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 Wayward Pines. Potential spoilers follow. If you're looking to craft a story that involves suspense or a thriller aspect, this show is a must-watch. There are some great twists and turns throughout, with a little touch of science fiction mixed in. Note: This series is based off The Wayward Pines Trilogy by Blake Crouch. (And though originally intended to be a standalone 10 episode special event for Fox, the show was renewed for a second season.)
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
April 25: Bloodline: A Study in Creating Conflict & Tension in Fiction
Bonus: 7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing
For those of you who don't know, Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke is sent with his partner to investigate the disappearance of two other agents, one of whom was Burke's former lover, Kate. They're involved in a car accident before they can reach their destination. Burke's partner is killed in the crash, while the authorities can find no evidence that Burke was ever actually in the car. Meanwhile, Burke awakens in Wayward Pines, Idaho, and is unable to contact his wife and son (or the Secret Service) by phone, and the town's sheriff is of little help. He quickly discerns that Wayward Pines is not an ordinary town—the locals live in fear and are wary of discussing their lives, for fear that they're being spied on by the town's leaders. Unable to leave the town, Burke tries to make sense of why he is trapped in Wayward Pines and why the inhabitants—including Kate—do not attempt to leave. He discovers a high, electrified fence surrounding the town, and something sinister outside of the walls, which was designed not to keep the people inside, but to keep something else out.
1. Keep Your Lead—and Your Audience—in the Dark
Burke wakes up in the Wayward Pines hospital, unable to remember exactly how he got there. He also can't piece together what's happening in the town, because everyone is living in fear and either a) don't know the truth, or b) are too afraid to talk about the strange things happening. The show does a great job of keeping the audience as unaware as Burke—we literally find out what's happening in this town as he does. And, of course, by keeping everything that's happening under wraps, it makes things that are part of the tradition of the town seem completely insane—reckonings, in which someone who has broken the rules is publicly executed; the refusal to talk about everyone's past lives, when in fact the last memory that everyone has in this town is of being in a car accident before waking up in the hospital; and all the cameras and listening devices planted carefully in homes, restaurants, businesses, and street corners.
Suspense is best created by what we don't know. Think of mysteries, where we're working alongside the detectives in trying to uncover what's happening. You can apply a bit of mystery and suspense to any genre—and your readers will thank you for it. Drop in weird things here and there that don't make sense: stories that don't match up, something out of place, a lie, etc. And you don't always have to put something in the reader's face. It can be something in the background, just make sure it has significance or is explainable, and is ultimately relevant to the story. Let your reader uncover the full story as your protagonist does.
Suspense is one of the most powerful tools a writer has
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2. Limit the Point of View
This goes hand-in-hand with the first point. Part of the reason that Wayward Pines is successful in executing its mystery is because the POV is kept to Burke, and then, eventually, his wife Theresa and son Ben, who are both transplanted into the town to try and appease Burke's recklessness and restlessness. The key to these characters? They're all outsiders, who don't understand what's going on. Had the show creators decided to use the POV of characters who had some sense of what was happening, we'd lose the mystery of the show. Instead, we only see the POV of other characters once Wayward Pines' mystery is revealed. That's effective writing, and it delivers a strong surprise.
While this point is certainly applicable to a mystery or a thriller, any writer should heed advice like this for any genre of fiction. Attempting to use too many character POVs can be overwhelming for both the writer and the reader. Pick one (or no more than a couple, unless you're George R.R. Martin) and develop a tight, consistent voice and POV. Your reader will thank you, and you'll better develop your skills. Also, write from the third-person limited perspective. This will allow you to be more consistent from character to character, rather than attempting to develop a unique voice for everyone from the first-person perspective. (Don't try to pull off Gone Girl.) And avoid third-person omniscient, where you can get in anyone's head. Of course, if you're building suspense, you don't want to ruin the surprise by jumping into a villain's head or a character who might spoil the mystery. You can get a little more creative later, as Wayward Pines does with POV from Kate and, eventually, the antagonist-like Dr. David Pilcher.
