump right into action with the stock market crash well underway. The general population is already anxious, and the clock is ticking.

2. Sneak in your exposition. Efficiently set up your story.

Once you’ve got your audience hooked, you have a chance to slow down in order to set up your story and bring your characters into position. You want to gradually raise the tension until the end, so this is the best opportunity to include necessary exposition. As soon as your clock (or bomb) is ticking, you don’t want to interrupt the flow with boring explanations of how/where/why.

In TXF, we learn how Mulder & Scully get pulled into this bank heist. After a series of mishaps, Mulder is late for work and needs to cash in a check, while Scully is stuck without him in the most boring meeting the FBI has ever held. They briefly meet in their office before Mulder leaves for the bank and Scully goes back to the meeting. On his way, Mulder passes a mysterious woman we saw in the teaser – and apparently, she already knows exactly what will happen next. And then the heist starts again, Bernard pulls his gun, and every character is in place. About 10 minutes into the episode, Mulder is stuck in the bank and gets shot at by the antagonist with the bomb. And Scully (who might otherwise be able to prevent all of this) arrives too late because of the meeting. We have characters, goals, obstacles.

In POI, we already know what the job is, so the next few minutes are used to assemble the team and to sneak into the stock exchange basement. Shaw is sent to her subway mission, where she’s confronted with the suicidal guy with the bomb. And once Finch, Reese, Fusco, and Root reach their destination, they realize it’s a trap, and the bad guys are coming. About 9 minutes into the episode, the team is stuck in that building and gets shot at by the antagonists. And Shaw (who might otherwise be able to prevent all of this) isn’t there because of her meeting with Bomb Guy in the subway. Again, we have characters, goals, obstacles.

3. Show, don’t tell.

So far, the rules of time in these two episodes seem perfectly normal. (Viewers of TXF probably thought they were watching a flashback.) But both shows then start using visual clues to help viewers understand what’s going on. Nothing is spelled out – everything is shown. Viewers/readers don’t want to be spoon-fed information. Let them figure things out themselves. It’s more fun, and it keeps them invested in your story.

In TXF, Mulder checks his watch first thing in the morning to show us that it’s Monday – and when he checks his watch the next time he wakes up, it’s Monday again. Now we know something unusual is going on. 16 minutes into the episode, the first loop has been completed. We know how everybody ends up in the bank, Mulder gets shot, the bank blows up. That didn’t go so well. Time for a restart.

In POI, a prominently placed clock on the wall and the Machine’s interface (superimposed on screen) help us figure out that what we see is a simulation that will be repeated until the Machine finds its desired outcome. 16 minutes into the episode, the first loop has been completed. We know how everybody ends up being trapped, Finch gets shot, the plan fails. That didn’t go so well. Time for a restart.

4. Have a theme.

By now, you have hooked your audience and presented your scenario. But the audience doesn’t yet care. You need to have a theme – a conflict of interests that audiences can relate to.

TXF: Obviously, we do care about Mulder & Scully, but we don’t know enough about Bernard or his girlfriend Pam (the mysterious woman who knows what’s going on). Hence, the writers use the next loop to give us a glimpse into the lives of these characters. We feel Pam’s desperation. We see her dysfunctional relationship with Bernard, who thinks that money will solve all their problems. And we understand that his focus on money is a serious threat to their love.

POI: Similarly, we already care about the main characters here. But we don’t yet have any connection to Bomb Guy on the subway. Hence, we use this next loop to learn more about him. His wife is sick, and he can’t pay for her treatment because the man in the seat next to him lost all of Bomb Guy’s savings. And now Bomb Guy wants revenge instead of being with his wife. He, too, thinks that money is the solution to his problems – until Shaw reminds him that love matters most.

At this point, both episodes have stated their theme. And attentive viewers might realize that the outcome of the episode will be inextricably linked to Pam / Shaw and their interpretation of love.

