I am a fan of the TV show Castle.  I can spoil almost every episode for you right now.

I’m not going to, because I’m a nice person, but I thought I’d put that out there.  I can also spoil Elementary, Fringe, the three NCIS generations, JAG (although I’ve only watched a couple episodes), and all six of the Star Wars movies.

To be fair, though, I know Star Wars backwards and forwards, and the spoilers are already plastered over everyone’s eyeballs, so there’s not much surprising there.  The point remains that I can spoil a crime show, almost any crime show, almost any episode, with a little thought and the first eight minutes of the episode.

I’m not going to tell you how— this knowledge cost me enjoyment of all recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations— but I can tell you why.  Why can a mild-mannered student of writing quickly tell the who did it of any whodunit?

Because most fiction, especially serialized on-a-deadline fiction like a TV show, has rules.

I don’t mean the standard rules of writing— the rules that aren’t really rules, like don’t use adverbs or the villain must wear black— I mean the specific rules of a certain story.  Castle has rules.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer has rules.  I’ve posted about Fringe’s rules, and even the saga of Wile E. Coyote has rules.  When writers are on deadlines, forced to create new stories about old characters that feel new but familiar, they create rules.  And we, being writers ourselves, can follow them to their logical conclusion and name them spoilers.

A system of strict rules are labeled a formula, like the Fringe style of thrillers to which I just linked.  A system of looser rules only nudges the story back into line, rather than shaping its path.  In Fringe, you can catalog the initial death, the knowledge death, and the thrilling attempt at death.  That’s a formula.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the most obvious rules are: the killer must be supernatural, and Buffy alone can save the day.  This leaves much more room for interpretation, when a friend does most of the killing job and Buffy just shows up to finish off the baddie.

Obviously, in this mess of rules and formulas, there must be some room for flexibility— otherwise, Fringe wouldn’t have five seasons, and we wouldn’t still like Wile E. Coyote.  Despite their strictness, we still have many questions to answer.  What is the supernatural weapon in Fringe?  Perhaps peanuts that cause mutation today, perhaps an ergonomic keyboard that devours souls tomorrow.  Who is in danger at the end of the episode?  Perhaps the main character today, perhaps the hilariously crazy old man tomorrow.  While the format doesn’t change, the content can and does, creating a new and interesting episode for every week.

Some shows, however, become so formulaic that they seem simple.  Take Elementary, for example.  (It’s still running, however, and I don’t want to spoil it if you enjoy it.)  By the first eight minutes, I can tell who the killer is, within two or three suspects.  By the final commercial break, I can tell who did it, and I can actually explain the trail of clues that led there.  (When I say I can spoil these shows, I don’t claim to know all the clues or thought processes the main characters use— I only speculate based on the rules of an episode.)  Elementary, after about a season, became so, well, elementary that I couldn’t watch anymore without considering Sherlock Holmes a colossal idiot, and the writers even worse.

But this is not about me.  When a serialized story has rules, it’s very possible that the viewers will pick up on those rules.  It’s the writer’s job, in that case, to fool them.

Despite all my certainty in this post, I still doubt my rules whenever I watch an episode of Castle.  That’s the reason I’m still watching after figuring out the inner workings.  Within eight minutes, I can make an educated guess which will almost always be right, or very close— in the next eight minutes, however, I’m convinced I am wrong, and I’m willing to follow these characters to whatever conclusion they reach.  By the end of the episode, I don’t care that I called it.  I had fun, I’m emotionally involved, and I’m eager for more.

If you’re writing with a system of rules, acknowledge to yourself that you’re doing it.  If things go the same way in everything you write, there’s a rule somewhere you’re refusing to see.  Once you see it, however, you see the flex points.  You see how to be the most creative possible within the constraints, rather than breaking out.  Many times, these rules have very good reasons and create a memorable story people will seek out— being creative in between things that they adore will keep them adoring.

Again, I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but I will say this.  The biggest rules of TV shows revolve around the commercial breaks.  Think about it.


5 thoughts on “Rules

  1. Are we talking about the “it’s never the first suspect” kinds of rules? *goes back to finish reading the post*

    Oooh, okay. I’m going to have to keep this post in mind next time I watch a whodunit show. I’ve never been all that superly good at figuring out the suspect, but then, I really don’t think about it much. Usually, if I want to know who did it before the episode ends, I’ll just ask my mom. She’s sometimes pretty good at predicting who it is, and she’s the one who pointed out to me that it usually never is the first suspect who’s the killer.

    Anywho, I probably should pay more attention to rules and patterns, though, I suppose. Especially in my own writing. I mean, I’m not sure I’ve even written enough to notice patterns. Unless we’re talking about the patterns like “oooh wweeeee no description I’m flailing about in a white room without even the white part”. Which is just lazy writing on my part, so.

    Hehe, anyway, good post. I’ll keep this in mind.

  2. I like this post.

    What is JAG?

    Fun fact: you’ve actually told me the formula for NCIS before. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do remember you said then that the commercials were important. (I have this pasted in a Word Doc somewhere.)

    It is interesting how they change it up, but follow the “rules” every time. It almost makes me want to write for television.

    I’ve been dissecting children’s TV lately. Which doesn’t have commercials during episodes. Specifically, Nick Jr.’s the Backyardigans (still one of my favorites, probably just because of the storytelling aspect). Thinking about it, I’ve also been subconsciously dissecting romantic comedies. I’ve got a handful that I’ve watched recently and didn’t hate and I’d like to figure out exactly why I didn’t hate them.

    I’m so behind on Castle. Admittedly, there were a few episodes I just wasn’t interested in watching (I do this with just about every TV show) but I need to watch the few that are available online now.

    If I may deviate from the subject, I don’t suppose you would happen to know why someone would have trouble writing an argument, would you? Or is this something that cannot be generalized?

  3. I don’t have TV – watch everything on DVD, which means it’s really hard to even find the commercial breaks!
    Good post – I’m going rule-hunting in a Batman comic now – I think I’ve found one: whatever Batman most firmly believes he’s responsible for, at the beginning of the arc… he isn’t.

  4. *giggles into hand*
    Doctor Who Rules: Rule One: It’s always an alien. (I’d be totally on board for an episode where all the villains were humans, pure and simple, but given the concept of Doctor Who it would probably be very, exceptionally dark. I’d still be on board for it, though.)
    I’m trying to figure out how to break all the rules in the steampunk genre, because I had an idea that might fit well into that. I think I’ve got one down–by the time our heroines get back to civilization, they’re happy to have full hot water baths and full skirts and actual sleeves again. Or is that just the rules of modern literature? Anyway, I’m sick and tired of people with their corset debate. You can be an AWESOME heroine in a corset and full skirt. I’m tired of the trope that girls have to wear men’s clothing to be perceived as powerful or strong. Even feminisim is falling prey to stereotyping, when it should be just the opposite. GRRRRRRRRR I’m so annoyed right now. (Yes, I’m annoyed that people called my favorite outfit of a certain character “gendered clothing.” If she can be awesome in that outfit and likes it, why do they shout her down?! BAH! *kicks the trope again*) I just like breaking all the rules–because people don’t fit into button molds, that’s why.

    1. She can wear what she likes!!! They’re only complaining because she’s female. (I call revealing outfits “gendered”. They’re stupid and impractical. But that doesn’t apply to all skirts! She wasn’t even supposed to be super active when she was wearing it! I am just so mad right now!!!)

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