What The Vampire Diaries Has Taught Me About Plotting

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.

They set a blistering – I mean, blistering – pace for their plot, and they don’t let up.

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.

26 thoughts on “What The Vampire Diaries Has Taught Me About Plotting

  1. Great post! I love TVD, and not just bc of Ian (although let’s be honest, he helps. A lot.). And I’m the same way with saving plot action for later (AND the best parts of the meal!). But that’s something I’m really trying to work on with my new WIP 🙂

  2. This is a great post as a reminder for writers! I too an am idea squirrel, which sometimes gets me in trouble when I hold back on plot, so that’s def a good reminder. The fast pace is something I always enjoy and try to do in my own writing, and I love the idea of studying similar shows to get an idea of what to do. Superb idea! Also…Ian? Humina.

    1. Yeah, he’s kind of gorgeous. Although, I actually have a thing for the Nice Boy, so I like Stefan, too.

      I feel like if I find shows that I just *have* to keep watching, then they’re doing something right with their storytelling, and it’s always beneficial then to step back and figure out what that “something” is in case I can use it. 🙂

  3. As a fellow TVD stalker, I’m loving this post! And as a writer I have to also agree with so many of your points. I love how quickly the pace moves in TVD. Especially because that’s something I struggle with in my writing. Just need to learn to move it along!

    1. Definitely me as well. There’s that idea that drawing out the mystery will draw out the tension, but they’re not mutually inclusive. If the stakes are high enough, then you can solve the mystery and still have LOADS of tension.

  4. Huh. *adds it to the TBW list* Though I’m horrid about sitting down and watching TV shows most of the time. I have so many other things to do, I tend to forget TV exists. I just watch it all on my computer anyway, because we didn’t bother moving the old CRT huge, heavy TV. 😛

    1. I wish I had that trouble – I can be terribly addicted to TV at the expense of my writing. It’s gotten much better since we got rid of cable, but still… I could probably switch it off more often.

      1. I was seriously TV addicted as a teenager, but then only had a very tiny TV in my dorm room in college. I found it wasn’t worth squinting at the 13″ screen for most shows, and between one thing and another, I got bored with passively watching TV. For a while, I watched no TV at ALL. Then I got hooked on Doctor Who…. And then once Em moved in, other TV shows followed.:P I’m procrastinating getting a TV until probably at least the holidays if not later though. The longer I can avoid it, the more I figure we can break the TV habits. 😛

  5. I’ve been saying this ALL ALONG! I watch once for entertainment, then watch again to study the hell out of what the writers did. They’re abso-fricking-lutely brilliant at conflict. YES, I cannot believe how forgiving Elana can be, but do I care? Hell no. There’s good shiz happening at all times.

  6. Love this post and all great tips! They are brilliant at pacing on that show, they do not let it rip at all. They have cliffhangers down to a tee too.

  7. This cracks me up. Though, I do have to say the one thing I can’t stand in a TV show is when characters refuse to learn and grow from their mistakes. At the moment, I am *this* close to dismissing Elena for her constant need to shoot herself in the foot. Whenever they have a killer plan, all the bad guys have to do is threaten someone–Jeremy, Damon, Steffan, the next-door-neighbor’s prized poodle–and she immediately gives up the plan and/or turns herself in. It’s getting a little ridiculous.

    1. I will cop to only being a little ways into season 2, but I can definitely see how that pattern is going to get old fast. Just an example of how the show’s love for quick-pace plot hogties the characters a bit. They sell it well, but sometimes you can see them bending it around a bit to make it all work.

  8. “– most of them rhyme with Leon Bummerhullder – “HAHA! Awesome.
    Lost your post and I agree with you.
    Then again, did you notice, there isn’t one unattractive actor on that show? Not one.
    Anyhoo, I love the way you write. Hilarious and to the point.

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