What Have We Learned From This Binge Watch 1: What Kind Of Story Is This?

So that was fun. Kinda. I had to wade through a lot of Hawk to get to the good stuff, but I did learn some things, which I’m going to be cogitating about for probably days in no particular order. For right now, I’m focused on what the hell kind of story I’m writing, something the first season of Legends was great at showing what not to do.

1. Pick a lane.
I want this novel to be:
Women’s Fiction (Nita’s Journey)
Romance (Nick and Nita)
Team Story (Nita, Nick, Button, Rab, and a player to be named later but probably Max).

I can do all of those things, but one has to be first (main plot) and the others have to feed into it and support it (subplots). So time to pick a lane. Because if I don’t, I’ll have the first season of Legends of Tomorrow.

Legends‘ first season intro/Rip’s voiceover tells you what the problem is.

“In the year 2166, an immortal tyrant named Vandal Savage conquered the world and murdered my wife and child.
“I have assembled an elite team to hunt him throughout time and stop his rise to power.
“Unfortunately, my plan is opposed by the body I’ve sworn my allegiance to: The Time Masters.
“In the future my friends may not be heroes, but if we succeed, they will be remembered as legends.”

Look at that plot salad:
The first sentence says the story is about the speaker vs Vandal Savage who murdered his wife and child.
The second sentence says he’s assembled an elite team (lie, have you see these yahoos?) to stop Savage’s rise to power (lie, it’s to save his family)
The third sentence says there’s another antagonist, the Time Masters.
The fourth sentence and the one that should sum up the story, is that his team will be remembered as legends (lie, he’s seen the future and they’re completely forgotten) which says this is a team story.

It’s all over the place, spoken by an extremely unreliable narrator (also Worst Team Leader Ever).

Now look at Legend’s second season voiceover intro, spoken by a different member of the team each episode:

“Time travel is real, and all of history is vulnerable to attack, which is why we must travel through time to stop the spread of these so-called time aberrations and to erase their damage to history. We are a team of outcasts and misfits, so please don’t call us heroes. We’re something else. We’re legends.”

That’s a plot. More than that, it’s a team story because now it’s not Rip and his “elite” helpers, it’s “we.” “We are a team of outcasts and misfits.” One voice, speaking for the team which is the protagonist, giving its mission purpose: guard history from disruption from time marauders.

Legends intends to spread its stories evenly among its team members (hence a different team member doing the voiceover each week), and I’m not sure that’s a great plan. I think that the leader of each team needs to anchor the story the way he or she anchors the team so that the story overall has that sense of an authority in the text, that somebody’s in charge here and we’re going to follow the story through his or her eyes. That said, in a team story as a main plot, all the team players have to play major roles, so you’re going to have some dilution of focus automatically. That makes it doubly important, perhaps most important, that the team have a single focus that pulls everything together.

The Person of Interest team, for example shifts over five seasons from a two-person team to a six-person Machine Gang and from individual antagonists to Samaritan, but they never change their mission of saving the “irrelevant” numbers, and the first season introduction said just that in Finch’s voiceover:

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know, because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people; people like you. Crimes the government considered ‘irrelevant’. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up… we’ll find you”.

The key there, again, is “we” “We work in secret.” It’s not Finch and his helpers, it’s the Machine Gang.

Looking at those three voiceovers, two of which introduce teams and one of which introduced chaos, it occurred to me that it might be a good exercise for me to write an opening voiceover for Nita’s story. It won’t be in the book (might be cover copy) but it will help me decide whether this is women’s fiction, romance fiction, or team story. In fact, what I should do is write one of each for Nita just to see what I get. Stay tuned. Or better yet, write one for your story. You don’t have a story? Write one anyway. You’re gonna need:

A protagonist or a team (depending on what kind of story you’re writing)
A goal or a mission
An antagonist creating conflict.
Oh, and it should also make somebody want to watch or read the story.

Go. See you tomorrow. Or maybe the day after; this is going to be difficult.

Edited to add:
You know what’s easy? Team voiceovers:

On Demon Island, tourists come to play at being devils and demons, but we know there’s much more to this island than green make-up and Hell Fries. We’re the Devil’s Minions, and we may not all be human, alive, or even corporeal, but we share the same mission: to protect everyone and everything on Demon Island, regardless of race, creed, or signs of life. Cross us, and there’ll be Hell to pay.

