Anyone else out there a fan of ABC’s hit crime drama Castle? Anyone else out there totally frustrated by the direction the show has taken in the most recent episodes? I’ve been watching the show since it first started airing–it was a show about an author! Starring Nathan Fillion, whom I seriously would watch in anything!–and have always both really enjoyed it and honestly admired it as an example of truly good, skilled storytelling. But lately? Lately it’s started to feel to me like some bizarre storytelling version of that reality show ‘What Not to Wear.’
Except that this version would be titled, “How to dodge good storytelling choices as though they were live hand grenades.”
So, I’ve (lucky you) decided to channel my frustrations into my this month’s Writer Unboxed post! But not just because of my own personal annoyance–I honestly think there are some valuable lessons to be learned from storytelling gone wrong.
And two quick things before I begin. First, I’ll try to keep things general for those who don’t watch the show. And second, this is all in a spirit of friendly, non-malicious constructive criticism, okay? I don’t usually–well, actually ever–criticize anyone else’s stories in a public space. Too much negative energy in the world already, you know? I’m breaking that rule today because I’m pretty sure the Castle writers and producers aren’t reading this post right now and crying into their bowls of breakfast cereal because I’m not thrilled with the direction the show has taken. But just to be clear–a) This is just my opinion. And this obviously isn’t my story, it belongs to the writers and producers, and ultimately they have every right–a duty, even–to be true to whatever story they feel they need to tell. And b) Pretty sure the show’s stars Nathan Fillion, Stana Katic, et al aren’t weeping into their cereal, either–but this is in no way a criticism of their performances, the whole cast and crew of the show is outstandingly talented at what they do.
Okay. So some quick background–at its heart, the show revolves around the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic tension between the title character, Richard Castle, and the NYPD detective he shadows and partners, Kate Beckett. They’ve managed to keep that romantic tension fresh and believable and compelling through 4 seasons. But in the last 3 episodes, it’s suddenly turned into something else entirely–and it’s these most recent episodes I’d like to use to distill my list of ‘don’ts’ in terms of storytelling techniques.
1. If you’re going to create conflict between characters, make it REAL conflict. Now, I’m not objecting to keeping romantic leads from getting together too soon. At all. By all means, throw obstacles in their path, make them suffer, make them EARN that happily-ever-after ending. But for goodness sake, make them face real conflicts, real, tough-to-conquer challenges that force them to examine who they are as characters and what they’re willing to change and sacrifice in the name of love. One of my absolute pet peeves whether in watching stories or reading them is a long-lasting estrangement between characters that could be solved with nothing more than the two characters sitting down and having a single adult conversation with each other–because they do actually love each other and are on the same side, they’ve just each misunderstood something about the other’s feelings or motives. Basing conflict on clearly manufactured false assumptions that real people would never make for any lasting amount of time is not real conflict! It’s just cheap storytelling, in my opinion. Which leads me to . . .
2. If you’re going to keep your characters from talking, make it for realistic reasons. One of my other pet peeves is what I call Perfectly Timed Interruption Syndrome, in which two characters are juuuust on the very of talking to each other honestly and telling one another how they feel . . . when there’s a knock on the door/the phone rings/someone else comes into the room. I live with a 2 year old and a 5 year old, so believe me when I say that I have some personal experience with interrupted communication. Heck, there are days when I feel like I don’t manage to speak a single uninterrupted SENTENCE. And the occasional timed interruption in your story is okay–but rely on that device too much, and it starts to feel way too coincidental. And don’t rely on the interruption to stop the characters from talking for too long. I mean, imagine you’re writing a novel and your main character (let’s call her Jane) wants to tell her husband (we’ll call him Joe) something incredibly important. She’s pregnant, she just got fired from her job, she wants to divorce him and move to Hawaii–whatever. But:
Jane: I have something really important to tell you.
Joe: Okay, shoot.
*phone rings, it’s Joe’s boss/brother/best friend calling*
Jane, speaking to herself: Oh well, I guess I’ll wait another couple of weeks before I try to talk to him again. Because Joe certainly won’t bother asking ME what it was I was about to say.
You see? It’s just unrealistic storytelling–it pulls the reader out of their suspension of disbelief.
3. If you’re going to have your characters screw up, make bad choices and make mistakes, you have to walk a very fine line of giving the reader something to like about them, still, even as they’re making all the wrong choices. This is a tricky one. No one wants to read (or watch) about perfect characters who never make mistakes. But we also want to like our protagonists. (Yes, I know, there are books that succeed with unlikeable protagonists, but I’m talking generally. And go read Donald Maass’s excellent books for a better explanation of why this is true!). If you’re going to have your two main characters getting hurt, getting angry at each other, and acting out–tread carefully. Make their acting out realistic, not spoiled-childish or completely out of character and over-the-top absurd. And give us some moments of real emotion, where we see the aching heartbreak that’s behind the anger. As well as some moments of redemption. I’m not saying throw in a scene where your hero saves a puppy/kitten/small child from being run over by a car. But give us some self-awareness, some sense that they KNOW they’re behaving badly and yet are too hurt to stop. And a sense of hope that they will grow through the hurt and emerge more mature and wiser. A sense that they WANT to grow through the hurt, that they have a direction and a goal.
4. Life is a journey, not a destination–and so are good stories. I’ve read various interviews where the show’s producer, Andrew Marlow, is quoted as saying effectively that the fans shouldn’t be concerned by the stormy weather of the past few episodes because of where the characters will end up in the finale. But that, to me, entirely misses the point of good storytelling. It’s not about the story’s end. Yes, that’s important–but if the ending were all we cared about, we would just read the synopses of books and then maybe the final page. What we want from a story is to be taken on a JOURNEY. We want to follow the characters through every step along on the emotional and physical roads they’re traveling. You can’t expect readers to slog their way through a boring or overly-angsty or just plain unrealistic and unlikeable story just because ‘they’re going to love the ending’. Most readers will simply toss your book aside before they ever even make it to the end.
And, unfortunately, that seems to be what’s happening with Castle, where the show’s ratings have been steadily dropping for the last few episodes. Which I’m really sorry to have to mention, in the highly unlikely event that anyone connected with the show is reading this–but it does kind of prove my point.
Oh, but just in case Andrew Marlow or anyone who works on Castle IS reading this? Now that we’ve had this (nice open and honest) talk, hopefully we can still be friends? Because you know, we really are on the same side. :-)