Lessons in Storytelling from TV and Film: Magic, Superpowers and Potential Pitfalls #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Welcome to the sixth part of my series on storytelling, TV & Film, part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop hosted by Raimey Gallant. The hop is a monthly event where authors share resources and lessons they’ve learned about writing. To browse other hop posts click here:

ATB

Last time I wrote about supporting characters, and before that setting, plot, characters, and what first episodes of TV shows can teach us about writing first chapters. These are fun posts to write, and not just because I get to binge watch shows on Netflix!

Author Toolbox Blog Hop Lessons from TV and Film Pitfalls Magic Superpowers

In this post I’ll discuss common issues in TV shows, including those with magic and superpowers, and how they relate to our writing.

My victims (shows & films):

Yu-Gi-Oh, Psych, Fullmetal Alchemist, The Flash, Harry Potter, and Once Upon a Time.

Author Toolbox Blog Hop Lessons from TV and Film Pitfalls Show Examples

Warning: Spoiler Alert for the above shows!

What common pitfalls should we be aware of whilst writing?

Yu-Gi-Oh: Show, Don’t Tell.

I’ve been watching old episodes of Yu-Gi-Oh recently, a series I loved growing up, and there are often scenes where villains tell us exactly how evil they are or what their plans are, to the point of repetition. This drags out episodes and makes the show take forever to get to the point.

If a character is evil, show it through their actions to bring them to life. Have them kick a puppy or throw their coffee over someone. They don’t need to describe their evil plans for us to know how bad they are. Beware, you don’t always need to show. If a journey has no relevance to the plot, for example, it’s okay just to say ‘Three days later, bags under their eyes, they arrived…’

Psych: Be Consistent.

In ‘Ghosts,’ an episode from Psych Season 3, Shawn says he broke his phone and hasn’t gotten a new one yet. A couple of scenes later he says Gus told him he’s quitting Psych via text message. I love this show, especially the hilarious interactions between the characters, but these kind of inconsistencies are distracting.

Psych Season 3 Ghosts
Like Gus dragging Shawn out of his workplace!

Make sure facts in your story are consistent. If someone broke their phone they can’t receive calls or texts until it’s been replaced. Beware inconsistencies about when key plot events took place too, and if a character breaks their arm make sure it doesn’t heal faster than it really could. (Unless your characters have magic, but we’ll get to that later.)

Fullmetal Alchemist: Don’t kill characters just for the shock factor.

A good character death makes you tear up. I’m still broken up over the death of Maes Hughes in Fullmetal Alchemist. His death was so shocking, and his daughter crying when he was being buried was heart wrenching. His death had a purpose though: To drive other characters, particularly his best friend, to solve the mystery of his murder and confront a larger conspiracy.

I’m sure we can all think of characters who died for no reason except to shock or upset us. Characters should never be killed off for this reason. If a character dies their death must have purpose, whether it’s to up the stakes for our characters or motivate them into action.

The Flash: Beware Superpowers.

Characters with superpowers are tricky to write, and one of the main issues I have with the Flash is his super speed. His power alternates between overpowered and dumbed down for the sake of the plot. One second he’s so fast he can dash to the coffee shop and back in between tossing a pancake, and the next he’s too slow to save a hostage and stop a criminal at the same time, just so the writers can showcase a new team members abilities.

Barry flips pancake in between getting coffee

These kind of inconsistencies can be jarring and drag your reader from the world of your story. If a character is fast there needs to be a concrete reason why their powers are suddenly far less powerful. Make superpowers consistent, in both strengths and flaws.

Harry Potter: Don’t let romantic subplots distract from the story.

Harry Potter did this well. The romantic subplot didn’t take over the story, but it felt organic and natural when it did happen. Harry’s crush and awkwardness around Cho was endearing. Hermoine’s relationship with Krum added a new dynamic between her and Ron. Of course I didn’t ship any of the couples that ended up together, but when do I ever?

Don’t introduce romance to check boxes. Some relationships in TV feel forced, the couples bland, and they don’t add anything to the story. Some feel like they’ve been added because romantic subplots are expected. My opinion? Write meaningful relationships. If it doesn’t feel real, scrap it. Don’t break up a good couple just to create drama either, or tease a relationship for ages only to break them up as soon as they get together.

Once Upon a Time: Be careful with magic.

Once Upon a Time’s Evil Queen can teleport using magic, yet she often uses carriages to travel across the country. As a viewer this doesn’t make sense, especially when you consider that it’d be more intimidating to suddenly appear in front of people, and it’s never explained either.

If you have magic in your story make clear rules about how it works and follow them. If a character chooses not to use magic when it would be easier, explain why, or you’ll leave your audience wondering. It could be they can only teleport on Wednesdays, or it takes a lot of energy so they don’t do it often. Just don’t overlook how powerful it is, or use it inconsistently.

Once Upon a Time Evil Queen Teleportation vs Carriage

Other things to be aware of:

Filler episodes: Avoid structuring your novel like a TV show. TV shows often have ‘filler’ episodes, which don’t add anything to the main plot of the series, whereas each chapter of your novel should move the plot forward in some way. Try to tie up all loose ends.

