Saturday, July 28, 2012

Don't Be Predictable!

The first episode of The X-Files I ever saw was called “Deep Throat.” It was a rerun of what turned out to be the second episode, and it was the one that got me hooked. Why? Because it “got” me. And by “got” I mean to say that it surprised me.

See, usually, I can watch any TV show, whether I've seen it before and am familiar with the characters or not, and there will come a point where I will say aloud what's going to happen next. “Well, they'll find him dead,” I might say. Or, “and she's listening to the conversation from the next room,” and suchlike.

I don't know if it's just that I've been reading and watching TV so long that it's ingrained in me, or it was all the writing and scriptwriting classes I took at university. But regardless, I find this extremely disappointing. When I read a novel, or especially when I'm watching TV, I get very annoyed at this. (The one exception is if I'm watching something because it's so bad it's good, but that's not what I'm talking about here.)

Every show has less-well-done episodes, though, so I'm willing to overlook the occasional predictability if I like the show enough or it has some redeeming quality, like great characters or actors, for instance.

The point is that I want to be “got.” I look forward to any show (or novel), where the writer has also realized that we as the reader/audience have probably got enough brains to see the big act-ending revelation coming since the previous act, or even the teaser, and changed it up a bit to surprise us. Or better yet, to use our expectations as a red-herring and switch things around so we never see it coming.

Since I hate when I know what's coming, be it TV script or novel, I am trying the best I can to avoid the predictability in my own writing that would drive me nuts if I were the reader/viewer.

There are certain cliche's you can see right off, and therefore are to be avoided (unless you are into particularly complex use of red-herrings that can be pulled off by skilled writers under limited circumstances). I'll use TV shows as an example, because there are so many more novels out there it's harder to find an example that most people are familiar with. Think about how many times you have watched a detective show and you know pretty early on that the spouse was the murderer. Then think of a well-written show – take Law & Order as an example – when they start out suspecting the spouse, and then find information that would appear to exonerate said spouse, only to eventually poke holes in the seemingly exculpatory evidence, and we're back to the spouse as perpetrator at the end. That's not easy to do, but when done well it can surprise even the most jaded viewer. I'm not saying, “don't try this at home.” I'm just saying you should pretty damn sure of your writing skills.

Then there's one that applies to TV only: the biggest-name guest star did it. Again, taking Law & Order (in this case, “Special Victims Unit”) as an example. In an episode called “Scourge,” we all know that Richard Thomas did it. The only reason this could work is that the story was not about whodunnit, but why he did it.

Let's get back to that episode of The X-Files. What “got” me there were my expectations of the ending, based on the stereotypes I've been so used to seeing since I can remember. To set it up for anyone who hasn't watched the series (and if you haven't, get to NetFlix, ASAP!), Mulder, the Believer (in things paranormal, conspiracies, and FBI cases generally disregarded as nonsense, i.e. the cases dubbed “X-Files”) goes after evidence, though for our purposes, the “of what” isn't really important. Scully, the Skeptic (with a capital “S”), out of fear for their jobs as well as loyalty to the partner she'd been saddled with, goes after him. Mulder is being held in a top-secret facility, where she goes to retrieve him, finding him beat up and drugged. A hostage exchange takes place, and they're in the car. Now, the first time I saw this, all I could think was that they'd never get out of this place. Someone would surely stop them, and Mulder would have to pull it together and become Hero Guy (see any episode of Star Trek [the original series], in which Kirk, through his willpower alone, had overcome any number of obstacles that had taken out lesser men – and of course a mere woman could not overcome such things as alien spores, the temptation of dictatorial power, and mind-control, just to name the things that come to mind at the moment).

Remember, this was the second episode of The X-Files, and not only had the characters not been established yet, but in my umpteen years of watching television, studying television, and writing scripts, this is the way it should have happened. The woman rarely, if ever, rescued the man. I hated that, but that was the way it had always been, with rare exceptions (none of which I can think of at the moment).

So what “got” me enough to hook me on watching the series? Well, they got away. Not because Mulder was somehow superhuman in his will to survive and continue his Cause. Not because of his strength, but because of Scully's. Seeing this tiny woman come riding in and saving the day, not to mention the guy, was fantastic. It was at this point that I realized that, though Mulder was easy enough on the eyes and adorable in a wounded-puppy-dog-face way, it was clear from this that it would be Scully, the scientist (geek!) who would probably be the heavy-lifter in this partnership.

Yep, they “got” me. I never saw that coming.

When I'm plotting out a project, I generally know how it ends. But what I think about when I'm doing so is that I don't want my reader or viewer to know, as well. I think of Mulder and Scully, and all the twists that Law & Order takes. And then I think, “what would I, as a reader or viewer, think was going to happen next?” And whatever that is, I avoid it like Christmas Eve sales and 5:00 traffic.

Suggested viewing:

Firefly: “Our Mrs. Reynolds”
Picket Fences: “The Dancing Bandit”