You know what’s really hard? Romance voiceovers. I keep ending up with cover blurbs.

Also difficult, women’s fiction/mystery/single protagonist voiceovers, but nowhere near as difficult as that damn romance intro:

I’m Detective Nita Dodd, and my job is to protect and serve the citizens of Demon Island, an island on which there are no demons, just an amusement park with a Hell-ish theme and a lot of stores selling green baseball caps with horns. The island is quiet during the off season, but somebody just shot my friend Joey, one of the witnesses says he’s the Devil, and another one swears he’s seen demons. I’d say they were all just drunk, but lately I’ve been seeing things that aren’t there myself. Something’s going on here, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it and find out who ordered Joey killed, even if I have to go to Hell and back to do it.

That’s way too long, but still only half as long as the romance version. Maybe I should just go with:

She’s a cop, he’s the Devil, they fight crime!

Yeah, back at you later on that one.

23 thoughts on “What Have We Learned From This Binge Watch 1: What Kind Of Story Is This?

    1. That may be because they’re two different books with the same characters.

      That is, the one that’s just Nita’s PoV is a single story about catching Joey’s killer, while the team into is about a group of people with an ongoing and open-ended mission.

      Also the team intro is cleaner and more focused. That always helps. The problem is, I think it’s also colder because there’s no one character (aside from whoever’s doing the voiceover) described in any way. It would probably work as a TV intro because you’d have pictures to give you the characters.

  1. The rich and powerful take what they want. We get it back for you. Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys. We provide… Leverage.

    But the saga sell is an interesting thing to see if it applies here. The majority of examples listed on TvTropes all belong to genre shows, a few reserved for game shows, with Happy Days as a notable exception. The game show part is interesting, as it points to the function of the monologue as laying down the fundamental rules of the game.
    Equally interesting is that, in recent years, some shows have replaced a universal saga sell with the “here’s what you need to know/here’s what you’ve missed” tailed to each episode. For that format, the monologue is rare, and instead, the summary is demonstrated through clips of the show. Burn Notice does both, which makes me wonder if that’s something a novel should aspire to. Can you craft your saga sell from excerpts of dialogue from the text?

    But generally, when I’ve seen something like this for books at all, they’ve tended towards the vague. Here’s the one for Animorphs:
    We can’t tell you who we are. Or where we live. It’s too risky, and we’ve got to be careful. Really careful. So we don’t trust anyone. Because if they find us… well, we just won’t let them find us.
    The thing you’ve got to know is that everyone is in really big trouble. Yeah. Even you.

    And then you can never go wrong with the Bard: (how’s that for romance?)
    Two households, both alike in dignity,
    In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
    From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
    Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
    From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
    A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
    Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
    Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
    The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
    And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
    Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
    Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
    The which if you with patient ears attend,
    What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

    They Fight Crime is always a good one (“She’s a detective who not just metaphorically cold. He’s the heir to Hell who just wants to get back to business. They fight crime!”), of course, but it is limited to describing a duo.
    Slightly off topic but still relevant, the Oscar-Winning movie generator.

    1. “The game show part is interesting, as it points to the function of the monologue as laying down the fundamental rules of the game.”

      Huh. I wonder if the protagonist/antagonist/conflict summary isn’t the same thing, if you think of the story as a game. “The rules of this story are that it will be about this person fighting this person in this kind of fight over this prize.”

      1. It seems to be more in the world-building sense, but since conflict and world-building should be tied, it still works.

        Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer.

        However, this functional version of the monologue intentionally bypasses any descriptions of relationships. Hrm.
        The Nikita monologue changes per episode, but here’s the one from the pilot:
        Six years ago, I was taken from prison and forced to become an assassin for a secret unit of the Government: a black ops program called Division, that has now gone rogue. They destroyed my identity and they destroyed the man I loved. I escaped, and now the man that trained me, someone I trusted, is hunting me. What Division doesn’t know is that I have a partner on the inside, a new recruit with a dark past who I’ve trained in secret to resist their control. Together we’re going to take Division apart, one mission at a time. And the last word they’ll breathe before the end will be my name.

