Sense8: Revising “Limbic Whatsit”

Warning: HUGE SPOILERS IN THIS POST. Sense8-Characters_2 I went back and looked at the pilot in light of what I knew about the whole series. I think the problems are much more complex than just the first episode, and because I don’t completely understand what they’re trying to do here, it’s iffy to say “This is how that first episode should have gone.” But based on the idea that a beginning should introduce the protagonists while establishing setting, mood, tone, and conflict, which is pretty basic storytelling, here’s how I’d revise that pilot. 1. Cut the first scene. Susan Elizabeth Phillips gave a lecture this week at RWA, and one of the things she said was, “If you’re a first time writer, before I even look at your manuscript, I know what you have to do: Cut the first chapter.” I laughed because it was so true. Then I looked at the Sense8 pilot again and said, “Yep.” Your opening is the only time you’re sure to have your audience in an absolutely receptive mind to your story, so you want to grab them then and not let go, and you do that by clearly and quickly investing them in your protagonist because that’s where their emotional attachment will be rooted. The Sense8 pilot wanted to blow our minds with how out there it was, but because it never established an “in there,” there was no “out there” to go to. Add to that the first three characters we see are Angel, Jonas, and Whispers, none of whom are protagonists, and you have a wasted seven minutes and a frustrated audience. Cut it. 2. Introduce Your Protagonist(s) Yeah, this shows has eight protagonists in eight different cities spread across the globe. While I understand that they want the eight to be equal, they don’t even manage to do that in their own pass at the pilot, so I think they’re going to have to pick one to be first on the scene. I’d start in the first minute with something everybody recognizes: the good cop in the patrol car in the bad neighborhood. Give Diego his crack about gangbangers and show that Will isn’t buying it, and then have Will see Angel standing on the side of the road, only to disappear. Then they get the call about gunshots, turn on the siren . . . Cut to Berlin and a funeral where Wolfgang stops in the rain because he hears the siren, only to see Angel standing by a grave. Blink and she’s gone and the Bad Cousin comes up and starts his trash talk, playing out the rest of that minute scene and ending with Felix’s line about not knowing which he’s going to enjoy more as Wolfgang smiles and the thunder rolls . . . Cut to Mumbai, where Kala looks out when she hears the thunder, sees Angel disappear, and then goes back to argue with her father about how she really does want to get married . . . Introducing eight protagonists as pictures in Angel’s mind was worthless; characters aren’t what they look like, they’re what they do. Plus even after watching the first scene, (hell, after watching the entire first season) I still don’t know what happened in that first scene (why the hell didn’t she shoot Whispers?) so I’m not losing anything by cutting it. What I gain is eight protagonists with antagonists in action, even if only a minute each, linked by visions of Angel. The sounds (gunshots, thunder, etc.) as transitions tell us that they’re telepathically linked even if we don’t know how (I still don’t know how), the glimpses of Angel tell us they’re seeing the same things, but most of all, they’re not just eight pretty people, they’re eight pretty people in trouble who are also all having the same vision. If the hook is set, then I’ll settle in to find out, not just what the mystery of the blonde they’re all seeing is (which is the least interesting thing about the story), but how they’re all going to solve their individual problems, and more that that, how those links they’re experiencing for the first time are going to evolve. Will they be able to see each other they way they see Angel? Will they be able to talk to each other? Touch each other? Help each other? Will they be allies or enemies? None of those questions is “What the hell is going on here?” They’re all questions of expectation and anticipation, two things that make readers turn the page and not turn the channel. 3. Make Sure Each of Those Protagonists Is in Conflict or At Least Trouble. Of course, in order to make that work, those story intros are going to need revised. Will in his squad car hearing gunfire works, Wolfgang getting harassed by his cousin works, Sun being belittled by the client and her brother works. Even Lito blowing his dialogue works to a lesser extent, as does Riley’s meeting with Nyx; those aren’t great conflicts but they’re indications that something’s wrong. But Capheus needs a bigger clash with either the Bat Van or the gangster who’s going to try to take him down later; Kala needs a conflict with her father, even if it’s just lying to him about wanting to get married; and Nomi needs a complete rewrite. Showing her having sex with Amanita does nothing to characterize either of them, and in fact it undercuts our attachment to her because she’s not in trouble: she’s having great sex with a woman who loves her. Maybe something to do with her hacktivist past coming back to haunt her with Amanita standing by her, something that establishes her as skilled and powerful. Get her in trouble so I’m worried about her and cut all the wordy speeches about how much they love each other (talk is cheap) for action that shows they love each other. (No, sex does not show they love each other. Amanita setting the hospital on fire and throwing a tampon at the Fed thug shows love; two people we don’t know coming their brains out just shows athletic compatibility.) 4. Then Build Logically On the Character Plots You’ve Introduced As You Develop the Links Between Them Then after the titles that follow the eight minutes of linked characters, we’re back with Will who dreams, but not about some ghostly little girl whose mystery is never entirely solved in the course of the series, but about Angel giving birth to that connection, being found by Whispers, killing herself. He wakes up with his headache, hears the music, etc, which takes him to Riley who’s in deeper trouble, and so on. The key is to strengthen the links between the characters with each pass at their stories so that when Will/Wolfgang/Riley danger montage happens, it’s a logical outcome, echoed or foreshadowed by a quieter Sun/Kala/Lito frustrated secret montage, or whatever. Build the links to the climax of the episode which is when Riley and Will meet in the place where Angel killed herself and talk, only they try to figure out what’s going on, what Angel was doing, why her death links them, before there are gunshots and Riley’s back in the bloodbath. And then have Will there at the end, the first of the you’re-not-alone moments that sets up the rest of the series. Yeah, that’s not nearly as edgy and obscure as the way the original pilot is structured. The problem is, the content is obscure, so the structure has to be clear. At the end of your first chapter, you want viewers and readers saying, “What happens next?” not “What just happened?” Give readers/viewers a clear path to follow, and they’ll spend their time with a complex premise and complex characters with complex conflict arcs. Give them complex everything, and they’ll go watch something less interesting because it’ll also be less frustrating. Story is the delivery system for ideas; put it first because it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are if they’re never delivered.

