You know, I try to be open-minded about writing, I really do. I do believe that each story is different, that no rule always applies, that rules should be tools not strait jackets, that . . . The hell with that. SET-UP IS NOT STORY.
I swear to god the next film/TV show I see or book I read where there’s a ton of lifeless crap at the beginning because the writer needs to set stuff up will be the last show or book by that writer I will invest my time and money in.
I know it’s easier to write story if you can say to the reader/viewer, “I have a great story to tell you but first, I need to set it up, give you some background, let the character ponder his or her situation, and introduce characters that will be important later without giving them a reason for being on the page now, so just bear with me and remember all of this stuff because I’m going to use it later in the story.” You know what? Making things easier on yourself as a writer while making things harder on the reader/viewer is just lazy, crappy storytelling, no excuses. Start with the story, with the protagonist in conflict and then keep going. Nobody put a gun to your head and said, “You must make things up.” You volunteered for this gig, you’re taking time and money away from people in exchange for your story, get off your ass and TELL THE DAMN STORY. There. Rant over.
Okay, maybe not. I still need to talk about it. I just watched this week’s The Mentalist. This was supposed to be the big revitalizing episode, the one that happens two years after Jane strangles Red John, everything different, the new story after the turning point. Exciting, right?. Except the show is still moving at a pace a snail would sneer at. They spent the first THIRTEEN MINUTES on set-up that included a Mean Drug Dealer and a Mysterious Women, a set-up that pretty much laid out the next thirty minutes of our hero leisurely paying back the drug dealer (but only after he killed a dog) and dancing with the woman who of course turned out to be an FBI agent looking for him (did ANYBODY not see that coming?), ending in last two minutes that basically said, “Never mind all of that, that was all just set-up for the reboot, we’ll tell you about the new direction the show’s going next week.” Well, no, you won’t. I’m out. You know who the writers of The Mentalist should talk to? The writers of The Blacklist.
At the start of the season, the premise of The Blacklist left me cold (an internationally known terrorist makes a deal with the FBI to supply info about the people on their most wanted list as long as they make a newbie FBI agent work with him), plus it had a twinkie (Megan Boone) as the newbie, and I was already twinkie-poisoned by Skye on SHIELD, so I wouldn’t have watched the pilot except that it stars James Spader and James Spader does good work. The start of the pilot was pretty good, it hit the ground running and told a good story while setting up the season to follow, although it was obvious that Spader’s character (Red) was Boone’s character’s (Lizzie’s) father and they were going to milk that for the entire season (everybody saw that coming) and . . . oh, wait a minute. Maybe he’s not. Okay, but Lizzie has this crunchy-granola perfect husband and they’re going to adopt a baby and her marriage is so sweet, it’s cloying and . . . oh, wait a minute. Maybe Crunchy Granola is evil. And then there’s Red himself, a snarky terrorist with a heart of gold, and . . . sweet Jesus, did he just do what I think he did? Heart of gold, my ass; this son-of-a-bitch has no boundaries.
So I kept watching. I had to. Those writers would do anything. And then every damn episode hit the ground running and twisted and turned, with Red looking dour except when he smiled which was when things really got terrifying. And Lizzie, well, she was a fast learner and she wasn’t taking any crap from Red, so there were no tearful, heartwarming are-you-my-daddy moments. Plus there was all this other stuff, like her I’m-pretty-sure-he’s-evil husband, and the Ken doll FBI agent who sneers at everybody is actually not a Ken doll, and Red’s bodyguard Dembe has real dimension, so I stuck with the Criminal of the Week stories and kept getting gobsmacked every week. That Red, he’ll do anything. And then this week, they earned my undying admiration by blowing it all up. The deal’s off, Alan Alda is a torturing son-of-a-bitch, there’s a mole in the FBI, the Ken doll is flirting with his engaged ex, I really do not trust Lizzie’s tree-hugger, secret-keeping husband, and Red is in the wind. It took The Mentalist five and a half years to do what The Blacklist did in ten episodes. I am so impressed. And you know what a jaded bitch I am about story.
Here’s something I love. The Blacklist’s titles are all the names and numbers of the people on the list: “The Courier, No. 85,” “Frederick Barnes, No. 47.” But when the show comes back January 13, the episode is titled, “The Good Samaritan Killer.” The Mentalist did five and a half years of titles with red references; Blacklist writers set up numbered titles and then turned left with episode eleven. I LOVE THESE GUYS. They take such delight in overturning expectation, and that makes for great story because one of the keys to great storytelling is fulfilling expectation while surprising the reader. If all you do is fulfill expectation, you bore the reader. If you come completely out of left field, the reader says, “WTF?” and leaves for a story that makes sense. If you can surprise the reader and still have her say, “OF COURSE that’s what happened, why didn’t I see it?” you’ve grabbed the storyteller’s gold ring. The Blacklist writers must own a jewelry store by now.
I think abusing set-up (and it’s older, dumber cousin, slow story-telling) comes down to one fatal flaw: underestimating the reader/viewer. I think you have to assume that your reader is smarter than you are. The minute you start spoonfeeding back story, over-explaining and over-simplifying, you’ve dumbed your story down, slowed it to a crawl, and drained the life from it. I remember one of my writing teachers once saying, “Don’t ever save anything for the next story. Put it all in the story you’re writing, everything you can.” I think he was right. I think you have to trust that your reader is not only smart but that she wants to be challenged, thrilled, delighted, that there’s something exciting on every page, in every scene, that she’s always a little off guard, that she loves those turning points that make her go “Whoa!” and recast what she thinks about the story and then read on with renewed excitement. I think the minute you think “I have to write this part to set up the story,” your story is screwed because you’re not thinking, “I have to write this part because it’s SO DAMN GOOD AND SO MUCH HAPPENS AND THE READER IS GOING TO LOVE IT.”
I was afraid that The Blacklist might get cancelled because it’s so different, its hero is such a bastard, and it turns its story so swiftly and so ruthlessly, but it turns out the writers were smart not to underestimate their audience. It’s the most watched drama on NBC in twenty years and the number one new show on the Big Four networks. And it’s just been renewed–after ten episodes–for another year. Slow set-up kills, smart story sells, and you really should be watching The Blacklist, although be prepared for an anti-hero; that Red is a real son-of-a-bitch.