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 Fargo. (Note: I'll save the second season for another post, just because I think these seasons stand alone so well.) Potential spoilers follow.
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
Bonus: 7 Things How I Met Your Mother Can Teach Us About Writing
For those of you who don't know, the first season of Fargo takes place in 2006 when drifter/hired gun Lorne Malvo wrecks his car outside of Bemidji, Minnesota. At the hospital, he comes across Lester Nygaard, whom he influences with his methods of violence and deception. This turns Lester from a mild-mannered, easy-going salesman into someone more like Malvo. The consequences of their meeting play out over the course of the season, involving a string of murders in a chain reaction type effect. Officers Molly Solverson and Gus Grimsley work together to solve these crimes, drawing connections between the murders and the two men.
1. Experiment with Your Storytelling Methods
Each episode title of the first season is a riddle, paradox or kind of logic puzzle. Within each episode, that riddle or puzzle plays out in the form of the plot. Think of each title as a kind of preview—or even recap, if you're looking back at an episode after watching it—of what takes place. My favorite was a variation of a river crossing puzzle: A Fox, A Rabbit, and A Cabbage. The premise is this: A man must cross a river with a fox, a rabbit and a cabbage. But he can take only one across at a time. Left alone with the cabbage, the rabbit will eat it. And if the fox is left with the rabbit, the fox will eat the rabbit. How does the man get all three across the river? One solution offered was to simply create a turducken-like scenario. By the end of the season, when Lester is asked this riddle, he answers it easily. It's logical to him, because he's evolved (see point 6). The puzzle is also representative of the end of episode 9, where Lester, sitting with his wife across the street from his insurance office, sends his wife in to get passports and cash from the safe. He suspects Malvo is lying in wait for him. Lester (the rabbit in this scenario) lets his wife (the cabbage) put on his coat before crossing the street, because it's cold out. Thinking it's Lester in the office, Malvo (the fox) appears and kills her.
You don't need to name each chapter after a logic puzzle and expect your readers to do some thinking. But consider the possibilities here. Do some research on paradoxes and riddles, legends and myths, even in other cultures. Some of the best stories out there are just a re-telling of other stories. You don't always need a brand new idea, just your own twist on something. Play with old stories, legends, logic puzzles, etc., and see how they can influence your writing. Smart research equals smart writing. And if you can find a new way to tell an old story, put a new twist on an old story, you've got a starting point. Think about how to improve your storytelling as a writer.
2. Decide What You Should (& Shouldn't) Explain
Not everything in your fiction needs a lengthy explanation. A little impulse is good once in a while. In fact, you can make it downright terrifying. Malvo's character is sinister. He does things without explanation. And sometimes his actions seem to defy any explanation any way. After the incidents in Bemidji and the massacre in Fargo, Malvo has moved on to another hit, where he has spent six months pretending to be a dentist in Kansas City so he can get close to a co-worker's brother, who has a $100,000 bounty on his head. Lester crosses paths with Malvo in Las Vegas, just as Malvo is getting close to completing his assignment. He asks Lester to "walk away." Lester refuses, and Malvo eventually asks him if he's sure he wants to do this. When Lester says yes, Malvo inexplicably kills his fiancée, co-worker and his wife in an elevator. He lets the bounty slip through his fingers. After Lester runs away, Malvo decides to go after him. But why even kill them all in the first place? Why not take Lester aside if he continues to attempt to blow Malvo's cover, and kill him? And why does Malvo keep recorded conversations of people he interacts with?
You can go overboard in your writing. Explaining every little detail and justifying every action can become tedious. It'll make the reader put your book down. The reader doesn't need an explanation for everything in your story. In fact, if your characters and plot are fully fleshed out, then the reasoning should become apparent for most readers. Even if it's not, it's fine to leave some mystery. Did we really need to know why Malvo kept recorded conversations? Not really. It's probably just to keep potential useful information for later. Or it's just because he's twisted. Why did he choose to pursue Lester? Probably because this new version of Lester was far more interesting to him. If you can keep your reader thinking, you can keep the pages turning. Making your characters interesting and compelling can be more important than providing explanation for their actions. Just remember to leave a little bit of mystery in your writing. Not everything needs to be unearthed and hashed out.