3. Create a Good Problem, with Moral Ambiguity
So here's where Wayward Pines gets good. The secret of the town is this (WARNING: turn away now if you want to watch the show!): it's set in the year 4028. Everyone in the town was taken from a car accident and placed in a coma-like stasis/sleep/hibernation, where they could be woken up later. Wayward Pines is the last remaining civilization on the planet, after a genetic mutation resulted in the creation of "aberrations" (referred to as "abbies")—human-like carnivores who wiped out the human population. Dr. Pilcher foresaw the events, and abducted as many people as he could, calculating when humanity could be safe to try and live again. When the time came, he and his followers awoke from their hibernation and built Wayward Pines—including the wall to keep the abbies out. They spy on the citizens to ensure that people don't find out what's beyond the wall, or try to piece together why they can't return to their old lives—as no one in this town knows that they're 2,000 years in the future. In trying to hide the truth, believing that people cannot handle what happened, Pilcher has unintentionally created factions within the townspeople who believe they can return to their old lives, thus attempting to break out.
Your story has to have a central conflict, beyond antagonist versus protagonist. This problem could be what they disagree on. Ultimately, that's what happens in Wayward Pines. Burke learns the truth and agrees to work with Pilcher to protect the town. They just disagree on how it should be handled—Pilcher has seen people that learned the truth try to escape (only to be killed by the abbies) or simply give up and commit suicide; but Burke believes that these people deserve to know what has happened to their lives. The conflict in the story allows viewers to ponder what they would do in that situation, and whether they'd want to know or what they'd do upon learning the truth. Your story doesn't need to be quite as futuristic, but the central conflict should create some kind of internal conflict within your protagonist (and antagonist), and even your readers. There's nothing that will kick the thrills up an extra notch like a character having to make a choice—particularly one which may not have a popular answer either way. Burke has to protect the town and thus must attempt to hide the truth. He becomes exactly what he fought against for several episodes. And in hiding the truth, he hurts those he loves most.
Divided into five parts,Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel
starts out with a plan and builds upon that information just like a detective
builds his or her case—and just like you should build your story. Like an
expert private eye, Hallie Ephron digs through every piece of the mystery
writing process with such a fine-tooth comb that she misses nothing along the way.
4. Great Antagonists Think They're Right
It's hard to call Dr. Pilcher a villain. He's not exactly a bad man. Indeed, he's responsible for giving humanity a second life. But he goes about it in a strange way, abducting people from accidents and putting them into hibernation for 2,000 years. And then Pilcher chooses to disguise the truth from everyone, other than the children of Wayward Pines—whom he calls the "First Generation"—instead leaving people to live in fear of being spied on. He uses reckonings (the public executions) to keep people in line. And, ultimately, as we see in the show's finale, his vision lives on through the First Generation, who've taken charge of the town. While his intentions are good, it certainly appears that he is more apt to play god than just save humanity. Yet he believes all his actions are justified, because previous townspeople were unable to handle the truth. Pilcher says that everything he does is with the good of the people in mind. And he believes that right to the end, when he decides to turn off the power, thus de-electrifying the fence, allowing the abbies to climb in. He intends to allow everyone to die so he can start over again, as he has hundreds (or thousands?) of other people still in hibernation.
Not every villain is going to be—or should be—completely evil. In fact, no villain should perceive himself as evil. His actions need to be justified to himself. And he needs to believe that his cause is just and right. Write your villain as if he's the protagonist of his own story. Why is he right and the protagonist wrong? And don't make it flimsy; your reader doesn't want a strawman of an antagonist. And if you can make your villain tragic in some manner, all the better. See if you can make your reader understand the antagonist's argument, even if they ultimately feel that he's wrong. Pilcher is tragic because he's seen all this death and destruction play out before him; but he's also put the weight of humanity on himself by playing god. The audience can understand that this man tried to do the best he could, given extraordinary circumstances. But his decision to run Wayward Pines as a 1984-esque establishment ultimately backfires.
Are you a fan of Wayward Pines? 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.