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 first season of True Detective. I think this season does a fine job in creating an atmosphere to the show. There's a sense of dread throughout the eight episode arc; a mood of foreboding, and hopelessness. (Note: I haven't seen the second season, but this is also an anthology series, with the story, characters and actors changing from season to season, so it makes sense to just look at one season—at least to start with.) Potential spoilers follow.
Previous posts of "What Television Can Teach Us About Writing"
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For those of you who don't know, the first season of True Detective follows detectives Martin Hart and Rustin Cohle as they track a potential serial killer in Louisiana between 1995 and 2012. In 1995, they find a girl who has been killed in a ritualistic manner—with a crown of deer antlers, a spiral symbol on her back and posed as if in prayer. In 2012, Marty and Cohle are interviewed—separately—by the police for a case that features a similar, ritualistic killing. Questions begin to arise over whether Marty and Cohle, who haven't spoken to each other in 10 years, got the right guy back then. The two team up again in 2012 to track down the killer, leading to a horrific cult that has deep ties with political, religious and educational systems in Louisiana.
1. Source Material Can Enrich Your Story
True Detective draws heavily on a couple of different sources, which help enhance the story and give it a life beyond the screen. For the sake of being concise, I'll just focus on what influenced the creation of the cult. You can find plenty of other material out there about Rust's philosophy, as well as potential ties to H.P. Lovecraft and Cthulhu.
Writer Nic Pizzolatto uses allusions from Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow in creating this cult. References from the work, including "Carcosa" (a place of worship, and sacrifice, that is a labyrinth of trees and tunnels) and the "Yellow King" (an idol in Carcosa with skulls and bones, wrapped with a yellow cloth), are pervasive throughout the season. Carcosa is also a fictional city in Ambrose Bierce's "An Inhabitant of Carcosa." In The Yellow King, there is a play with that same title that supposedly will drive anyone mad if they read it. In Bierce's short story, Carcosa is an ancient and mysterious city, described only in hindsight by a man who once lived there. Insanity, or maybe even mental illness, are all alluded to in these stories, which we then see in True Detective. That gives the show a little extra something in the creepy department. There's a mysteriousness to the cult that is never fully explained, even though it feels like there's a deep backstory.
Using already-written material can deepen the meaning and add extra layers to your writing. In this case, by shrouding so much of Carcosa, the cult and the Yellow King in mystery (indeed, we're left only with vague ideas of what all these actually are), viewers are left trying to piece things together alongside Rust and Marty. Of course, don't plagiarize with your writing. But drawing on themes and ideas from other material gives you a strong starting point in your research. Even if you end up not using source material, you should still read widely in similar genres. Find common themes and motifs that are pervasive throughout. That's another way to look at using source material. You don't have to create a fictional cult around a one-hundred-year-old fictional play, but there's nothing wrong with giving a nod to a work you admire. Research will only improve your writing.
2. Be Careful with Philosophy in Fiction
Look, Rust is a great character. He really is. But Marty wasn't the only one sitting there wondering what Rust was saying and why. I mean some of the stuff ...
"It's all one ghetto, man. A giant gutter in outer space."
"I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self—an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody ..."
"Death created time to grow the things that it would kill."
"This place is like somebody's memory of a town, and the memory is fading. It's like there was never anything here but jungle."
In general, Rust spouting off philosophical musings didn't bother me through a second viewing of the season. The first time, it felt like it may have been a little much. It was easier to swallow with Hart shooting him nasty looks or asking him to (not so politely) shut up. The second time, I couldn't help but laugh out loud at some of the ridiculous thoughts. But whether or not the philosophy worked, it creates the image of a dark man. Or at least someone who is in a dark place. While Rust's philosophy is far from pretty, it helps construct the atmosphere of the show. It makes us uncomfortable, just as the killings make the detectives uncomfortable.
If you're going to include some kind of philosophy in your fiction, whether it's your world view transcribed through your character's eyes, or just a method for readers to understand your character, please be careful. Don't be heavy-handed. No one wants to sit through a novel where an author is using characters as a soapbox. If you're going to use it, make sure you do it cleverly, or have a character like Marty to offset someone like Rust. Just don't bog down the reader. True Detective gets close to doing that. Find the line, and don't cross it.
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3. Make Your Point of View Interesting
The show switches between Marty and Rust's POVs, which can lead to some interesting takes, although I felt like True Detective didn't always take advantage of it. Marty's POV shows that he is not the upstanding family man that we're led to believe. Instead, we find out that Marty is closer to a monster and more of a danger to society than Rust is with his philosophical ramblings and loner attitude. The scene where Marty breaks down his mistress's door and proceeds to assault the man she's seeing, all while proclaiming he's not a psycho, is disturbing. And it's not something we'd have seen, outside of Marty's POV. Rust's POV is twisted with visions left over from his days as a deep undercover narcotics cop, when he used drugs. This leads to visions like birds flying in the swirl pattern related to the cult, a young girl standing in her underwear alongside the road, lights blurring and streaking as he's driving on the highway, etc. I was hoping that the writers were going to use this as an unreliable narrator technique. While that didn't come to fruition, we get a nice look inside Rust's head—and how a case can affect someone, down to seeing patterns and symbols in every day things. The POV in this show reveals greater insight to both characters, which we wouldn't have seen otherwise. And their dark sides make us uneasy.
How you choose to construct your point of view is so important to your fiction. It nearly goes hand-in-hand with your voice, particularly if you're writing from a first person perspective. Whoever you choose to write the POV from, pick an interesting character. It doesn't have to be someone the audience will like, but it should be someone that interests them. Rust and Marty aren't necessarily likable people. They're tortured souls, almost to the point that they're clichés. But they have a dynamic between them that's entertaining, and goes past the buddy cop stories. Make sure your POV is rich, and that this character (or characters) have solid backstories beyond the plot. Even if we don't like them, we need to care about them and what happens to them. It also allows you to delve into further detail with that character and who they really are. Scenes where a character is alone can help create a mood in your story.
4. Setting Can Make or Break Your Story
Obviously this is a visual element in a television show, but the principles for creating a setting can still be applied to writing. The season's setting is in deep south Louisiana, and viewers are constantly reminded of that. We get long, sweeping views of desolate landscape as Marty and Rust drive. There are images of rundown and dying towns, a brothel deep in the woods, refineries and factories far off in the distance, and long stretches of a combination of field, highway and swamp. These visual elements give the show a vivid setting—one that feels very much alive and intertwined with the darkness that is happening in the show. Of course, this all leads up to the twisting structure that is Carcosa, which feels both man-made and natural. It also has a supernatural aspect to it, because it's been spoken about in whispers throughout the story.
The setting of True Detective feels like it parallels the darkness that has infected everyone in the show. Everyone has some darkness in them, just as landscapes are infected by industry or buildings are overrun by nature. If you can create a vivid setting in your fiction, you can set an atmosphere and a mood. You can make the story come alive, choosing to set readers at ease or make them uncomfortable. Your setting can be a juxtaposition to what is happening in the story or it can reflect what is currently happening. But it should definitely enhance the story. Setting can make all the difference in drawing your reader into your fictive world—or it can jar them off the page.
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Are you a fan of True Detective? 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.