A little over a year ago I wrote Six Things STARGATE: SG1 Taught Me About Writing. Apparently people liked it. At least one person asked if I’d do another like that, which counts as popular demand.
I took a while considering which show I watch would be the best for this, and what show I know well enough (and have seen enough times). Well, SUPERNATURAL. I adoooore that show. But it’s still on TV, so I’m going to be extra careful about spoilers for those of you who may not have seen it.
I will give you BOLD CAPSLOCK SPOILER WARNINGS and then when the spoilers are over, I will give you BOLD CAPSLOCK ALL CLEAR. And the spoilers in between will be as vague as I can make them. Do the same thing if you have spoilers in the comments. Fair?
1. Know your audience’s expectations — and then do exactly what they don’t expect.
(This whole one is kind of a spoiler by nature. I’m reallyreally vague, but still. If you’re sensitive, skip.)
This was a big deal in season three when Dean was in all that trouble because of a deal he’d made. Sam and Dean spend episode after episode trying to get Dean out of trouble. Things get worse as they go along — of course — but while the audience does expect some kind of cliffhanger and hair-pulling ending to the season, they expect The Biggie to be thwarted or somehow worked out so That Thing doesn’t happen. Because it’s Too Awful, you know?
And then the awful thing happens.
The audience has been told to expect it this whole time but they didn’t really expect the writer to go through with it.
This way is more shocking than it would have been if The Event had come from nowhere. If it had just come in the end of the season, we’d all have been “GASP!” but it wouldn’t hurt nearly as much. The way they did The Thing, well, they said they were going to do it! That takes guts.
2. (This one my friend Kat pointed out to me.) Find a smart way to show character growth/deterioration before you need it in a rush. That way when you do need it, you can reference what the audience already knows without dragging the pace. There’s a great example of this in season three: “Mystery Spot.” At the end of what had been a funny episode, we get a serious section of Sam becoming scary and intense about finding an answer or revenge. Throughout the episode, we saw Sam’s deterioration as he lost the ability to cope with what was going on.
So that happens. But later, when The Thing really does happen, there’s so much going on they don’t have time to show that character development. You know what they do then? They give you a few familiar-looking shots that reference Sam’s behavior in “Mystery Spot,” and you know exactly what he’s feeling. Because we’ve seen it before.
3. Characters can get away with all kinds of skeevy things if they’re entertaining.
The Winchesters aren’t great guys. They run credit card scams, steal, lie, impersonate clergy/law enforcement, and they’ve killed people. (Not in cold blood, but still.) These boys are trouble.
But they’re funny. They’re sympathetic. They’re smart. And they don’t necessarily like the way they live, but they believe it’s the only way. They get away with doing all this skeevy stuff because they’re entertaining — and the skeeve isn’t the focus of the story. Their bad behavior is used as comic relief and for quick explainers.
Plus, they keep saving the world. It’s easy to forgive them.
4. Find out what’s important to the characters and make them do anything to keep it.
Dean is a great example of this. Even though BOLD CAPSLOCK SPOILER WARNING their dad made the deal to bring Dean back to life BOLD CAPSLOCK ALL CLEAR and Dean was so angry about it, he did the same thing later when his family was in trouble. He went back on everything he believed in to save his family.
The most important thing to Dean? His family. How far he’s willing to go to keep his family? REALLY far. With major consequences.
Find out what your characters can’t or won’t live without. Try to take it away from them. See what they’ll do to keep it.
5. Role reversal. Surprise the audience. Give them characters they don’t expect.
Sam is the “good boy” who likes school and hates the credit card scams they run. But he’s also the brother who rebels against his family by running off to college, fighting with their dad, and abandoning people while he does what he thinks is the answer to their problems.
Meanwhile, Dean is the “bad boy” who drinks too much and sleeps around. But he’s the brother who is super loyal to his family and would never dream of running from his duty. He’ll do anything his dad tells him to do whether or not it’s a good idea.
Our expectations about the characters are flipped on their sides. Neither character is standard issue.
6. Show your characters taking care of their stuff.
The Winchester boys have an arsenal in their trunk. They fight monsters! They have the weapons to prove it! But weapons and cars don’t keep up themselves. There are scenes sprinkled throughout the series where the boys are cleaning their guns, fixing the car, or taking care of injuries. Their stuff doesn’t magically clean/fix/stitch itself. And you know what they do while they’re taking care of their stuff? They’re discussing the plot (rather than using plot-discussion time to stand around and look cute).
Two birds. One scene.
What about you? Any lessons from a favorite show you want to share?