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 bring 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 Path. Potential spoilers follow. There's a lot this new show can teach us about writing, starting with how to foreshadow the proper amount to hook your audience and really build conflict.
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
May 9: Wayward Pines: Developing Elements of Suspense in Fiction
May 23: The Office: Perfecting the Details in Your Fiction
Bonus: 7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing
For those of you who don't know, The Path (currently available as a Hulu original) is a drama that closely follows a few key members of a fictional religion known as Meyerism, which often looks like a cult. Founded by Dr. Steven Meyer, the followers in this movement live simpler lives and are generally isolated from the rest of society, with children eligible to take their vows into Meyerism at the age of 16. The movement was founded after Meyer saw a burning ladder at the top of a mountain in Cusco, Peru. "Climbing" the ladder, he saw an end-of-the-world scenario and a beautiful garden. Afterwards, he wrote the guide to climbing this ladder so that members of the movement can ascend the ladder's rungs to the garden. While Meyer remains in Peru writing about how to climb the remaining rungs, the enigmatic Cal Roberts acts as the unofficial leader of the Meyerists. His personal beliefs often clash with the message of the movement, and the other leaders have issues with him. Cal also has a darker side, and is a former alcoholic. His former love interest, Sarah Lane, was born into the movement and is a staunch believer, almost to a fault. Her husband, Eddie, is a convert to the Meyerist movement, who's faith begins to wane over the course of the season, leading to secrets and issues that tear apart his marriage.
1. Use Foreshadowing Minimally for Effective Results
The first couple of episodes foreshadow an almost-supernatural feel to the movement, with Eddie, while on retreat, having visions (that may or not be linked to psychedelic drugs) of a dying Steven Meyer lying in a room in a compound that the Meyerists own in Cusco. Meyer has IVs and tubes hooked up to his arms, while a yellow snake crawls across his body. Eddie also begins talking to a former believer who's husband killed himself. She believes that her husband was actually murdered by members of the movement, and she is out to expose them as a cult. These early scenes are effective in creating doubt around both the Meyerists and Cal, who continually claims that Meyer is fine and merely writing about how to reach the garden. There's an air of mystery, as we don't know if Eddie's visions and this woman's claims are the truth, or simply drug-induced hallucinations and the rambling of a crazy person.
Foreshadowing is an effective tool in any writer's arsenal, but like a strong spice, it must be used sparingly. You can't beat your reader over the head with hints of what's to come. Give them just enough, and build the tension. That's what The Path does so effectively. Eddie has these visions, he learns that something might be off, and then he starts to piece everything together himself. It festers, like an infection. Think of a horror movie: The group enters the haunted house, asylum, etc., and there's a strong sense of setting and place laid out. That's the foreshadowing. This place is creepy, so something bad will probably happen. Everything else is just build-up to that moment. So give subtle hints of what's to come, and let the reader's imagination do the rest as you lead us there.
2. If You're Going to Use a Slow Burn, There Should Be a Payoff
As a drama, The Path gets off to a slow start and never really picks up the pace like, say, a Breaking Bad does. And that's okay. The slow burn can be effective, as long as there's a payoff. For The Path, it's the inevitable breakup of Sarah and Eddies marriage, as his doubts set in and she refuses to be with him; it's the inevitable physical confrontation between Eddie and Cal, who longs for Sarah and whom Eddie severely distrusts as the leader of the Meyerists; it's Cal's mental breakdowns and coping with the fact that he's not a good person, which leads to his murder of another leader; and it's the revelation of Steven Meyer in that same room as in Eddie's vision, with the snake, except on his feet and staring Eddie in the eyes, during the season finale. Everything that is placed in the first episode, that Sarah and Eddie are having issues, that Eddie and Cal don't get along, that Cal has a dark streak, and that Eddie's visions may be real, ends up coming to fruition.
So much today is about delivering your story now, and as quickly as you can. We're in an age where thrillers rule, and every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. The Path offers a change of pace to this. There's more of a literary feel to the show. But the key is this: The Path can get away with the slow pace because every promise that it lays out in the beginning of the story is delivered. And you have to raise questions that keep bringing the reader back to the original promises and issues. The four points of The Path that I mentioned above are continuous and part of each episode. Whatever your payoff is going to be, the reader has to see it coming from early on (when you foreshadow it) and you have to build to it with every careful move in your plot.
