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.