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:
[spoiler alert from here]
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.
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.
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.