Dragging the story on too long: Prison Break was frustrating because the inmates escape attempts were thwarted too many times. Have your heroes fail, but don’t overdo it.

Conflict based on miscommunication: Sometimes it’s unbelievable or can seem like the conflict is just there for the sake of it, rather than characters having a genuine reason to avoid taking to their friends or partners.

Taking the story in sudden, unexpected directions: No one expects a light-hearted comedy to suddenly develop horror elements.

Fight scenes: Watching TV can help you write fight scenes. Pay attention to the position of character’s limbs during a fight and don’t have arms or legs bend in ways they can’t!

Modern convenience: In the age of mobile phones, characters don’t need to show up at their friends houses at inconvenient times when they can just call or text…

You have a mobile there's no need to show up at inconvient times

So what have we learned?

  • Show, don’t tell, except when something isn’t relevant to the plot.

  • Be consistent with plot points.

  • Try to tie up all loose ends.

  • If you kill a character, make sure it affects the plot or characters.

  • Be careful when writing about superpowers.

  • Make romantic subplots meaningful and natural.

  • If you have magic in your story make rules about how it works and stick to them.

scales divider copyThanks for reading!

That’s probably all on TV, for now. I start a Master’s degree in Creative Writing next week, and I hope to have something cool to share from my experience 🙂

What’s your biggest pet peeve with TV shows or books? Do some plot devices drive you crazy? Let me know in the comments!

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41 comments

  1. Oh god, Maes, NOT MAES! That show had two of the most painful character deaths I can think of. Sitting here, right now, the only other to match EITHER of those deaths would be Fred in HP. Talk about a punch to the gut.

    It’s a great point, too, about shock value. I tell my clients about this often, and in fact it was the ONLY thing I learned in the college writing classes I took (okay, maybe not the ONLY thing, but the teacher was a narcissist butthead so)–and it is so valuable. Don’t kill someone, or write something gruesome, or put in rape or cannibalism or incest or whatever, solely to try to “get to” your reader. It won’t work. Those things have to MEAN something. The characters must drive that meaning, not the death/gore/event itself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fullmetal really knew how to pull on the emotional heartstrings!
      I still can’t believe Fred died in HP 😦 I hope his ghost haunts the school playing practical jokes at least!

      It is indeed a valuable lesson, and a good point about writing something gruesome too. Every event in our writing should have meaning to our characters.

      Like

  2. My biggest pet peeve, especially with police, lawyer, and medical programs is all the illegal, unethical actions taken portrayed as noble for some perceived ‘better good.’ My husband hates watching these shows with me because I’m always saying things like ‘well all this evidence will be excluded and that murderer walks’ and ‘the hospital better contact its malpractice carrier because that doctor just blatently disregarded the patient’s express written wishes.’

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m getting a little tired of TV shows that keep renewing when it’s time for a logical end. I know it costs more money to keep producing new shows rather than to just keep going with the existing ones, but case in point, The Handmaid’s Tale, hello!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This was really well done, I enjoyed it a lot! I’ll have to remember these, especially the point about miscommunications just to drive conflict. That’s a good point. The Once Upon a Time example was so accurate! I felt that way constantly watching it, thinking “why on earth wouldn’t she just use her magic??” Haha

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I really enjoyed this post Louise! Great point about not killing characters just for shock value, I’m sure I’ve done that in the past *face palm*. I thought the romances in Harry Potter were done really well for MG, I would have loved more focus but that wouldn’t have been right for the series, and I think Rowling did such a good job of showing how the characters were maturing over the seven books/years. Good points about magic and superpowers too, it always annoys me when the rules aren’t clear or aren’t followed, I definitely notice that being a huge fantasy fan. The best magic systems have rules and restrictions, unlimited power is too easy! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 🙂
      I don’t think I’ve ever killed characters for the shock factor, but I have been guilty of torturing them far too much ^^”
      Making rules for magic is tricky, but I’m hoping to get a handle on it in both my stories because it features pretty heavily, especially in my Merlin work in progress!

      Like

      • I like to write fairy stories personally, so there’s so much already in folklore to borrow from, such as iron sapping their powers, or only being able to do things on the solstice etc. I think it taking a lot of energy is a great, simple one to use and remember tho. I think half the difficulty is remembering your own rules! 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I suspect some of the older TV shows had to repeat material for the benefit of those who had missed the previous episode (especially in the days before video recorders, DVR, and Netflix). Think of the 1980s episodes of Dr Who …

    But we don’t need that in a book. If the reader misses something or forgets something, they can flick back and read it again – all the more reason to avoid repetition.

    Hope your creative writing course goes well! I’ll look forward to hearing about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Repeating material for those who missed the previous episode does make sense. Nowadays I’m so used to watching multiple episodes in one sitting on Netflix! You’re right we don’t need that in a book though. I often flick back, even if it’s just to re-read a really nice piece of description or dialogue 🙂

      Thanks 🙂 The course is going well so far, really enjoying the first week!

      Like

  7. Consistency with details can be tough. I always dread that i will write a character one way in one scene, then another way later, so a I keep copious notes. Of course, even our most meticulous efforts can sometimes go awry. That said, these are all great points to be reminded of. Thank you, and I hope your degree program is a lot of fun.

    Liked by 1 person

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