Monday, May 14, 2007

What Jack Bauer Can Teach Us About Writing

My husband and I are "24" addicts.

The first five seasons of the show were amazing. Don't-answer- the-door-or-the-phone-or-the-cell-phone-or-that-cute-little-you've- got-mail-ding-because-Jack-Bauer-is-saving-the-world-again amazing.

The sixth season? Not so much.

What made the show so good for the past five years? What is missing this year? I've been contemplating this tonight (after yet another disappointing episode), and I think "24" offers several good lessons for those of us who are writing fiction, particularly mysteries.

Lesson 1: Give your protagonist a deadline. The whole point of "24" is that the show takes place in "real time" over the course of a single day ... an intense and eventful day in which our hero saves the world (or at least some small part of it) three or four times over. Usually Jack has less than one or two hours before the bomb goes off, or the hostages get killed, or the bad guy boards the plane to the tropics, or whatever. Always there is a clear deadline, and always we watch as the clock ticks away. Even in season six, this has held true. The show's writers are the masters of suspense. What is your hero's deadline?

Lesson 2: Make the reader care. Terrorists are about to blow up Los Angeles. Yawn, you say? Righto. So would most viewers, except that one of the residents of Los Angeles happens to be Jack's daughter, the one person he loves more than anyone in the world. He hasn't been the best dad ... always off saving the world and such ... and he is desperate to renew his relationship with her. She's a great kid, very spunky and smart. We don't want this beautiful young girl to die. This is one area where season six has flopped. Too much international intrigue, not enough characters we care about. Good stories are not about plots, they are about characters.

Lesson 3: Keep 'em guessing You never know which good guys will turn out to be bad guys, which bad guys will turn out to be good guys, when the plot is going to take its next incredible twist or who is going to get killed off before the end of the season. (As we fans have learned all too well, "24" is not afraid to kill off even the most well-loved characters.) Season six is lacking in this regard: We've seen only a couple of twists, and after the first few hours the good guys vs. bad guys distinctions became disappointingly clear. In a good mystery, there should be a hint of suspicion over every character except the protagonist. And without a plot twist or two, books are, well, predictable.

Lesson 4: Pile on the hooks. "What? We have to wait a whole week to find out what happens?" For the first five seasons of "24," my husband and I shouted this at the end of pretty much every episode. In season six, we either (a) haven't cared what happens next or (b) have been able to guess what happens next. Not good. End every chapter with a hook and keep the reader turning those pages.

What has your favorite show taught you about writing? Let me know, and together we writers can try to do our part to save the world!

Blogger's note: Many of these lessons have been reinforced in mystery writing classes taught by mystery writer Noreen Wald (aka Nora Charles).

No comments: