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"Hard is not hopeless." - General David Petraeus

Monday, November 28, 2011

Powerful Stories That Break Through the Stratosphere

There's a phenomenon in the world of fiction that I can't explain.  But when it happens, it's like magic.

We read a lot of novels during our lifetime (at least most do).  Probably a small percentage of those are truly bad books; the vast majority are average--you read it and say, "hey okay" then forget it and move on.  But if you're lucky, you'll read a handful of books that rock your world.  Books that are so good you are deeply and emotionally drained afterward.  Books that had such deeply developed characters you keep coming back to them and thinking about them and their situations again and again.

To me, it works the same for television.  I've watched a ton of TV shows in my day.  Each show has at least one episode that should never have seen the light of day it was so bad, several episodes that are average to good, and then a few that are stupendous and stick in your memory forever.

Last Monday's Hawaii Five-0 episode (11/21/11) for me was one of those stupendous, remember forever episodes.  I think it will stand as one of the best episodes of the entire series.  The episode appealed to me personally and as a writer.

Personally because the best way to press my buttons is to give me a book or a show that utilizes the concept of "the team coming together in a major crisis to back up one of their own."  When I think of the most memorable TV shows I can recall, they always follow this format.  For example, there's an episode of Gunsmoke in which Matt turns in his badge to go after the man who nearly killed Kitty.  But the entire town turns out to back him up and the effect was magic.  Ditto for a particular episode of The Young Riders--the Express riders were trying to defend a runaway slave, but when they themselves were endangered, the entire town showed up to save the day. For me, cinematically, nothing beats this type of story.

Enter the most recent Five-0 (btw, if you have not yet seen this episode, beware--SPOILER ALERT!!!!).  For a writer, this was a dream episode to study.  Sure, as writers of novels we don't have the advantage of conveying our stories on film, but we must still write powerful characters.

The reason this episode was so powerful was because of the depth of the characters and the careful attention to detail that they gave it.  I will cite only a few or this will turn into a dissertation. 8-) :

The character of Jenna Kaye:
She was a fun addition to the show last season and she worked because they didn't use her in every single episode.  In this episode, she betrayed Steve McGarrett in the worst possible way.  But even now, I'm very conflicted about her. 

I have a hard and fast rule.  No one messes with McGarrett and gets away with it.  NO ONE.  So I'm glad she was gunned down in the episode.  That said, even a week later I find myself conflicted--could I forgive her for what she did if I were in Steve's shoes? I honestly don't know.  Was she only sorry about how things turned out because Josh (her fiance) was dead?  If he HAD been alive would she have walked away and left Steve to be tortured to death by Wo Fat?  Jenna was smart and thought fast on her feet.  And who of us in her situation could maim the rapidly decomposing body of our fiance to pull a pin and give someone else a shot at survival?  That is DEEP stuff, and a deep character.  As a writer, if you write a character that leaves the reader thinking about characters THAT much, you have definitely arrived--you have captured the magic.  It's what any of us hope for in our fiction.  But it is so elusive a thing it is seldom achieved.

The Improved Danny Williams:
While Steve and Danny's partnership is the core of Hawaii Five-0, I didn't care much for Danny Williams in season 1.  While I appreciated his ever-present sense of humor, he came off as a jerk to me a lot of the time--unteachable, unbending, and apparently holding the belief that he was the only one who knew anything about police procedure or protocol.  The powers that be at CBS chose the perfect time to air this newest episode.  Had they filmed this episode during Season 1, I would not have bought into it.  Season 1 Danny Williams didn't have it in him to go to a hostile foreign country and rescue Steve.  Danny's character has grown a lot in season 2 and it makes him an all around better character.

As novelists, unless we're writing a series with recurring characters, we don't have a year and a half to develop the depth of our characters.  Nevertheless, we have to strive for depth in our characters, and to show how they've grown.  It's not easy, but the rewards are fabulous.

The Many Complexities of Steve McGarrett:
Talk about a character with limitless story potential.  We have a man living in two worlds--military and civilian law enforcement.  The dynamics of his family provide endless story opportunities and make him a character with many facets--and many conflicts.  While the every-day person's life may not be so dramatic, Steve McGarrett encompasses the question we all have to answer for ourselves--in life, we're going to get clobbered, get knocked down time and again.  How do you hold up over the years.  Do you overcome the setbacks or do the setbacks overcome you?  If one by one people betray your trust, at what point do you stop trusting?  You've got a smokin' bad Navy SEAL on one hand and a vulnerable guy on the other.  LOTS of character material to work with.

Attention to Detail:
The end of last Monday's episode as they left Korea in the helicopter is one of the most powerful I've ever seen.  The mix of seriousness and humor, the different character responses, and the attention to detail.  The musical score.  The acting was terrific.  But it was the details that impressed me most.  Take for example one small gesture.  They've just rescued a man who has been chained up, beaten and tortured.  And his comrades are smart enough to know this man--that the one thing he needs the most is to feel a sense of control after it has been stripped away from him--so they hand him one of the rifles, which he promptly checks and makes sure is ready to go.  To some, such a thing might seem a trifling detail in a fictional story, but that little trifling detail packed a world of power into it and spoke volumes not only of the recipient of that action, but those around him.

WOW.  I am so pleased to have had an opportunity to see this episode.  I am reminded again of the power of story.  And it encouraged me.  Truth is, I don't know if I'll ever be able to write a story with the depth and power of this one.  But it makes me more determined then ever to work hard at my craft.  Because you never know when one of your stories will be THE ONE.  That one story that rocks the world of its readers. 

There's no greater reward for a writer then when one of your stories drains your readers, for all the best and most powerful reasons.  It makes the endless hours of time investment all worth it.

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