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3. The Unstoppable Force
Your antagonist doesn't need to be unstoppable. He doesn't have to be all powerful and completely evil. But he should appear unstoppable to the reader and characters in your story. Malvo is just a man, but, at times, he feels like much more. He mysteriously appears in Bemidji, clearly on assignment as a hired gun. Malvo worms his way into Lester's life, planting a seed of violence in his mind; he avoids the police and hired hit men during a whiteout snowstorm; he massacres an entire crime syndicate in Fargo with the FBI just outside; and he survives a broken leg from a bear trap. Right up to (and through) his final confrontation with Gus, I had a nagging feeling that Mavlo could've been some supernatural force. Even the way he smiles, after being shot. Malvo feels like a truly worthy villain because he seems nigh unstoppable at times.
Want to make your story pop? Create a terrifying antagonist. I don't mean just someone that terrifies the protagonist and secondary characters—give the reader someone to fear. There aren't good explanations for Malvo's actions, but we don't need them. That he does things without explanation is what's terrifying. And if you can create the illusion that someone is more powerful than he really is, well, then that's compelling stuff. Make your reader fear the villain as much as the protagonist does. Give us reason to believe this person is truly awful—in actions and in words. The combo of those two for Malvo is terrifically executed. Do the same in your writing and readers will be shaking in their boots like Lester and Gus.
4. Give Your Characters a White Whale
Like Captain Ahab, your characters are at their best when they're pursuing something or someone. They need an obsession. For Molly, it's bringing down Lester. She suspects from the very beginning that the death of Lester's wife and the town's police chief doesn't wholly match up with Lester's story. She draws the connections between Malvo and Lester, believing that the Lester got caught up in something worse. Yet she's dismissed as crazy by her boss for much of the story. Obsessive, even. For Gus, he's looking for Malvo. From the time they encounter each other in Duluth and Malvo threateningly asks him to back off, Gus knows this man is evil. And while Gus is berated for letting Malvo slip away, he ultimately has his showdown with him. Molly, for all her good police work, doesn't quite get her own showdown with Lester. She tries to get him to give up Malvo, but he walks away.
Obsession is a powerful thing. It can drive a character to the brink of madness. You can use this in two different methods of character creation. Create a character that does descend into madness or self-destructive behaviors over his obsession—think Jay Gatsby's obsession with Daisy Buchanan. Or create a character who uses that obsession effectively, like Molly does. Lester becomes a driving force for her, and we root for Molly because we know she's right. And, in the end, her obsession leads to her promotion to chief. Either method of character creation is effective. You just need something viable to be a character's white whale. Something that's worth being compelling to them, and to the reader.
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5. Where and When You Set Your Story Matters
Fargo is certainly not a horror story. But Malvo gives the story a little bit of that sense. At least when combined with the small town setting. In the case of Fargo, setting the story in small towns, where everyone knows each other and communities are tight-knit, adds an extra dimension. It feels like a horror story, with a near-monster running around killing people and getting away with it. The towns feel even smaller with the winter setting in. There's a sense of isolation that you get in horror films.
Setting is a powerful tool in fiction. And it's one that's often underutilized. Take your setting seriously. It may not totally break your story, but it can certainly take your fiction to another level. Consider your plot. What setting would make this story even better? A small, rural town? Big city? The countryside? When should it take place? The 1920s? During the dead of winter, or the heat of summer? Some stories are going to be innately tied with the setting, such that these decisions are made for you. But if you have the choice of where your story is going to take place, spend some time really considering your options. It should be as important as your primary characters. Spend time fleshing that setting out.
6. Character Change Isn't Always for the Better
Malvo asks Gus a simple question: "Did you know the human eye can see more shades of green than any other color?" Gus is stumped as to why, but Molly has the answer, in a later scene. She says it's because of predators. Since humans evolved from monkeys, they once lived in the jungle, and needed to see predators hiding in all the green. In this case, Malvo is clearly the predator. Yet, by the end of the story, it's Lester who outwits him—becoming a predator himself. In the first episode, Lester accidentally kills his wife and freaks out, calling Malvo for help. By the last two episodes, he sends his second wife into a situation that he knows will involve death, then lures Malvo into a literal trap. Lester has become the predator.
You already know that your character needs to show some sort of growth over the course of your plot. But it doesn't have to be positive growth. If you want your character to become villainous, go for it. Make us hate her. But be sure to give the reader a reason to be rooting against that negative change, too. Give the reader a glimmer of hope that this character can change for the good. Also, be sure to justify the character's actions. We need to see from her perspective why she thinks her actions are justified. And if you're going to make a primary character change for the worse, you'll probably want to have other characters balance that out. Ultimately, while Lester changes, we still have Molly and Gus to root for. They become every part the positive protagonists that Lester could've been.
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Are you a fan of Fargo? 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.