11 thoughts on “Sense8: Revising “Limbic Whatsit”

  1. “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” J. Michael Strazynski (known as JMS much of the time) has a particular approach to writing plot, and it’s dedicated to the long view. Many people were a bit confused by season 1 of Babylon 5 on first viewing, and then the pace picked up in season 2 and didn’t let up to the end. When most of them watched season 1 again it now made far more sense, because everything in it set up important events with foreshadowing and often multiple clues as to what was going on. We’re also talking here about a writer who got his name writing for mystery shows like Murder She Wrote and Jake and the Fat Man, and there’s a lot of mystery writing going on in how he drops the clues, often clues you won’t notice at first, into the story and you learn later on just how important they were. And with Sense 8 he’s admitted that he has the whole 5 year story already mapped out in his head and he knows what the last scene will be. (This was the same way with Babylon 5)But if Sense 8 is like Babylon 5, then I can say for sure that right now in the first fifth we don’t know yet what the story is really about. And with how the Wachowskis put together The Matrix they have some of this too. Note also that though it’s more intriguing than illustrative, it’s working — Netflix is reporting that people are often binge watching the show and then going back to watch it five or six more times. So the interesting question, from my point of view and looking at it from an analytical viewpoint, is why this show, that seems to break common narrative conventions, is drawing folks back so much. Because if they’re coming back to it that many times it’s obviously working, just like Babylon 5 worked, and that indicates to me that somehow this show is hooking viewers, hard, while not following mainstream narrative conventions. And since it’s now happened with two shows there has to be some method to it. (And BTW, if you haven’t taken the time, Babylon 5 is worth it, thanks to the amazing characters and their journey through truly epic times and events)

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    1. I’ll cheerfully second the B5 recommendation! We were captivated at the beginning of the second season, and caught up with the first season courtesy of a friend who obsessively recorded everything, so it played mostly as flashbacks, for us. I tend to encourage people to start with season two, but so far the people I’ve managed to talk into seeing it are completeists, and start at the beginning because they can.

      Once complained bitterly about the quality of the writing all during her watch of the first season, on the other hand my younger daughter (now 17) said our standards for TV were far too high and it was fine.

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    2. The problem is, many people checked out during the pilot. Look at the meta-critic reviews, do a survey of the feedback. It’s remarkably uniform: everybody had problems with the beginning, to the point where people are saying, “I didn’t get hooked until the fourth episode.” I used to read manuscripts for critique, and I’d read the first chapter (or three chapters) and hand it back saying, “No story yet. I quit reading,” and the author would say, “But Chapter Four is when it gets really good.” No, Chapter One is when it gets really good. Otherwise, half your audience will never reach The Good Parts.
      The same thing happened with Agents of Shield. I was so on board for that show for Clark Gregg alone. I must have watched half a dozen episodes before I bailed on it, and I’ve never gone back to watching every episode. Big ideas and long term plans are meaningless if you lose your audience in the beginning. And saying, “Okay the first year of the series isn’t good, but then you see what they were doing” is just lousy storytelling. People don’t watch confusing TV because it’s good for them or because the showrunner has a rep for paying everything off in subsequent years, they watch because the characters and story enthrall them. And I think Sense8 does that, just not until episode four.

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      1. I agree that any series should pull you in at the beginning, and i like your proposed changes to the Sense8 pilot.

