Friday, July 15, 2011

Writing lessons from a guilty pleasure

OK, confession time. During these very busy past few weeks, I haven't exactly been eating supper and dropping into bed. But I haven't had the mental energy late at night to do anything productive. So I've been watching Roswell. Since I don't have TV (cable or satellite), I watch series on Netflix. And last night for the first time in my life, a TV show kept me awake at night (possible exception is when the X-Files gave me nightmares, but it didn't wake me up in the middle of the night or early in the morning worrying about the characters).

(Warning: some spoilers here, but not as bad as running your cursor over the episodes in Netflix.)
Roswell was a TV show about 10 years ago, about teenaged aliens and humans. Last night (late in season 2), everything fell apart. A supporting character recently died, the female MC is losing friends over her obsession about his death, the male MC's sister is so angry she started using her powers in public and is about to tell their mom about them, and the mMC got together with - as in slept with - the wrong girl. Arrghh!!

I yell at the computer screen, "No. No. NO! Don't do that!" and I finally have to go to bed but my mind races and won't go to sleep. It's like these characters are real to me.

As a writer, I can learn from that.

As much as I hate what these characters are going through, they have me hooked. A decade ago, however, I got so disgusted with their pain and angst that I stopped watching. But I saw the series finale, so I know there's going to be a happy ending. Eventually. I decided to plow through all the episodes this time, but I'm probably going to have to endure a lot more bad before things get good. As a writer, I need to keep this in mind: "experts" say to throw lots of bad things at your characters to create conflict. But romantics like me will be turned off if there's not any hope.

You may wonder what an in-progress historical novel about my ancestors has to do with paranormal teen angst. I'm in this post-draft, fill-in-the-gaps, major revision phase where I need to turn conversations and facts into interesting action. I want Ann to be loyal and love only Benjamin and wait for a really long time for him to come to his senses. But I'm thinking I need to add a third character in there, a love-triangle, so Benjamin won't win Ann too easily when he finally gets his butt back home. Her pining away with no other conflict is probably too boring to keep my readers interested.

Every scene in Roswell builds tension. Even when it's not a life-or-death situation, there's romantic tension, worry about relationships (friends, siblings), mystery about where the aliens came from or who are their enemies, and mostly a constant "What's going to happen next?" With the supporting character's death, the writers turned that around into "What happened?" - still building curiosity.

Last night's episode (II-18) had:
- lots of conflicts (all of the characters) about "was it suicide or murder or neither?"
- romantic tension as the fMC turned to the mMC for friendship.
- romantic conflict with two other characters, resolved before the end of the show.
- attempted romantic tension between fMC and a new supp. character (not really believable, but I still yell No! at the screen).
- rising conflict over the sister moving away and mMC's attempts to boss her. "What next?" tension at the resultant use of her powers in front of a crowd, powers that have been kept secret throughout the series.
- romantic tension with the constant arrival of the female competitor, finalized by a (No!!) bedroom scene at the end.
- building curiosity with clues about supp. character's final months, with a major twist at the end (visually interspersed with the romantic scene above).

That's a lot to pack into one 45-minute show!

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