        That’s pretty good! It establishes setting/rules (spy world, mutual hunting), current end-goal (take down Division), protagonist motivation, and relationships: Her partner on the inside, and her antagonist who she used to trust. It says “together,” but ends with a focus on Nikita herself, indicating that no matter how united the team gets, it’s ultimately her story.
        It’s not too different from Rip’s, but doesn’t mention a secondary sideplot like the Time Masters, and instead of a generic “my team,” it goes into a little more detail about the relationship dynamics. Execution also matters, as Rip’s monologue doesn’t have much to do with the main plots of the show, whereas Nikita’s episodes keep focused on that primary goal.

        In the year 2166, an immortal tyrant named Vandal Savage conquered the world. I assembled a team to hunt him throughout the timeline. They’re a bit rough, but if they can pull together, I believe they will be remembered as legends.
        Single goal focus (no Time Masters subplot mentioned), but allows for a variety of time travel shenanigans by not specifying that they want to “stop his rise to power.” No mention of the fridging, since it doesn’t play so much of a role in the show. (Just like Nate doesn’t mention his son in the Leverage opening) Ending emphasis on team-building, and setting expectations that their teamwork isn’t the best, so we know that that’s part of the fun.

        1. I like the Nikita one, although I think it’s too long. I do like the idea of a single person introducing a story, even if that intro is never in the story; it’s a lovely way of finding out if you’ve got a plot or not.

          I think Rip’s would have been better concentrating on the Time Masters rather than Savage. In the end, the Time Masters are really the problem; they’re using Savage the same way they used Rip. I could see Rip using Savage in the first act and then at the turning point finding out that it’s actually much worse, he fighting the men who control time and can manipulate people to do their bidding, and then switching over to that. The Time Masters would have made for MUCH more satisfying plots

    2. I love Burn Notice more and more–I’ve always thought the intro was strong, giving you a basic “all you need to know” and pairing Michael’s narration with character-defining quotes (“Should we shoot them?”) so that even if you’ve never seen an episode before, you know who the players are (visually & in terms of attitude) and what the goal is (“Someone needs your help, Michael”/”Till you find out who burned you…”).

      Much more evocative than even “He’s a burned spy/she’s an IRA-trained bomber. They fight and/or commit crime!”

      I always describe the Romeo & Juliet prologue to my students (high school) as “Shakespeare spoilering his own story,” but despite the warning, there’s always somebody who’s still shocked when R&J both end up dead. And it’s interesting that it’s in there, since that play reads much more like a comedy right up until the beginning of Act III–I guess he didn’t want to break the contract with his audience, so he gave them a heads up in the prologue! XD

      1. The Burn Notice intro really is great:

        Michael Westen: [voice-over] My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy. Until…
        voice on phone: [phone rings] We got a burn notice on you. You’re blacklisted.
        Michael Westen: [voice-over] When you’re burned, you’ve got nothing: no cash, no credit, no job history. You’re stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in.
        Michael Westen: Where am I?
        Fiona Glenanne: Miami.
        Michael Westen: [voice-over] You do whatever work comes your way. You rely on anyone who’s still talking to you. A trigger-happy ex-girlfriend…
        Fiona Glenanne: Shall we shoot them?
        Michael Westen: [voice-over] An old friend who used to inform on you to the FBI…
        Sam Axe: You know spies… bunch of bitchy little girls.
        Michael Westen: [voice-over] Family too…
        Sam Axe: [phone rings] Hey, is that your Mom again?
        Michael Westen: [voice-over] … if you’re desperate.
        Madeline Westen: Someone needs your help, Michael!
        Michael Westen: [voice-over] Bottom line? Until you figure out who burned you… you’re not going anywhere.

        1. Now I want to go to some of the Jesse seasons and see if he gets added into the intro. Or are he and Nate both members who never really “make the team” by getting into the intro?

          Hmm. Jesse’s not in in in seasons 4 or 5, but by season 6 Fiona’s become “a trigger-happy girlfriend” (more accurate, doesn’t scan as well) and Jesse’s “a down-and-out spy you met along the way” (“That’s how we do it, people!”).

          They update the video clips, too, so that Madeline has a gun/cigarette combo in one of hers (perfect character summary, hahaha).

          1. They’d have to, the show changes so much. But it’s still a great example of a single character voiceover introducing a story.

            Reminds me of the best advice anybody ever gave me about writing titles: It should be something that the main character would say.

  2. Two shots at the voice-over… Both of which helped me identify some weaknesses in the story. Great exercise!

    Story #1 (Romantic Suspense… probably?)

