Luther and Plot Driven Writing

Luther and Plot Driven Writing

Sara and I have been watching Luther recently, having just finished the first season about a week ago, and well… we were impressed, to say the least.

There have been a lot of crime dramas on TV recently.  It seems to me that producers are running out of ideas, or more likely simply forgoing any type of originality for a formula they believe is a guaranteed cash-in.  I mean, think about it:  Monk, Castle, The Mentalist, Awake, (Which was great because of its twist on the whole ‘cop drama’ thing, but it was cancelled.) The Wire, The Shield…  the list goes on and on.  So when Sara told me that she had heard that Luther was good and I asked what it was about and she replied: “It’s a crime drama.” I groaned for a long, tired groan.  But trusting her judgement, we watched it anyway.

And I’m glad that I did.  In a sea of procedural crime dramas Luther manages to stand out.  We watched all six episodes of Series 1 in the span of two days and loved every one of them.

There is something about the writing in this show that makes it great.  The acting is phenomenal which is part of what makes it so good–  Even the folks they get to play the sobbing spouse of the murdered victim are great actors, which I find most American television skimps on in order to pay a good salary to their main characters.

But I’m a writer, and (I think) this blog is going to be about writing, so I’m going to focus on that.

The characters are just very real.  I was watching this episode of Monk yesterday where it seemed like everyone was acting unusually simply because that’s what the plot demanded.  It’s a hallmark of bad writing when your characters suddenly act out of character just so that the plot can advance or so that drama can be created, and whether you know what is going on from a technical standpoint or not, most people will groan and think that the story is getting to be just a little ridiculous without necessarily realizing why.

For instance, in this specific episode of Monk I was referring to, Monk gets his assistant, Natalie, a bouquet of flowers for national secretary day.  She becomes offended, telling him that she is not just a secretary, and they argue and the episode proceeds.  As the plot unravels, Monk is getting everything wrong about the case and is suspecting someone that all the evidence seems to be pointing to; but who is not the killer, meanwhile Natalie is pointing the finger at the real killer because she has a hunch that it was him and that something about his story is not right.

No big deal right?  Well, if you’ve ever watched an episode or three of Monk you would realize how Monk just following the obvious clues is almost exactly the opposite of how he usually acts.  Most episodes of Monk have everyone thinking there either was no murder or that the guy/girl who was murdered was killed by the wrong person and Monk– with his astounding attention to detail –figures out the truth.  But in the episode in question, he does exactly the opposite.  He blindly follows all the obvious clues without ever delving deeper.  Why?  So that Natalie can solve the case and prove that she is not ‘just a secretary.’

I had the entire plot of the episode nailed only a quarter of the way through because it was clear what they were doing and that they were just doing it for the drama.  The rest of the epiosde was an incredible drag to get through simply because it was clearly just an episode of TV instead of a story about people.  There were no characters involved, just plot devices.

This is a mistake that I think I make in my writing, and is something that I think Luther avoids to great success.  Luther is a show about the characters, their strengths and flaws and how those traits affect the world around them and influence their lives.  The plot revolves around the characters, rather than the characters revolving around the plot.

Ultimately characters are what make a story worth reading.  All plots have been done before, and no matter what kind of twist you put on it, I can guarantee that it’s been covered by someone else.  Plots are not why people read, and they are not what make a good story/script.  Characters are.  When you read, you care about the characters involved and you want to see what happens because you’ve grown an emotional attachment to the people these events are happening to.  You can have the exact same plot in two different stories and one story will be engaging and exciting and the other one will seem dull and cliché.  The only difference is the driving force in the novel, plot or character(s).

My first few novels were very plot driven.  Those who have read them said they were exciting, and that’s mostly because the plot moves quickly and keeps you guessing; but the people who read it said it was good and not great.  I think plot-driven writing can work, but that making believable characters with depth, emotion and flaws is what makes the difference between good and great.  When your characters become real to you, you don’t need to have a plot that is set in stone, and usually it works better if you don’t.  There is something very special about the organic writing process that happens when your characters are making choices that affect the plot, and aren’t just travelling down the railway tracks laid for them by the author.

You don’t see a whole lot of character driven writing in TV, and a lot of that is because they have to produce so many different plot lines over the course of one season (23 episodes usually in the US) that there’s only so much character exposition you can do before you run out of material.  Luther has the advantage of being short– with only six episodes to a season –and as a result the episodes ooze quality.

I’m still working on creating believable characters in my own stories, though…  Maybe you have some tips to share, or have your own experiences with writing plot-driven or character-driven stories?  If so, leave a comment– I’d love to hear from you.  Oh, and if you get a chance, watch Luther.  It’s really good, I promise.

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