So this past month saw The Man and I finally start watching The Vampire Diaries on Netflix and promptly become embroiled in all of the soapy supernatural drama. And given the rampant popularity of the show, we’re not the only ones. There are, of course, very obvious reasons why everyone loves it – most of them rhyme with Leon Bummerhullder – but I think a LOT of credit goes to the the show’s writers and what they’re doing with what was a pretty scant premise in the original books.
It is (arguably) the primary reason why people get hooked on this show like crack and tune in week after week, season after season. It helps that the cast is very nice to look at and they range on the scale from “solid delivery” to “wicked talented,” with none of them really sucking it up. But competent, pretty actors only get you so far. The writers are doing some major heavy lifting behind the cameras to keep the hits and entanglements coming, and I’m learning a few things as I watch.
- Trust that you will come up with something new.
I’m terrible at this. Just the worst, honestly. I mean, I’m one of those people who eats my favorite part of a meal last, so holding things back and anticipation and the like are just part of my character. So when I come up with a great idea to happen to my characters, my instinct is to want to “save” it – for later, for the next book, etc. I want to stockpile the cool shit, not trusting my creative bucket to refill itself and spew forth more cool shit. I’m an idea squirrel.
Don’t be an idea squirrel.
Let the hits come and keep on coming and trust that, if you’ve got a good base with the characters and the world, then you’ll figure out something else to come next. The amount of crap that happens over the course of one freaking season on TVD would’ve been spread out over two or three seasons on a lot of other shows. They don’t hold things back or let questions linger too long. Two, three, four episodes pass, and they answer half the ongoing mysteries only to create two dozen more.
- Trust your characters to figure stuff out.
Part of the reason so much stuff happens? The writers let the characters be smart and active. Main girl Elena doesn’t brush off the weird shit that happens around her new bouffant-headed love-squeeze Stefan – she investigates and puts the pieces together. Stefan wants to know something – he goes and asks about it. Damon wants something from someone – he seduces or kills until he gets it.
These assholes aren’t pondering their next step or glossing over niggling questions for three episodes; they’re jumping out there and taking care of business. I’m amazed over and over again at how characters come right out and tell other characters important information. Or confront them about dickish behavior. Or confess their feelings. Or talk about their freaking relationships like normal couples would. (I’m sending starry eyes at you, Matt and Caroline.) And if they withhold something, they’ve got a damn good reason (or, at least, they believe they do), and that reason isn’t: “because it’ll keep this plotline from wrapping up too quickly.”
The flow of information on this show between all the players is awesome.
- Trust your audience to keep up.
Sure, there’s the little “Previously on The Vampire Diaries…” before an episode, but within the episode itself? There aren’t a lot of “As you know, Bob” conversations happening. Recapping is at a minimum. If the characters exchange previously established facts, it’s most of the time quick and a natural part of the conversation. There’s no bogging down of the storyline while Elena sits around and VOs about what we’ve learned so far and all her feeeeeelings about it. She doesn’t have time for that bullshit when she’s getting in people’s faces about what the hell is going on.
The show bowls forward, piling on the subplots with a wicked grin at viewers, going, “Did you miss that little fun fact back there? Too bad – go read about it on the internet, honey, because we’re busy over here.”
Is their method of fast-paced plotting perfect? No. Sometimes character development is sacrificed a bit on the Altar of “Damn, Audience, Deal With This New Pile of Crazy.” For example, the terrible things Damon does that Elena swears she hates him for are often shuffled aside a few episodes later for the sake of plot, and that’s where the talent of the cast has to come through to make it workable. It’s certainly a fine line to walk, and I’m not recommending going full-on breakneck pacing over everything else.
Still, I think the basic lessons above are something every writer needs to carry into their stories. When we hold things back, when we dumb our characters down to extend plot elements, when we don’t trust that our readers can keep up without spoonfeeding them recaps, then we do a disservice to the story and a disservice to our audience. They will be able to tell. They’ll notice that things don’t feel authentic. They’ll call us on our shit until our only recourse is to distract them with a picture of Ian Somerhalder:
Enough of that action. Go forth and plot. And pick up the pace.