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The scent of buttered popcorn drifts to the living room. Lights flicker on and off around the house as preparations take place in the kitchen. Green and blue hues project to the far wall, faint light emanating from the magical box that holds my dreams. As the small family settles down into worn cushions under cozy blankets, silence fills the room.
The screen shows a dark alley and a young woman. There are footsteps, echoing off the concrete, as her heels clink along the vacant path. The woman is frightened, her breath becoming heavier amongst the distracting crunch of popcorn.
A shadow appears.
The crunching is silent—suddenly—as warm bodies huddle together in darkness, anticipating the scream. As the killer stalks his prey in the dead of night, I look to those around me. Are they here, in my living room? Or are they in a distant alleyway, watching quietly as a young woman takes her last breath? None of them turn to me, their eyes glazed over and fixed on the television. A forgotten hand lingers above the popcorn.
Blood splatters across the concrete and several viewers jump, startled. I taste the salt on my tongue, as saline as the sweat and tears of the poor dead soul, limp on the sidewalk. The introductions credits appear onscreen. The munching continues, and my young niece giggles. She lives for that wild moment when you’re not quite sure what will happen; her favorite, of course, is The Zombie Attack. Sudden death draws so close, but all it takes is one crack of the melon and our hero lives to fight another zombie, another day.
It’s refreshing to see the horror-loving gene being passed on to the little ones. It was not long ago that I was laughing at Freddy Krueger’s attempts to make me afraid of dreams. Did anyone actually believe that waterbed scene, anyway? My mother must have, for she rushed into the room and inquired about the strange, uncontrollable laughter. “It’s hilariously fake, mom!” I explained to her, but over the years I purposely eased her fears that I was autistic or otherwise impaired socially. No, I simply recognized poor Hollywood effects at a young age, and was no longer swept up in that exciting moment of fear and anticipation. This is also why I could never watch the Power Rangers and other cheesy kid shows. Bulky, unrealistic suits bored me; I preferred the face-morphing vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At least their “demons” wore prosthetic enhancements to draw realistic fear out of the audience. The villains in the Power Rangers always reminded me of the awkward Mickey Mouse suits from Disneyland–how could anyone be afraid of a villain that awkward?
I wonder, though, if my shows will produce this type of reaction. Will a pulse race the victim’s footsteps as she runs for her life, subtly startling the audience out of their wits, even though they know what’s going to happen? It’s that sparkle in a viewer’s eyes as they find themselves in a foreign world, transported to a place of imagination and triumph. Their body chills when the young girl breathes out cold, heavy air, and we know a ghost is about to appear. We wince at the sight of a hero slicing the palm of their hand open, a cliché used in almost every supernatural-based fantasy show on television, and we suspend our knowledge of reality and truly believe that a few drops of blood are all that is needed to complete the spell. Most importantly, we suspend our knowledge of reality and believe, for a moment, that spells and ghosts actually exist.
Creating a world full of wonder, yet deeply connected to reality, is an incredible feat to accomplish. I look to the masterminds before me: Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, George Lucas and Joss Whedon, to name a few of the most creative minds in entertainment. Spielberg and King have never particularly spoke to me, however, as their storytelling is very different than television. Whedon is where it’s at, creating cult hits like the Buffy verse, Firefly, and recently branching out to write Marvel’s Avengers series and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show that accompanies the universe. Whedon has made clear, through over two decades of weaving experiences on television, is that he is a master of character-driven storytelling.
In movies, storytelling is simple. One event leads to another event just as one act leads to the next. Movies have a three act structure: beginning, middle and end. They are action based, as no one wants to pay eight bucks to watch an hour and half of exposition. In the end, the storyline itself defines who appears in the movie.
Television is fundamentally different, as it is based on the evolution of characters over years of experiences. In the end, that’s what a TV show is: a record of your characters experiences. There is no beginning, middle and end, only a foundation and a highway that goes as long as the network says. Supernatural, for example, was supposed to end after five seasons. The creators wrapped up the main storylines and gave their characters a (mostly) happy ending. The fans had a different idea, as the show was so popular, season eleven is currently airing. This particular television show has been on air twice as long as the creators wanted it to be. Their storylines ended, yet the universe continues to grow each year and the characters will never stop developing. Why? Because the characters are real on television. Once they appear onscreen, they change the way the story itself is told. They are the story. We don’t watch each week to see what monster will show up, we tune in to see how Sam and Dean Winchester will solve the mystery. When we go to sleep at night, we can imagine the questionable motel room they would be staying in, and the jobs they could be on right now.
This realness is a level of immersion that makes the best TV shows life changing. Suspension of disbelief is achieved through television in a way that is simply not possible with other forms of cinema, and we can see the largest, most die-hard fan base forms around TV shows that offer characters who live for decades. Even Star Wars–arguably the most well known movie series/franchise there is–was not a single experience. They are even called “episodes,” as George Lucas knows the importance of shorter installments, a tool often forsaken when a production company only cares about pumping out the next big summer blockbuster. We are now seeing reboots of Star Wars for the next generation of moviegoers with the same characters who refuse to die, who refuse to fade from our minds and hearts.
Granted, I have never actually seen Star Wars. I prefer “real” television, which is why I have decided to create my own franchise. Something amazing happens when a character is given birth in your mind and begins to develop into an actual person. You may start in a place or with an idea, but soon, they start talking to you. They start talking to other characters. They have inner monologues of their own, so sometimes you end up inside a character’s mind, inside your own mind. They bicker, and you learn things about them: no, she wouldn’t be that mean–no, she wouldn’t be that nice—oh!—she wouldn’t say anything at all! Screw that guy, he doesn’t even deserve a response from her.
You find out what really hurts them: “Monsters? Werewolves aren’t monsters, John. When I found them in the woods, they were having a picnic. A family picnic for fuck’s sake! I hunted them down, and I ripped out their Alpha’s heart. And why? To save someone else’s life? Like I deserve to choose who lives and who loses their family? That Alpha wasn’t the monster.
To everyone else, all this character did was kill a monster, some werewolf who probably hunts people in the woods. They saw the battle. They saw the blood. They watched her rip the Alpha’s heart out, but only she saw the humanity behind those vicious eyes. Most importantly, she has to live with that for the next five seasons and three movies.
Characters on television are ever-changing, which means the storylines are ever-changing. The most difficult part of writing for TV is staying true to both, weaving a magical tale with so few plot holes that the audience has no choice to accept this pseudo-reality as plausible. We accomplish this by creating unforgettable characters who think and feel the way the audience might think or feel, but each retain their own personal bias, hopes and fears. Make them relatable but individual. Distinct personalities, but all likeable or love-to-hate types. It’s a balancing act that takes years to accomplish, and a deep level of understanding what humanity really is. They call screenwriting a lifelong craft, and at the heart of this craft is the ability to force an audience member into suspending their disbelief while you show them a world they have never seen before.
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