5. Play with your theme / premise while always moving the story forward.

In movies, this is often called the “fun & games” part in the early 2nd act. The stakes are still low, and the characters are testing the waters so that viewers have more time to emphasize with them and to understand their problems. The same applies to these two TV episodes.

We now understand all the characters, and we know the theme. But we will only fully grasp the problem and the urgency of the situation if we see a few more loops. The audience needs to see that no matter what Pam in TXF or the team in POI do – the outcome is always the same. But it would be boring to simply show the same events over and over again. So what do we do? We mix things up and play with the audience’s expectations without changing the final outcome.

TXF: This time, it’s not Mulder who goes to the bank but Scully. However, circumstances result in Mulder following her to the bank anyway, and we’re back to our original stand-off with Bernard.

POI: Similarly, this time it’s not Root and Finch who storm into the server room but Reese and Fusco. And instead of Finch, it’s Reese’s turn to die. Meanwhile in the subway, Shaw gets arrested in a slight variation of her stand-off with Bomb Guy, and the whole plan fails once again.

But the writers of both shows don’t stop there. They also vary other elements – different camera perspectives, different focus on details, different speakers of the same lines.

And they add an element of humor. In TXF, there’s Mulder’s leaking water bed and his sneakers on the floor – and he will step on and trip over them in several variations. In POI, the humor comes from Finch’s adoration of a Degas on the wall – which ends up full of bullet holes one way or another and always elicits the appropriate facial response from Finch.

These sprinkles of humor create a false sense of safety for the audience and will increase the emotional impact of the dramatic finale that is still to come.

6. Cut to the chase. Raise the stakes.

While you’re allowed to take things slow in the beginning of your story, now you really need to make your viewers / readers feel the rising tension.

With each new loop and scene, we gradually raise the stakes by eliminating possible choices for our protagonists. And there’s no reason to drag this out. Everything now happens much faster. Details that we’ve already seen are skipped. In TXF, a newspaper is thrown against Mulder’s apartment door three times in a row to indicate that day after day after day passes. In POI, the timer is ticking down, and the focus is on scenes where the characters are rushing, shooting, fighting.

And most importantly, we find the decisive variable that has the potential to finally change the outcome for the better. In TXF, Pam keeps approaching Mulder and convinces him that he must not forget what happens when the time loop starts anew. And Mulder tries and tries and finally he does remember. With about 10 minutes left in the episode, everything is ready for the final showdown.
And in POI, the decisive variable is Bomb Guy, who still prevents Shaw from getting to her team in time. Only when she finds a way out of her situation will the rest of the scenario have a different outcome.  And with about 12 minutes left in the episode, Shaw finally figures it out.

7. Go out with a bang.

Everything has led up to these final moments. We know that no other action of the protagonists has worked. It’s do or die now. And all important characters will be there for the showdown.

In TXF, we finally have a confrontation between all four characters – Mulder & Scully vs. Bernard & Pam. In POI, Shaw is reunited with Root, Finch, Reese, and Fusco. Together, they face the antagonists, and the Machine is still watching.

And it looks like the good guys are winning. Bernard surrenders in TXF. And the Root & Shaw combo in POI clears the way for everybody’s escape in the elevator.

Except that this isn’t where it ends. The writers have put so much effort into establishing the theme of love & dying for a cause that none of it would matter if the episodes failed to acknowledge this theme in their final twist.

Thus, in TXF, someone has triggered a silent alarm. Police sirens are heard. Bernard loses his shit, shoots his gun – and Pam takes the bullet when she tries to save him from screwing up again.

In POI, the life-saving elevator is out of power. Someone will have to push an override button and be left behind with the gun-toting antagonists – here, Shaw takes the bullet to save Root and everybody else.

8. Be done when you’re done.

TXF episodes always have an epilogue, so we quickly learn that Pam has indeed died and that it is finally Tuesday for Mulder & Scully (once again shown via Mulder’s watch). And that’s it.

Since the POI episode is part of a long arc to be continued in subsequent episodes, it uses an even harder cut – a fade-to-black on Shaw’s body on the ground as everybody else escapes. And that’s it.

Don’t drag things out. The story is told, the message is clear. Love is a powerful force, but mistakes have consequences.

Conclusion

And there you have it. Two different TV shows. Two very different plots. And yet, the techniques used to tell these two stories are very much the same. And they can be used with all kinds of stories – movies, TV episodes, books, even non-fiction.

Have an interesting opening. – Present your protagonists and premise in an engaging, visual way. – State your theme. – Introduce minor characters and B-stories. – Have some fun exploring your story / theme but then raise the stakes. – Eliminate alternatives on your way to the final conclusion. – And then go out with a bang.

If you know these “rules” (and how to break them when needed), your stories are almost guaranteed to be more compelling and strong enough to leave a lasting impression.

5

It’s a Wild World: The Adventures of Ecologist and Storyteller @charles_post

To see more of Charles’ adventures in the field, follow him on @charles_post.

Ecologist and storyteller Charles Post’s (@charles_post) introduction to the outdoors came early: his grandmother was an avid birdwatcher and naturalist. “The ebb and flow of the natural world captured my keenest sense of curiosity,” Northern California-based Charles says. “It propelled me on a lifelong pursuit to better understand the natural rhythms of the outdoors.”

He’s traveled extensively, but Charles insists you don’t need to go far to connect with nature. “Take those moments to pause and watch the world around you. Whether you’re in New York City, Banff, Yellowstone or New Orleans, nature exists in one form or another,” he explains. “It takes practice, but in time nature will begin to reveal itself.”

6

PART 1 of my new comic “BEADS”. I will be posting a new section every week.
View the full story here.
If you enjoy this comic, please help pass it on! Or consider supporting it on Gumroad or my Store, where pdf and physical copies with extras are available! 😊 😃 

Edit: changed the title font to something that looks unidiotic, lol.

anonymous asked:

Hey Sam, do you think writers of a TV Show should ever pander to the audience or should they stick to their vision of their story? I guess what I am trying to ask is - is the purpose of telling a story to satisfy one's audience? Or is it to deliver the message or vision of the author? Do we tell stories for the story's sake, or do we make the happiness of the listener (or viewer) the aim of telling the story?

Welllll I think there might be a bit of bias in your question, Anon, because there’s a difference between serving your audience and pandering to them. I enjoy having a story written to my tastes and preferences, but I don’t care to be pandered to, because pandering implies both condescension and a half-assed approach to the story that says “I don’t like what you like and I think it’s low-class but here, have some slop that kinda sounds like what you like.” Not that I blame you, I’m just saying, I think you may have expected one answer from me and may get another. :D 

The purpose of telling a story lies with the author, and is individual to them. That’s art. There’s no higher moral value to one goal over another, because art isn’t always about what society considers most valuable or productive. But there’s a difference, of course, between being an artist in a gallery or on Smashwords or on AO3 and being an artist in television media whose work is seen by hundreds of millions of people, and I’ll get to that in a second, but first: SOME EVOLUTIONARY THEORY! 

There is an idea being floated around, and I’m quite fond of it, that we as a species began telling stories because they were a low-risk way of gaining knowledge. Humanity is always looking for low-risk, high-reward, and stories provide that. If you tell a great story about a buffalo hunt you just went on, everyone you tell it to knows how you behaved during the hunt, what worked, what didn’t – all without having to risk going on the hunt themselves. This works even if you, the storyteller, weren’t the one on the hunt, as long as you’re repeating someone else’s story faithfully. Your audience learns at least some basics of how to hunt without having risked their own lives, which in turn preserves more individuals to help the species flourish. The basic urge to tell a story may come down to the survival-to-breed of those who told and listened to stories. And while knowledge-sharing is about getting across the message of the storyteller, you have to get and hold your audience’s attention to do that.

A good writer knows how to convey their message in a way their intended readership will understand, and knows that when their audience doesn’t understand, it’s not just the fault of the audience – it’s the fault of the writer, too. 