    Hero’s voiceover: All I want is to take my restaurant legit and stop laundering Family money. But when Uncle Marco died, our deal was moot, and now the restaurant and I are pawns in a power struggle between two factions. It doesn’t help that I’ve had to ask for some favors lately–to protect a woman who’s supposed to be on the family hit list, and who might be about to sell us out to the FBI. I want out, but not in a body bag–so this needs to get settled, and fast.

    Heroine’s voiceover: I really didn’t think my dad was being realistic when he said that moving to Boston lead to a mob hit, so I met with the guy who runs the family restaurant. When he said he wasn’t interested in killing me, I took the job and moved into my best friend’s building. Apparently he didn’t speak for everyone, because my car blew up, my apartment was ransacked, and someone’s been following me. Is there any way to make it out of this alive?

    (Hers is weaker and her POV still suffers from “WHY NOT JUST MOVE SOMEWHERE ELSE,” but it’s coming together…)

    Story #2 (YA Cli-Fi/Adventure)

    You know how some people say ‘every little girl just wants to be a princess’? Well, that’s a bunch of garbage. I never wanted to be a princess, and that was *before* a group of rebels kidnapped me and told me I was the lost heir to the empire they were fighting. Now I have to decide who’s side I’m on–and what I’m willing to die for. Because if there’s one thing everybody seems to agree on, it’s that I’d make a great martyr for whatever cause they’re selling.

    1. I like the heroine’s intro. You’re right, you’ll have to do something about why she’s not moving, but things are happening to her and I want to know what’s next.

      1. Yeah, I’ve been working on this dumb thing for like four years and without your blog she’d definitely be Too Dumb To Live, so I very much appreciate your guidance. I also referred some of my creative writing students to the Writing/Romance blog to help them with conflict lock–they loved it!

        I think I’m going to shorten up the timeline so that she is actually in fact leaving town, but gets sidetracked by the climax on her way to the airport. It’s still not ideal… but it’s significantly better than it was! Hopefully the Girls in my basement will come up with something better before long.

  3. My actual short explanation for Poor Relations is “You know how Jane Austen said the ideal story is a few families in a village and then strangers come to town? This is like that, only it’s a village on Mars, and the strangers are an alien invasion.”

    Movie type voiceover, in terms of protagonist and antagonist: “Female is what everyone wants someone else to be. Nore may be stuck with it for now, but she’s going to find a way to get out whatever it takes.”

    …and everything else really is subplots reflecting and commenting on that.

    That was remarkably illuminating as an exercise. Thank you.

    1. Hahaha, what a great short explanation – It’s exactly like Austen, only with aliens invading Mars! Definitely piques my interest. Then again, I love both Austen and aliens, so…

      The movie voiceover is intriguing too but I’m not sure I understand it. Is Female a placeholder name or the gender? Like, Nore is female but is going to get out of that situation no matter what?

      1. It’s the gender. In this world, people can easily switch what their bodies are like. Great, right? Except that what happens is that some people get forced by economics to be female. This is all explained really clearly in the first chapter. Nore’s stuck being female, but she wants to get up and out. Honestly, for SF it isn’t all that weird! And I swear I am going to finish it this week.

        1. Yeah, I’m intrigued. And I need new reading material. I was digging around my bookshelves and Kindle last night thinking I need new authors.

    2. It really is, isn’t it? I always thought “Write the cover blurb” was a good exercise for my students along with “Write a one paragraph description that sells the book” (not quite the same thing), but putting it in the voice of one of the characters was really illuminating.

    1. I think that’s Mick’s inner demon. He’s caught between his memories of who he was before he got on the Waverider (Snart) and who he’s becoming (Amaya). It looked to me like a classic angel/devil set-up to show his inner turmoil. Gideon had that snarky crack about having fixed Mick’s brain damage from his lifetimes with the Time Masters, but I think Mick’s truly torn. He’s part of the team but that’s in direct opposition to everything he was with Snart.

      Or it’s Thawne and Darhk and Merlyn doing some occult to bring the Snart-Before-the-Waverider back, and that Snart is appalled at how soft Mick’s going, and they’re sending him by holograph or something to get Mick to turn on the team.

      It’s hard to tell, but if I had to vote, I’d vote on Mick’s subconscious telling him everything he’s been repressing as he grows closer to Amaya. She really is Snart’s exact opposite, so she’s the ultimate betrayal of his memory.


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