Writing Lessons I Learned While Watching Supernatural

The fourth season premiere of Supernatural is on tonight. Whoo-hoo! While I was sick, I rewatched Supernatural seasons one, two, and three to cope when I was feeling my worst. I also learned a few things about writing:
 
Season 1 & 2 lessons
 
Writing doesn’t have to be serious to be good. Supernatural season 1 & 2 episodes are fun, well-written escapism. (Also, the leads can act and the episodes are skillfully shot). There’s a new monster/mystery each week and fun elements like the brothers impersonating: cops, FBI agents, Homeland Security, reporters, and even priests. They stay at rundown highway motels, use credit card fraud to pay the bills, eat gas-mart junk food, and drive across the country in their 1967 Chevy Impala entertaining themselves with fun banter.
 
Each week they solve some mysterious happening by questioning citizens and doing research. Then they fight the scary spirits and demons and save nice people in horrible trouble. In addition, there’s a season long arc, so the monster of the week plots are: 1) stories on their own, and 2) clues that add up to a long story arc as well. Fun elements and good plotting make this escapism worth watching.
 
Good writing has likable characters.  Older brother, Dean, is basically a badass with a heart-of-gold. He’s skilled at hunting demons, playing poker, picking locks, escaping the law, and making funny quips. While he loves his 1967 Chevy Impala and listening to his collection of mullet rock, his job is his life. He’s a lot more insecure and dysfunctional than his smartass comments let on and he needs his brother to keep him going. 
 
Younger brother, Sam, is the “sensitive smart one”. He gave up a “full ride” at Stanford law school to help his brother find their missing dad. He’s the one strangers open up to, the one who researches demon lore, and the one who keeps Dean going. The whole show works because you care about these two brothers and their relationship.
 
Good writing balances humor, angst, and tension. There’s a personal story line for each brother per season to provide the angst and drama. The monsters, demons, and spirits provide plenty of scary tense happenings. Balanced between the angst and tension, there’s a lot of humor and fun. It’s that balance that makes this show work.
 
Season 3 lessons
While rewatching the entire show, I noticed how uneven season 3 was – maybe it was the writers’ strike or maybe it was Dean’s tricky situation. Some of the episodes are great, but some, well, they’re disappointing. Here’s what season 3 taught me about writing:
 
Show, Don’t Tell: If want your audience to be afraid of the terrible times ahead, show it. The Groundhog Day episode did that nicely. Why is Dean’s situation so painful for Sam? We see why – over and over. It’s heartbreaking (and pretty funny, at times, too.) 
 
How do you bore your audience? Have demons preach sanctimonious sermons warning of horrible happenings- again, and again, and again. Oy!
 
Keep the crucial fun-to-angst balance: Like concentrated dish detergent, a little angsty monologing goes a long way – too much, and there are soapsuds oozing all over my perfectly fun horror-detective show. 
 
Make sure your characters maintain their internal consistency: I like Sam but Dean drives this show. So when Dean’s situation starts changing him, it’s tricky stuff. The thing I like about Dean is that even though he’s a smart-ass, deep down he cares about people and doing the right thing. He likes sex, but he’s always seemed fairly respectful of women. Sure he’s afraid of getting close; we saw in season one that getting close leads to nothing but rejection for Dean. Suddenly, in season three though, Dean’s a big jerk calling women bitches left and right. True, they’re demons and thieves, but it’s a bad look on Dean. There’s a big difference between badass and asshole.
 
Dean also suffers from the Joey TribbianiSam Malone syndrome – where the writers can’t decide exactly how smart or stupid he is. One minute he’s perfectly smart and then the next – just to get the easy joke – he’s dumber than the beef jerky he loves. With good writing, even in trying times, characters have an internal consistency.
 
I can’t wait to see how things turn out in season four. Here’s wishing the new season gets back to the stellar writing I’m use to!

Techniques of the Selling Writer

Title: Techniques of the Selling Writer

Author: Dwight V. Swain

Genre: Non-fiction, Writing Instruction

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press; 1965

Length: 323 pages

 

This is the best book I’ve read on how to write fiction.  Yes, the title sounds sleazy but the information is sound.  Swain breaks down exactly how to write an absorbing story from detail to big picture as well as beginning to end. 

 

Swain starts out explaining why readers read – to feel worry, tension, and release in a safe way. He then goes on to describe how to write emotion, reaction, and dialog using motivate-reaction units.  Those units are the building blocks of scene and sequel, two concepts Swain writes about in great detail. He explains the difference between a scene (time of intense action and conflict in a book) and a sequel (time of reflection and decision), describes why these two concepts are the building blocks of your story, how to write them using motive-reaction units, and how to use them to build your plot.  Building on this knowledge, he goes on to describe how to write a story from beginning to middle to end, how to write characters readers care about, how to plan your story, how to sell your story, and some thoughts on being a writer. 

 

Since this book was published in 1965 I’d assumed that it would be dated, but I was surprised just how applicable it was to my writing.  Sure it’s a bit sexist and many of the examples are from old pulp fiction, but the basic information is dead-on useful.

 

This is one of those books I had to read several times.  I read it straight though the first time and outlined it the second time over a period of months.  After the outlining I noticed a change in the quality of my writing.  I still take out this book and refer to it whenever I’m feeling stuck in my story or want to improve some aspect of my writing.

 

One of my fellow writer’s group members always had exciting plot ideas but his writing fell flat in a way that I couldn’t pinpoint so I gave him this book.  He declared it the “best book on writing” he’d ever read.  A few months later he shared his new story.  Wow. There was a marked change in the quality of his writing. So if you’re looking to improve your writing, you might give this book a try.