Now, in this era, where a small number of usually very wealthy, privileged people control the stories that we’re told through the media – big six publishers, TV execs, Hollywood producers, and increasingly the heads of social media/tech companies – it becomes important that their personal vision not be the only vision, because as mass broadcasters they have a duty to serve their mass audience, not just the bits they want to serve, or the bits that look like them. Their audience should demand that they tell stories the audience wants to hear, with the characters they wants to see. And I believe that in the case of under-served audiences, they should listen. 

I think they can listen and can provide the stories an audience wants without making some grand compromise, especially since we’ve had thousands of years of some of these stories and they could use some fresh blood. Listening to your audience isn’t pandering; it’s acknowledging the diversity of our world and agreeing to the honor of serving that diversity with your stories. 

So – I guess the short answer (too late) is that there’s a middle ground where most sensible artists end up, which makes up the best of one’s pure vision and the best of one’s audience’s needs. That’s where skill and training meet talent, in telling the story you want to tell in a way your audience wants to hear.  

8

Night and Day is about my current relationship. After my girlfriend, Magdalena Szymaniec, was forced to leave the country due to not getting a Visa, our lives switched around. Night and Day is used to describe the time differences we live with, and how obviously drastic our lives changed because of the situation. The theme is used both literally to talk about the distance, and used metaphorically to describe opposites we deal with currently. This is also my first time using illustrations in a sequential and storytelling format.

MotW Episodes = Bad, Unnecessary Filler Episodes?

I have seen the argument and opinion of the title of this post around more times than I can count over the years that I have watched Supernatural and while I won’t tell anyone how to feel about episodes, I just felt the need to express why, in fact, I think the MotW episodes are often unfairly treated.

The thing about MoTW episodes is that I personally already have a ~problem with the label of filler episodes for them as I personally don’t think there were any episodes that could have been deleted from the season without cutting away advancing of a plot. The reason why many seem to think they are irrelevant is that they are not as obvious tied to the myth arc. Meaning: In this season’s case neither Lucifer nor Amara will likely make an appearance. But using that kind of reasoning does not add up imo as these characters and these arcs are not forgotten but indeed further explored in the MotW episodes.

It’s in those episodes that the plot is advanced and paralleled and foreshadowed relating to the myth arc and Sam and Dean via mirror characters. It’s those episodes that do the heavy lifting in terms of character development and world building, not the myth arc episodes. It’s in those episodes that the emotional story of the characters is explored whereas in the myth arc the big elements are introduced but you rarely see any immediate emotional and personal consequences and what it does to the characters. All that is done and built up in the MotW episodes. Take Sam’s demon blood addiction or Dean’s MoC!dark arc. None of these would have had the impact they had and would have resonated and stuck with people as much as they did if the viewer hadn’t seen that gradual decay and been there every step of the way.

10x14 “The Executioner” was an amazing myth arc episode in any way, but it wasn’t in that episode alone that the looming atmosphere and uncanny feeling of things going really bad was achieved. Cain’s prophecy was the big thing about that episode and Dean killing him. Everything after that showed how this prophecy and that kill affected Dean. It wasn’t in this episode that Dean’s change was spelt out, it was done over the course of all the MotW episodes and all of them with each case and each mirror character further revealing things about Dean’s state of mind for example. If we had none of that, you’d have a stale story. You’d only have info info info, set up set up set up, but you would have no base to make these things an emotional issue and struggle for the characters, it would prevent them from learning and growing or decaying as they would just act - but without reflection. And that, reflection, imo is the biggest strength of the MotW episodes.

There’s no denying there’s change in quality of episodes, but saying they are irrelevant I think is to deny character development that is happening in those episodes.

I understand that people are curious and hanging on the edge of their seats to get to know how things continue with the myth arc, what’s up with Cas and Lucifer, etc. and that given the circumstances it doesn’t make sense for them to hunt normally like they do if the world is ending. But that argument really should then not only ever be brought up in relation to the later episodes and seasons but all of them, because this has always been the format of the show. Nothing changed there.

