Storytelling Lesson from Falling Skies

flickr credit: Filipão 28

Falling Skies, the TNT sci-fi drama already with an award and several nominations in its pocket, started up again this month. First, I must say woo-hoo! Second, you’re probably asking—what’s this have to do with writing? Did I land on the wrong blog? No, no, you haven’t wandered. Aside from my interest as a viewer, I think this show has implications for me as a writer. In answer to your question, first I’m going to say, watch and learn.

Since the show’s first episode, I’ve been entranced. With one eye on the calendar all spring, and repeated checking of my TV’s guide, I often pondered what made this show’s story so gripping for me. I wanted to know if, as a writer, I could duplicate the tension, the suspense, and the storytelling that grabbed me from the first scene and kept me worried about these characters to the season finale. What is it about Falling Skies that keeps my eyes pinned to the screen?

Finally!

My wait is over, and the new season has begun. And wow—but I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers (I hate those!). You just need to watch this show.

While watching the season premiere, I tried to keep my question of storytelling in mind. It was hard to keep myself one step back from the story and I wasn’t always successful. But on occasion, I was able to stop and think, okay, they’re setting up for an attack, something’s going to go wrong—but I then wouldn’t even have a chance to finish surmising what was going to happen.

After this happened a couple of times, I think I figured out part of what Falling Skies does so well. The writers don’t exactly break structural rules. They just don’t wait for them. Normally, a show starts up with a bit of setup—we expect this, especially in the first episode of the season, to orient viewers, show how the world works, especially for new viewers.

Not in Falling Skies. (Tiny spoiler here! Skip to the next paragraph to avoid it.) In one scene where they’re planning an attack, they don’t even get a chance to get into position before they’re attacked.

That’s one brief example that demonstrates the show’s approach. Keep up the attack, throw in another curve, another plot twist. This way, we’re constantly off-balance, so that we even suspect the lulls are not lulls—and so the tension never lets up.

Oh, and no one—no one—is safe. Okay, short of the main characters, anyone could die at any moment. Aside from the business decision to keep the actors they know draw in viewers (which is why we know the main characters are safe—mostly), sometimes I could believe they’d kill them off too. How’s that for suspense-building?

What does this mean for me as a writer?

It underscores something I’ve been struggling with in my work in progress: more conflict means more tension, more suspense—all ingredients for a better story, for a story the reader can’t put down.

To my surprise, I’ve found it hard to do this, not because I didn’t want to include conflict in my story—there’d be no story without it—but I found I resisted being mean to my characters! It was only after a lot of analysis of my story, over and over, that I realized I was just being too nice. An author must be mean, hard, and sometimes, downright evil to create a story that brings the character to the end that fulfills her potential and the story’s promise.

The lesson from Falling Skies

What are you supposed to take from this? More. You may have given your characters some difficulties, but if you want to take your story up a notch, notch up the conflict. Increase the suspense, and your readers will be turning pages. Make it harder for your characters, bring in more obstacles, take away who or what they love most in the world—yeah, seriously.

There’s some advice out there you may have heard. Ask yourself, What’s the worst that can happen to my character right now? When you answer this question, you’ll know what your story needs.

And seriously, go watch Falling Skies. But set your DVR, so you can watch it twice. One for the writer in you. The second (or first!) just for the fun of it.

Any other Falling Skies fans out there? Any writers who’ve watched it and found tasty nuggets for a writer? Please share in the comments!


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