Suspense is one of the most powerful tools a writer has
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Suspense, Structure, & Plotis your hands-on guide to weaving
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3. Any Significant Character Needs a Strong Internal Conflict
For the purposes of this post, let's stick with Cal and Eddie, although Sarah (and Eddie and Sarah's son Hawk) fits into this category, too. Cal struggles with his alcoholism and the knowledge that not everyone truly believes in him as the leader of the movement. There are doubters, and those who question his authority, believing he's just a placeholder until Meyer returns. This affects Cal, who's desperate to prove himself. The desperation, his frustration over not being with Sarah, and his alcoholism creates a tortured character who's a loose cannon. Eddie struggles with his failing belief in Meyerism and his desire to keep his marriage and family from falling apart. If he chases his instincts that something is amiss, he knows he'll lose Sarah and their children, who are staunchly entrenched in the movement. He goes about it anyway, and Sarah ultimately sends him away.
External conflict is never enough in any story. There needs to be an internal conflict within a character. Whether that's desires versus needs, faith versus truth, growth versus remaining static, etc., there has to be a realistic and relatable conflict brewing in your protagonist, antagonist, and any other significant character. If you provide a POV for that person, there should be a conflict. And by the end of your story, one side needs to win out over the other. In The Path, Eddie chooses the truth and Cal gives in to his darkness. The consequences of their actions will play out over upcoming seasons. And the consequences of your characters' internal battles should be made clear, as well.
4. The Stakes in Your Story Should Be Death
Eddie and Sarah's son, Hawk, is nearing the age that he can take his vowels. Sarah wants him to drop out of school early and take them. Eddie thinks its important for him to remain in school and finish his education. Some of Sarah's desires are rooted in the past: Her sister turned on the movement and their family, never to be heard from again. She fears Hawk may do the same thing, particularly as he begins to fall in love with a girl (Ashley) from his school, who doesn't believe in the movement, and whose mother flat out rejects the Meyerists' hospitality and what they preach. Star-crossed lovers, Hawk must choose between his girlfriend and his family. Should he choose Ashley, he'd be abandoning his family forever.
In Just Write, James Scott Bell posits that the stakes in fiction have to be high. In fact, they should be death. That doesn't mean purely physical death, however. There's also professional and psychological death—where someone might lose their career or a character is making an impossible decision that may affect their life or someone else's. In The Path, Hawk is facing this psychological death. Should he choose Ashley, he can never see his family again. Should he reject Ashley, he loses the person he loves. You can see the weight of the decision take a toll on him, until Sarah makes the decision for him by driving Ashley away. Your characters need to wrestle with decisions like this: Decisions that can impact the balance of their lives.
In Just Write, best-selling author and veteran writing coach
James Scott Bell shows you how to develop unforgettable
stories while leading a rewarding writing life. You'll learn how
to master the nuances of fiction, discover what readers really
want, and persevere through the challenges of getting
started, conquering writer's block, and dealing with rejection.
5.Setting Can Reflect Your Story's Plot
Setting plays a significant role in The Path, if only because the Meyerists are so isolated in their settlement. There's a gate to allow other (or prospective) members to enter, while also turning away outsiders and the media. They live simpler lives, in older houses in (presumably) upstate New York. They're isolated, but just hours away from cities and the heart of modern civilization. Set in the fall, with the coming of winter, the visuals of the changing seasons reflect the changing seasons in these people's lives. Meyerism is transforming in leadership, with Cal claiming at the end of the ten episode arc that Steven Meyer has named he and Sarah the new leaders. And it reflects the brooding darkness in Cal, which Sarah discovers, yet rejects; and the changes in Eddie's life.
Take advantage of oft-ignored and underused elements in fiction, such as setting. You can use it to create a mood, or to simply reflect what's happening in order to build conflict and tension. It's a subtle way to remind readers of the real conflict at hand without throwing it in their face each time. You can even use it as a juxtaposition, if you'd like. There's a variety of things you can do with your setting, time, and location, and making smart choices can take any genre—romance, thriller, horror, young adult, etc.—to an entirely new level.
Are you a fan of The Path? 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.