Another Little Piece
In this Amazon exclusive list, author Kate Karyus Quinn shares the top three writing lessons she’s taken away from her enthusiastic TV-watching.
1. VILLAINS ARE HEROES. HEROES ARE VILLAINS.
Xander: [...] Let me tell you something. When it's dark and I'm all alone, and I'm scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think “What would Buffy do?” You're my hero. OK, sometimes when it's dark and I'm all alone, I think “What is Buffy wearing?” From Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 4, “The Freshman” Of course, I am going to kick things off with Buffy. Buffy is the chosen one—not just on the show, but in my own personal TV hall of fame. Buffy is the first show that I fell for so hard that in between seasons I went online looking for spoilers, just to get my fix. There are so many takeaways from the seven magical seasons that Buffy was on the air. And some jaw-droppingly killer episodes (“Hush”, “The Body”, “Once More with Feeling”) that ought to be sealed in carbonite so they’ll be preserved forever for future generations. However, the most important thing I took from Buffy was this two-sided question: what makes a hero/what makes a villain? It starts with Angel, the vampire cursed with a soul that Buffy falls in love with. It seems like these two crazy kids might be able to make things work—until Buffy sleeping with Angel turns him evil again. Then she has to kill him, because she’s the slayer and that’s kind of her job. But Angel isn’t the only character who tangles with the dark side. Faith, Spike (yet another vampire that Buffy becomes romantically involved with), and even Buffy’s best friend Willow all find that sometimes it’s good to be bad. And this entire good/bad dichotomy leads me to the next lesson...
2. WHO AM I ANYWAY?
Number Six: Are you alive?
Military Liaison: Yes.
Number Six: Prove it.
From Battlestar Galactica, Miniseries, Part I (first spoken lines of series) What does it mean to be human? BSG asked a lot of BIG QUESTIONS over the course of four brilliant seasons, but this was the one it kept returning to over and over again.
For the uninitiated, here’s the super quick recap: Humans made robots called Cylons. The Cylons and humans started fighting. The Cylons created new Cylons that looked EXACTLY like humans, and then blew up an entire planet, leaving humanity on the brink of extinction. The Battlestar Galactica holds all that’s left of humanity, but are there Cylons hidden among them? How do you decide who is human? And when you find a hidden Cylon you thought was your friend, lover, or superior officer—how do you respond?
I must also mention the secondary question of fate, which plays a large part in the BSG mythology. “All of this has happened before, and will happen again,” gets repeated throughout the series and is the note it ends on. For most of the series it was a riddle that made you ask, “What the heck are they talking about?”
And this leads me to my last lesson...
3. WHAT THE WHAT??!?!
Jack: I'll do it. This is why I'm here. This is... this is what I'm supposed to do.
Jacob: Is that a question, Jack?
Jacob: Good, then it's time..
From Lost, Season 6, “What They Died For”
I didn’t always like Lost. In fact, by the end of the series, I was pretty tired of it. And yet... I couldn’t stop watching. I had to know what it was all about. Like Buffy, this show was interested in what made a hero or villain, and it wasn’t afraid of switching characters from one column into the other. Like BSG, it also asked questions about destiny. But what set Lost apart was the way it chose to tell its story—by making it a puzzle with Sudoku-like levels of addictiveness (except the numbers here always added up to: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42). The mysteries of the islands: the numbers, the others, the hatch, the smoke monster, Jacob, and MORE were just the beginning of the question-making.
Those I could have walked away from. But the show took the main characters and made each one of them a puzzle too. With a fade to white and a distinctive whooshing sound effect, we were given different pieces of their pre-island (and later post-island) lives. The flashbacks weren’t always in chronological order either. You needed a wall-sized corkboard to keep track of all of the histories of multiple characters over six seasons of the show.
This was not mindless television that you watched while flipping through a magazine. Even when the twists and character choices drove you crazy, Lost was never boring.
So that’s a bit of what I’ve learned from TV—and I applied all of these lessons to Another Little Piece.