        Do you think it is something about TV that makes it harder to tighten up the beginning of a series? I used to think it was lead time and multiple writers and getting a feel for the cast that made pilots so unsatisfactory as television. Now I think they have their priorities elsewhere.

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        1. I think it’s the writers, not the medium. That and the sheer size of the cast.
          I went back and looked at the Leverage pilot; they get four of its five-man band together in six minutes, and then follow up by adding Sophie at the 26 minute mark when the antagonist tries to kill them , using the need to defeat the antagonist (who was established in the first scene) as a way to bond them.
          But Leverage was about the team; its subtext was always about the-family-you-make. So they set up the conflict in the first two minutes, and that external plot is used to focus the Big Idea of the series which is about the team and how it becomes a family.

          Sense8 has an eight-man band and several big ideas, none of which are really about the cluster/team. The problem with that is that the viewers are responding to the characters and the team-building, not the big ideas. So the writers are putting their story real estate in conversations about ideas, rather than in actions that bring the cluster together and carry the ideas of subtext. So the viewers are sitting through a lot of conversations, paying attention whenever the action/character stuff happens. It’s as if they’re forcing viewers to each their vegetables; and we all know how well that works.

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  2. Has anyone seen Continuum? That is a pretty fabulous show made by Canadian Broadcast Co in cooperation with someone. That has a crazy time travel plot that everything hangs on, as well as the people IN THE SHOW guessing about how time travel works and experiments to see if their theories are correct. It is a straightforward telling of an insanely twisty story, so it works pretty smoothly the first time around and still yields rewards when rewatching.

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  3. Bet Me wins again. Just like best book set in Ohio on the 50 states map. A really good one by JAK (aka Amanda Quick) made it also. And a good book of SEP’s except they got the name wrong.

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  4. The re-editing of the pilot episode would have worked for me. So far I’ve watched the first 3 episodes of this series but don’t feel a compelling need to finish it – pacing and care factor have a lot to do with that.

    Excellent craft post

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  5. [Spoilers] I would never have made it past the pilot if you hadn’t told me it got better. I think your approach makes much more sense: meet the characters, get engaged with them and then figure out how they are connected.

    I started the pilot on Monday after I read your post and finished the series on Wednesday night. I care about the characters and want them to become a team, but if that is a priority of the writers, they are taking a very slow road to get there. I also agree about Nomi. She is the character with whom I connected the least. I think there are three problems with her: 1. She is being used as the vehicle through which they are sending the message that LGBT relationships can be loving and supportive. That’s nice, but it draws her out of the story, at least for me. Instead of being someone who I am concerned about, she is a symbol. 2. She is not trying to settle any inner turmoil – she has already struggled with her identity and made the hard choices to make herself who she has become and she’s happy there, no growth needed. 3. They want to kill her brain, but once she is out of the hospital, she verbally reiterates her distress, but her actions don’t reflect that. She’s gone back to the same apartment and spent her time cleaning (seriously?) and having sex. Those are not the actions of someone who is in fear for her life, regardless of how many times she says it.

    I have a hard time being drawn into Kala’s story too, although I like her. I agree with you that she needs more conflict. Soul searching does not make an exciting story. Naked Wolfgang helps.

    I hope they make the next season, I’m curious about where they will go. Hopefully it will have lots of Lito, Hernando and Daniela!

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  6. One thing, though, is that in this day and age, we’ve got people who will sit through anything . . . some people seem to think it’s too much of a hassle to just turn off the TV and take a nap — or maybe there are some people who think, “OK, I rented four shows, I will damn well watch four shows.”

    But at any rate, because of these outliers, we get reviews. And, because the show hasn’t disappeared into the ether, we can go to Amazon or Netflix and watch them later.

    I had heard good things about Parks & Recreation, but the first season only had a few bright spots (Chris Pratt). I was ready to pass on buying the other seasons, but then the show finished, and people who review started raving like maniacs about how good the show was — “but skip first season.” LOL, it was too late for that, but I did pick up season two, and it was amazing! The friendliness factor kicked in, and it became a show I wanted to watch. (I hate that sterile, isolation-based humor that things like the Office or the first season of P&R go for. The show found its heart.)

    On the basis of the reviews and the second season, I went ahead and bought the rest, and am just waiting for a free weekend to binge like a maniac — I’ll probably be raving about the show with everyone else.

    I think reviews might be a game changer in series like this, and I think reviewers also get readers to slog through a lot of stuff they wouldn’t necessarily put up with otherwise.

    (The best of all worlds, though, would be to hit the sweet spot in chapter one and consistently hit it all through the book or series. I think I can only think of two writers who do that for me. Not everyone can be a Jennifer Crusie . . . but we can try to hit that sweet spot consistently.)

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