Often the best writing lessons come from studying bad storytelling. Every published author will tell every aspiring writer that the key to success is to read, read, read! They sometimes neglect the other important factor that you also need to write, write, write!
Reading is important, though. After reading a story, a writer should pull it apart and learn from it. Did you like it – why? Did you hate it – why? Was there something just not quite right – what?
Books are not the only medium where this vital piece of learning can be taken. Writers do not just write books, they also write scripts and screenplays. Sparkling dialogue can create a multi-layered, believable character. It doesn’t matter how good the acting is, if the writing is poor then the character simply won’t work. It’s why I’m always suspicious of those films that stock pile big names. What are they hiding? Usually it’s a very poor script.
So don’t just pull apart (not literally!) your books, but also dissect your films and television programmes. I recently found myself sat on the sofa pondering over season 3 of The Walking Dead. I wrote my review a couple of weeks ago and was left feeling frustrated by the whole affair. I came to the conclusion that the writing was at fault.
So what are the 5 lessons of storytelling that I managed to pull from The Walking Dead?
- Female characters can be interesting and strong without being irritating
This is something that The Walking Dead does not do well. Take Lori, for example. She’s our leader’s wife, she the matriarch. Yet she’s irritating as hell and if she hadn’t given her life to save her baby’s, there would have been cheers instead of tears when she finally kicked the bucket. She’s replaced by Andrea, the pretty lawyer turned bad ass. She can shoot, she can fight and she knows her own mind. But somehow she becomes just as irritating as Lori and if Michonne hadn’t been by her side I would have cheered her death too.
So what makes a character interesting? What were Lori and Andrea lacking? Both had something going on, Lori had her relationship with Shane and her pregnancy and Andrea had her awful taste in men. Both were great tools to get these good characters into sticky situations. I think what went wrong was that Lori was too fickle and Andrea was arrogant but just wouldn’t take control and do the right thing.
Lori told Rick to kill Shane and then turned on him when he did. She was a liar, a cheater and utterly fickle. She could have sparkled but instead her dialogue was boring and repetitive.
Similarly, Andrea should have worked. Upon discovering that the Governor was evil, she had a chance to kill him but she didn’t. The irritation in Andrea came from the fact that she always thought she knew best (and shooting Daryl in season 2 didn’t help). She was full of big ideas and big words but when it came down to it, she failed to follow through.
Strangely, The Walking Dead writers have made a handful of their male characters interesting. Rick, our good guy beaten down by the deceit and evil around him, the responsibility on his shoulders and haunted by his dead wife. Daryl, our ignorant red neck turned intelligent fighter who was beaten as a child and left to bring himself up. Merle, the racist, ex-con who was always striving to better himself but constantly failing and who tried to live only for his brother. The Governor, our villain, the husband and father who has lost everything, including an eye and his mind.
Creating interesting characters is all about layers. Last night we watched the fourth episode of the second series of Syndicate (BBC 1, Tuesdays, 9pm). The writing is perfect, each character is beautifully drawn and complex. Even the secondary characters have their complexities and layers. The only thing that gets to me about Syndicate is that every one of them has massive problems, even secondary character Luke has a brain damaged brother which he blames himself for. In real life, you can just have lovely and wonderful people who aren’t plagued by epic problems (I know a lot of them). Of course, they don’t necessarily make good viewing/reading.
Going back to The Walking Dead, there would be no lovely, wonderful people happily getting on with their lives. Everyone would be affected by a zombie apocalypse and that is what makes the concept so interesting. Take very different people and show how this tragedy would affect them and in a ‘real life’ situation, I doubt all of the female characters would be either incredibly irritating or so dull you hardly realise they exist.
2. Don’t kill off your most interesting characters
If you do manage to create an interesting character then DON’T KILL THEM OFF! Yes, this one is all about Merle. The writers took a whole episode to start filling in the gaps in his background and show us what was going on in his mind. We’re just starting to realise how interesting he is and what he could mean for the rest of the group and the programme and bam! He’s dead. One less reason for me to continue watching.
This is also connected to killing off pointless characters. T-Dog, for example. If you’re not going to tell your viewers/readers who a character is, give them a background, make us care about them, then what’s the point of them? Everything in a story should happen for a reason and everything has a knock on effect. Merle’s death should have repercussions for Daryl (of which we saw none in the finale), T-Dog’s death should have had a meaning, other than Carol being lost in the prison alone.
3. Answer mysterious questions in a short timeframe
At the end of season 1, the doctor at the CDC leaned over and whispered something shocking in Rick’s ear. We had to wait until the season 2 finale to find out what that was.
Near the beginning of season 3 we watched Carol being watched by someone or something as she practised a c-section. We still don’t know who or what they were. Will we ever find out?
This leads to frustrated viewers/readers. Mysteries are great, in fact they are often necessary to keep the tension and make the story into a page turner. If you leave that mystery hanging too long, the reader/viewer will either forget all about it and so the resolution of the mystery won’t make any sense, or they will left waiting, grow frustrated and stop caring.
4. Don’t have a big cast if you can’t give each character the time they deserve
Perhaps the reason why we didn’t get to know T-Dog and the reason Merle wasn’t given enough airtime for us to really get to know him is because The Walking Dead cast is simply too big. At one point there were approximately sixteen to nineteen characters in the cast with perhaps twenty episodes in the season, each an hour long.
The Walking Dead episodes often tend to be split, they’re either solely around characterisation or moving the plot forward. Ideally, each episode should include both. Doing it separately like this means that we’re never going to get to know every character.
Plot and characterisation are both equally important, so if a writer finds themselves ignoring their characters in order to concentrate on plot then perhaps the cast of characters is just too big. A cull may be in order, preferably before you share the story with the world.
5. Keep characterisation consistent
Once you have your characters and they are interesting, likeable and believable, keep them that way. Of course they need to grow, obstacles must be put in their path and overcome and they must change accordingly but a writer must keep the foundation of the character true.
As an example, let’s look at Glenn. In season 1 he saved Rick from being stuck in a tank surrounded by walkers and he proved himself to be a strategist. He was warm, kind, quick and clever. In season 2 he fell in love and showed himself to be protective and caring, although not a lot else. The strategist, which was the more interesting element of his character, was left behind. It should have returned in season 3 but it didn’t. In fact, the opposite happened. Glenn became an angry person, with good reason having been beaten by Merle and suffering relationship problems after the Governor got his hands on girlfriend Maggie. He proved himself to be strong, killing a walker with his hands tied to a chair and then he seemed to lose the plot. He became hot headed and foolish. When left alone, in charge at the prison he made a succession of poor decisions. Where was season 1 strategist Glenn? Where has interesting Glenn gone? He can’t even propose to Maggie in an interesting way. Even in the midst of an apocalpyse with death around every corner, if my boyfriend simply showed me the ring he had ‘found’ for me, I would say no! Surely a little bit of romance wouldn’t have gone amiss in such terrible times?
I’ve made it look like The Walking Dead is poorly written but these are just the weaknesses highlighted. The programme as a whole is still very strong, those certain strong characters and effective plot carrying the programme along and so, as with all writing rules and lessons, these are utterly subjective.