Anyway… So yes, I think that MotW episodes - and of course some are better than others - are far from irrelevant or unnecessary since they do connect to the main arc. Directly. :)

GRRM has fallen under the misconception that he needs to document events that happened, rather than telling a story. Like George Lucas before him, he’s become convinced that there exists a canonical version of events in his fictional world, and that his job is to document those events. This is absurd. Westeros doesn’t exist. Essos doesn’t exist. The Narrow Sea doesn’t exist. The entire world he’s writing about doesn’t exist. It can’t exist; like all fictional worlds it is not internally consistent and cannot be made internally consistent. Instead of trying to document the impossible, he should just tell a fucking story.

In the first book he was telling a story, a story about a noble (in two senses of the word) idiot playing detective in a city where playing detective gets you killed. In the second book he started documenting a world, and the tedium started to set in. Fortunately, the third book told a new story, this time about the noble idiot’s idiot son mistaking military skill for political skill and mistaking meaning well for doing right… but then the fourth book went back to world-documentation, and the fifth book was more of the same.

GRRM likely despises the world of A Song of Ice and Fire now, and for good reason; taking up residence in a fictional world never ends well for the person who tries it.

A few years ago he should have torn up all his notes (except for one post-it reading “R+L=J”) and banged out a story (any story) titled The Winds of Winter, and then he should have torn up any notes he made for TWOW (aside from that one post-it) and banged out a story (again, any story) titled A Dream of Spring.

—  You Can’t Tip A Buick on Metafilter, about worldbuilding vs storytelling.
4

“Ian, wait for me!” [Breathes heavily, as she tries to keep up with her rather athletic boyfriend.] “Why in the heavens did you decide this was a good idea? Or you’ve got a secret kink for heart attacks I should be aware of?”
[He chuckles softly as he stops in his tracks, turning his head to look over at Colette. Kneeling over already tired] “It’s a good idea because not all of us can live off if booze and drugs.”
“Yeah… some of us do though… you know, I could take a car and drive behind you, right?” [Wipes sweat from her forehead, trying to catch her breath] “I’m too old for this stuff…”
“No one is ever too old Letty. You just need to get use to this is all. Enjoy the clean air…” [Ian couldn’t stop his laughter, trying his best to keep it low.]
[Groans] “I’ll get you back for this! I’m a war veteran! Have Duncan told you those stories already? His favorite theme of gossip…” [She smirks, trying her best to keep up with Ian]
“Not yet no, but I’m sure they’re very interesting and dramatic. ”
“Well… I’ll leave it up to Duncan then… Ahm… How long you’re planning to do this? Because I’m warning you, I won’t last much longer…”
[Ian grins at Colette] “Only 30 minutes. ”
[Rolls eyes] “Hope you bought me a coffin!”

The feeling I have when I want to match a piece of fine prose in length, topic, style and tone? That is envy. I try to distract myself with the following lie: “I have been inspired by reading a piece of fine prose, inspired to write something of my own in order to honor that piece of fine prose.” It is humbling that I still seem, at my worst, to feel the nonspecific raging envy I felt when I was young, before I’d ever done anything, before I’d ever tried anything.
— 

Green-Eyed Verbs - The New York Times

Sarah Manguso on writerly envy.

I keep finding that the hardest part about writing a hyper-intelligent character like Queen Viarra is making sure that her adversaries don’t come across as incompetent. The generals who she bests in her first battle are intelligent officers who deploy their armies in an intelligent manner, yet she defeats them by knowing how intelligent officers deploy their troops and using that against them. The nobles who conspire against her, I want for them to come across as competent characters whose methods probably would have worked against a merely competent adversary. Her rival monarchs are supposed to be brilliant rulers in their own right, Vi outmaneuvers them mainly by understanding how they think rather than through any particular shortcoming on their part. But I keep worrying that readers will find her adversaries incompetent, which isn’t what I’m aiming for at all.