I think the general consensus among those writers who teach the craft is that you must read—and read widely—about the craft of writing, particularly those authors who write in your genre. But I think there’s a lot you can learn about writing from other mediums, too. Specifically television. Every other Monday, I’ll be bringing you takeaways from some of the best television shows out there. These are meant to be specific concepts, themes, techniques, etc., that a writer can learn from the show.
This week we'll take a look at the Netflix-exclusive Bloodline. Potential spoilers follow. Looking for a case study in creating drama, tension, and compelling conflict in your fiction? This family drama/thriller will leave you feeling unsettled throughout.
Previous posts of "What Television Can Teach Us About Writing"
February 29: Better Call Saul: A Study in Writing Excellent Characters
March 14: True Detective (Season 1): Creating Mood & Atmosphere in Your Fiction
March 28: Fargo (Season 1): Developing Terrifying Antagonists in Fiction
April 11: House of Cards: Writing a Strong Cast of Characters
Bonus: 7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing
For those of you who don't know, Bloodline follows the Rayburn family, which has owned and run a hotel on a beach in the Florida Keys for 45 years. The first season begins right around the time of that 45 year anniversary, with the small-town community hosting a celebration in which the pier will be dedicated in the Rayburn's name. The celebration brings Robert and Sally Rayburn's kids together, three of whom still live in the area. John is a detective and deputy for the local county sheriff's office, Meg is an attorney, and Kevin refurbishes boats at the local marina. Their eldest son, Danny, who is also the black sheep of the family, returns home from Miami. His reappearance ignites tension and conflict among the family members, who all have secrets and a dark past. The tagline for the show really sums up the central conflict of the story: "We're not bad people, but we did a bad thing."
1. Use Foreshadowing, Effectively
Bloodline is one of the best examples at using foreshadowing, and using it just the proper amount. Each episode begins with a flash-forward to an event that takes place at the end of the first season. The show begins with John dragging a body through the swamp. It's quickly revealed that John puts that body on a boat that's anchored out away from the shore, and he destroys the boat with that person on board. It doesn't take long to put two-and-two together—John is destroying evidence, and that body is Danny's. These flash-forwards follow John, Kevin, and Meg as they deal with covering up John murdering their brother in a fit of rage. There's also flashbacks in the show that reveal their father, Robert, treating Danny harshly and beating him, holding Danny responsible for the death of their eldest daughter, Sarah, in a diving/swimming accident. Robert never truly forgives Danny for Sarah's death, and Danny becomes exiled, even as his brother John and their mother try to find the best in him.
At times, it seemed like Bloodline could potentially walk the line on foreshadowing too much. You know how the season ends just as it's beginning—someone in the family has killed Danny, and now they all feel responsible for cleaning it up, and hiding it. The first half of the season actually makes you feel for Danny—is he treated unfairly by his siblings and parents? But the second half reveals Danny is a monster. He asks for money to "disappear" from the family. He not-so-subtly threatens John by taking his daughter out on a boat and giving her Sarah's necklace. He steals money from Kevin with his partner. The foreshadowing reveals exactly what's going to happen at the end of the season, but it's not until the end that you understand why everything plays out the way it did.
The right amount of foreshadowing in your novel can keep readers turning pages. But too much, or a heavy-handed approach, will make a reader put the book down early. I'm not suggesting a Bloodline approach where you reveal what happens at the beginning, and spend the rest of the plot showing how it happens. Rather, sprinkle in hints of what's coming. We didn't need the images of John dragging Danny's body to the boat to know how things were going to end. The tension between the siblings made it obvious that there was a storm coming. Between Kevin's hot-headed attitude, and Meg and John's conflicted views on their brother, as well as Danny's escalating actions, it wouldn't end well. Foreshadow your ending with your characters' words and actions—which, subsequently, will also lead to better character development. The reader will see what's coming, and they'll be excited to get there.
