Here in blighted Blighty we started a new lockdown. What to do? Many writers, being hermits, won’t notice until exasperated family or friend drags them outside when it’s all over. I thought I’d run through some of my favourite recent Netflix UK viewing and work out how I might be able to apply their successful techniques to my own writing.
Lightning In A Bottle
With so much relentless competition for eyeballs between the streamers, what makes the top shows so binge-worthy? It’s like asking how to catch lightning in a bottle. It’s all very well in theory, but making our screen stories compelling viewing is something else. However, behind the writer’s flair and talent are solid craft skills and techniques that we can identify, learn, apply.
I’ve identified 6 key craft components I believe the writers employed in recent series to make these screen stories compelling viewing until the end. There are more but you know that. You already have a wall of how-to books.
1. Organic Story Events
By this, I mean utterly believable events. There’s a fine line between a naturally occurring event or surprise (plot twist) and ‘deus-ex-machina’. The writer needs to avoid an “I don’t buy that” response from the viewer at all times. In my experience, and I only learned this over the last 3 years, it comes down to painstaking story design on a bedrock of research and character construction, which is the 90 per cent of iceberg under your visible narrative. When you’re thinking about how well a story flows, I guess this is what we’re talking about.
Examples: The Queen’s Gambit has by far and away the most organic story flow I’ve seen recently. It’s simply outstanding. I’ll include Ozark too, although I’ve been watching that for a while and only finished it recently. Absolutely gripping.
2. Relatable Characters
Relatable doesn’t mean ‘saints’ or ‘good’ or ‘nice’. It just means they’re like the rest of us trying to muddle our way through life.
Schitt’s Creek The family – Mom, Pop, Son, Daughter – and the supporting characters are so squirmingly charming and endearing. With this bunch, you can’t help but feel their pain. The show scooped up all the awards in this year’s Emmys, so the team is doing something right.
Ratched Scary. You wouldn’t want to catch her on a bad day with a loaded hypodermic, or even on a good day.
The character of Beth Harmon (The Queen’s Gambit), is beautifully drawn. She’s so relatable, the influence of her trauma on her personality making her decisions and actions utterly believable.
The casts of Ozark and The Haunting of Bly Manor, in which each character thinks they have 100% control of their life, but actually they don’t. (No spoilers.)
Pacing makes or breaks a story. Slow or fast? Both build tension. Observing our character deal with an unresolved question, a mystery or a threat, keeps the viewer hooked in. In my favourite mysteries, there’s no slack at all. The story grabs us by the throat and doesn’t let go.
Examples: The pacing in The Queen’s Gambit is a joy to experience. In Ozark, it adds tension on steroids, and in the other series I discuss here, it’s used to great effect to make the screen stories totally compelling viewing.
John Truby says world-building is exceptionally important because you must draw your reader into it. They must want to stay and be immersed in the world. It’s part of the escapism.
I love the world of The Outer Banks, named after the strips of islands off the North Carolina coast. They make for such a unique and remarkable setting. The light and sunsets over lush green, dunes and sand bars, tropical vegetation and water, take your breath away. I’ve never been there, but now I feel as if I have.
It’s a contemporary tale set in a rich world of elegant waterside mansions, breezy palms, hibiscus and Southern charm that follows a bunch of kids trying to solve the mystery of a treasure map they find.
The period feel of a setting is a powerful draw, too as in Ratched and The Queen’s Gambit. What about sci-fi and fantasy worlds? The more disturbing, strange and ambiguous they are, the better. The Witcher and The Dark Crystal come to mind. Disney Plus subscribers probably feel the same about The Mandalorian but I don’t have it so I don’t know.
A successful world is so distinctive it’s like a character. A building can have a history and atmosphere so powerful it assumes an active role, even like a main character. Hill House imbued its murky grounds with a permanent frosty twilight. Bly Manor seems to control the lives of its characters and bend them to its will (no spoilers). This is exceptional story design, to elevate bricks, mortar and wood to contribute in this way and create a discrete otherworldly setting in which the characters think they have control, but don’t.
Setting and Period Atmosphere lead neatly onto Genre. I hesitate to jump into a discussion about it because it’s one of those topics that get people all upset. What I’ve learned so far is that there are technical and non-tech genres, that contemporary audiences expect a mix of genres and broadly speaking, certain genres hit certain beats. Intuition tells me that to elicit emotion a story must hit those genre beats to live up to audience expectation. For the writer, it becomes a matter of craft to learn those beats and apply them.
If you’re finding this argument too abstract, think back to a movie that disappointed you. Specifically, did you feel cheated by the ending? Did you spring to your feet and shout “No!” at the screen and everyone stared at you? I had that experience recently (except for making a spectacle of myself). In my mind the story was shaping up as Drama, Music with a powerful Romance ‘B Story’. I fully expected the couple to get together at the end after all they’d been through. They didn’t and I had my “No!” moment. The story was truer to real life than my version, but I felt cheated of the catharsis I wanted. To be fair, it’s described as Comedy, Drama, Music, and it’s a great film. It’s only that, when we’re writing Genre, we have to put audience expectations front and centre.
6. Outer Goal, Inner Journey
In The Queen’s Gambit, how did they make a screen story about the game of chess such compelling viewing I couldn’t tear myself away? Think about a chess tournament, a life-and-death game played inside the opponents’ heads at a level way beyond many of us. How did they make it so incredibly watchable? I know it was to do with the interweaving of heroine Beth’s inner and outer life. It’s a master class of craft I don’t yet have the skills to analyse. Story pacing is crucial too and the organic story design partly explains why it works so well to make this screen story such compelling viewing.
As writers, you’ll have your personalized tool kit for how you make your screen stories compelling viewing. As viewers, you’ll have your favourite stories and genres. I’ve focused on the six craft tools that I’m studying and applying at the moment in my efforts to catch lightning in a bottle.