Tag Archives: storytelling

What Writers Can Learn from Watching Scandal

I’m a big proponent of watching movies and TV shows to hone storytelling skills. For one, I’m more of a visual learner and for another, it’s a great way to get a huge chunk of story in a relatively short amount of time. (Sure, it takes 12 hours to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies, but I’m fairly certain it’ll take you longer to read all three books). (At least it would for me.) (Don’t judge me.)

Anyhoo, Scandal. I recently had some vacation time to burn and so I did so around the holidays. I spent ten blissful days on the couch reading and watching TV. Okay, mostly watching TV. And most of that was Scandal, a political thriller that’s currently airing its third season on ABC. Watching reinterated several storytelling points. (Warning: spoilers abound, kids).

1. Conflict, conflict, conflict. The very premise of this show screams conflict: the protagonist, Olivia Pope, makes her living as a “fixer.” She fixes scandals (cheating husband? dead wife? unwinable election?) for Washington, DC elite. She does this only for “good people,” but in order to do it, she’s bends the law so far it breaks into a thousand pieces. Oh, yeah, and she’s a lawyer that employs other lawyers. And a former government assassin. Also, did I mention that our hero is also the President’s mistress? And to add another layer, the President is white. Olivia is black (though, admittedly, through the second season they’ve only mentioned her race a few times). And it’s not just Olivia, either–every major and some of the minor characters have internal conflicts of their own. And even better, those internal conflicts are tied to the other character’s conflicts which are in turn tied to the minor and major conflicts within the world of the show. This program is a master’s class in conflict.

2. Everyone is the hero of their own story. Everyone on this show does really horrible things for what they believe to be really great reasons. Justice. History. Love. They are all good people in their own eyes. Do they acknowledge that some of their actions aren’t “right?” Sure. But they always have justification for it.

3. Don’t shy away from taboo topics. Just to name a few: interracial relationships, torture, extramarital affairs, and more torture.

4. Characters should be flawed; this might make them contradictory. One of my biggest problems as I began watching was the main character. She is protrayed as a strong female protagonist; nothing gets by her, nothing gets in her way, she does what it takes to clear her client’s name. Except that when she gets around her lover. Then all her logic goes out the window. As the series progresses she fights it and I began to have less quibbles with the idea that someone so strong in her professional life would be so stupid in her personal life. I began to see her as a real person, not a character. And real people are flawed and contradictory.

5. Sometimes reality can be bent in service of story, but be careful not to take it too far. For example, the president has two children with this wife that we never see and are rarely mentioned in terms of his marriage or his affair with Olivia. (I wonder if this is to keep him sympathetic to the viewer, but it’s not realistic.) An even bigger issue is Olivia’s blatant disregard of the law. In every episode, Olivia doesn’t just break the law, she destroys it. She relocates dead bodies, she stages crime scenes, she hides key pieces of evidence … all with the knowlege of the district attorney who is often investigating the same cases. If the rest of the writing weren’t so strong, this fact alone would be enought to kill the show for me.

Have any of you watched Scandal? What do you think writers can learn from watching this show?

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Oral Fixation

This post is not about what you want it to be about.

Chicago has a robust storytelling community–shows where people get in front of a crowd and tell a true-life story–and I finally decided to take the plunge. This past Wednesday I took part in Story Lab, which is really conducive to rookies in storytelling like me. I told the story about the time I almost fell off a bluff the summer before fifth grade. I’ve told the story to people over the years, but it’s usually over a pint and it takes about three minutes to tell. Now I had to take up six to ten minutes and do it in front of strangers.

The group of six storytellers gathered a few weeks prior to tell our stories and get feedback from the group. It was much like a critique session for writing–beef this section up, restructure this section a little bit, maybe focus on this concept more so the ending hits harder. I got some really great feedback that I incorporated into my story. Much of it dealt with craft, like pacing, focusing on tension, etc. I sort of rushed the story when I told it to the small group, mostly because I was nervous. The fact that I was nervous in front of six people didn’t bode well for me; what would I do in front of seventy? Also, I was going “off-book,” which meant that if nerves got the best of me I wouldn’t have a written story to fall back to.

Turns out, I shouldn’t have worried so much. Apparently, the bigger the crowd, the less nervous I am. Don’t get me wrong, I was plenty nervous leading up to the show, but once I got in front of everyone, I relaxed and just told the story. I felt comfortable onstage. Thinking about pacing and tension had certainly helped my performance, but I didn’t actively, consciously think “pause here for two beats, speak a little softer here.” The audience laughed, got scared, and teared up at all the right places, so I considered it a win.

Like most writers, I’ve told stories my whole life in one form or another. This was just a heightened form of telling a story to friends over dinner. Do I have room for improvement? Absolutely. But it’s definitely a craft I’d like to hone.


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