Ramp up the tension and keep your readers hooked!In Conflict
& Suspense, you'll find everything you need to know to spice up
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pages. Expert thriller author and writing instructor James Scott Bell
shows you how to craft scenes, create characters, and develop
storylines that harness conflict and suspense to carry your story.
2. Looking for the Best Conflict? Start with Those Closest to Your Characters
If you want good conflict and tension throughout your story, you need characters to butt heads. The easiest way to do this is to create contrasting character personalities and then drop them into a setting where they all need to interact. That setting can be a battlefield, an office, a political campaign, etc. It can even be in a family setting, as Bloodline so effectively demonstrates. The key is to have characters that know each other on a deeper, personal level. Conflict that starts from a place of knowing someone else and—on some level—caring for them can be the strongest.
Bloodline's characters are compelling because everyone is conflicted about Danny, and whether or not they can actually trust him. Sally does. John wants to. But Kevin and Robert would rather have nothing to do with him, while Meg acts as the family's mediator. Essentially what the writers of this show did was drop a manipulator (Danny), a good man (John), a hot-head (Kevin), a people pleaser (Meg), and parents with their own problems, into a story. Take these dynamic, conflicting personalities and assign them to members of a family that has a dark past and you have a compelling story with built-in conflict. Like people in real life at holidays, this family won't let go of past mistakes and transgressions, and they've pigeonholed people into a certain category. That makes for good conflict, especially when someone who has been pigeonholed tries to show that he's grown and changed. Muddying the present with a narrowed view of the past creates tension between characters who have changed and those unwilling to move on. John's opening monologue for the season says it all:
"Sometimes you know something’s coming. You can feel it. In the air. In your gut. And you don’t sleep at night. The voice in your head is telling you that something is going to go terribly wrong and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. That’s how I felt when my brother came home."
3. Create Juxtaposition
I touched on elements of juxtaposition above, talking about dynamic characters that are polar opposites. When you have someone who seems to be an inherently good man (John) and someone who's inherently bad (Danny—although, is Danny inherently bad? Or did the Rayburns turn him into that? That's a question for another time), that creates natural tension. And it gets drawn out in their conversations and interactions. You see more and more of their characters, and the struggle that John has with being a good man. Danny brings out the worst in him, right to the very end. And there's also the juxtaposition of the family dynamics and the dark past with the beautiful setting in the Florida Keys. The setting is gorgeous, with the house set right on the beach. This family lives in paradise. Yet, so many dark things have happened here. Sally and Robert nearly separate. Robert blames Danny for Sara's death, as he took her out on the boat and she drowned in the ocean—he later beats Danny for it. In present day, Robert has a stroke while kayaking on the water. Meg is cheating on her boyfriend. Kevin and his wife are separating. And John drowns Danny right near the beach. While it looks like they live in paradise, the Rayburn family lives in a place of deceit and secrets.
Tension is easily created when you have diametrically opposed forces. And there are numerous ways to do this. You can take a character out of her element and toss her into unfamiliar waters. You can draw characters that have entirely different viewpoints, beliefs, values, personalities, etc. and stick them in hostile situations together. You can take an old plot line or idea and recast it in a brand new light—Robinson Crusoe and The Martian. However you want to create conflict and tension in your story, you need to have a character who runs into a force (a setting, another character, something in the plot, etc.) that makes his best qualities stick out, but still draws out the worst qualities in him. The external conflict of your plot should also be playing out in the form of an internal conflict for your primary character.
New York Times bestselling author author Lee Child explains
that while people think creating suspense is a lot like baking a cake,
it's not. It's all about making people extra hungry. In this video, you'll
learn how to ask a question and make readers stick around for the answer.
Are you a fan of Bloodline? Let us know in the comments, and share anything you’ve learned from the show that can be applied to writing—there's simply too much to cover in just one post. If you have suggestions for future posts in this same vein, feel free to post those in the comments, too!
Cris Freese is an associate editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the Writer’s Market series. You can follow him on Twitter @crisfreese, where you can laugh at his frustrations as a hopeless Cincinnati sports fan.