I’ve been watching a TV show/miniseries about the Unabomber, and it’s basically told from the point of view of the FBI agent who ultimately got enough information together to capture Ted Kaczynski.
As I was watching the third weekly episode, I realized that it was very compelling drama – and I wondered why.
Half of my brain loves just enjoying the show and the other half of my brain – or less, I guess – breaks it down and analyzes it.
WHY is it good drama?
Why am I tuning in week after week?
Why do I like a certain character or dislike a certain character?
The guy from Sex And The City plays a boss pretty high up in the FBI. Below him but above our agent hero is a Jerk Boss.
We really dislike the Jerk Boss because he’s a jerk – but what does he do that makes him a jerk?
Jerk Boss is always frowning. Always negative body language, and he does not believe in Hero Agent’s work. In fact, Jerk Boss basically says what Hero Agent is doing is a waste of time and feels they should be spending their resources in other areas (Which they are, too. I don’t mean to imply otherwise. The FBI was chasing down all sort of leads.)
So it’s especially victorious when the Jerk Boss and his theories turn out to be dead ends and he’s the one who’s been wasting time.
The Sex And The City Boss pretty much also doesn’t believe in what the Hero Agent is doing, but Sex And The City Boss is not a jerk. And it’s because he’s almost as strict but he’s not as personally demeaning. And usually he appears much more rational in his thought process. Jerk Boss automatically says no. The Sex And The City Boss is more thoughtful before he says no. But ultimately it is a long series of no’s for Hero Agent.
Occasionally the Sex And The City Boss will think about or consider what the Hero Agent has to say. So it’s like chipping away at an iceberg with the Sex And The City Boss. Whereas with the Jerk Boss it’s just a brick wall. He’s not changing and he doesn’t care what you have to say.
All that’s fine except for one thing.
We know the Hero Agent was right!
And that is why it’s compelling drama.
See, in stories like Gladiator, we immediately saw a hero who was unjustly victimized by the new emperor. The gladiator gets sold off into slavery, his wife and child murdered, his home burned – because he told the truth.
In Bambi, this beautiful new baby deer is learning all these things and his mother gets killed.
You can find it time and time again, but it’s
an unjust thing happening to the hero or the main character and it tends to make us root for them. The more unjust, the more we root.
And if we can drag out that unjustness, and make it last, oh, three to six episodes, people will be shouting at their Tv sets. Leave him alone! He’s right, Jerk Boss, you fat cow!
Grr. Jerk Boss is such a . . . jerk.
Anyway, in this instance, with the Unabomber show, and like in Titanic and other stories where we already know the ending, it’s the simple fact that you know he was right that frustrates you. He didn’t know he was right. He just believed in himself. Everybody kept saying he was wrong and he kept sticking to his guns and working hard.
On the other hand, WE know he’s right. We know his research ultimately leads to the capture of Ted Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber.
So as we watch Hero Agent run into dead ends and frustrating brick walls and damned Jerk Boss who should just die, we marvel at his resolve and determination.
We pull for him as he just keeps chipping away at the iceberg.
And ultimately, although we are only three shows in to a six-episode miniseries, Hero Agent wins because Kaczynski gets caught and they even show us that. (They show Kaczynski and the Hero Agent talking while Kaczynski is in jail.) So they jump back-and-forth in time a little bit,
and that’s neat to see but it also is a constant reminder of:
the hero was right,
the hero was right,
THE HERO WAS RIIIIIGGGHHHTTT!!!
Die, Jerk Boss!! DIE! DIE!
Where was I?
Oh, Hero Agent. See, he didn’t know he was right most of the time. He believed it, but he didn’t know it. And he had a lot of high-powered people above him telling him to stop. Sometimes in embarrassing ways.
(In reality I marvel at the fact that even though this is a dramatic representation, there were a lot of different ways this could have gone and they would not have caught the Unabomber. And I marvel that this guy was such a champ to hang in there and pursue his belief, probably just as vigilantly as other agents who were pursuing dead ends or things that turned out to be dead ends. So that’s a big thumbs up to just good old fashioned police work and hard work and determination.)
But as far as storytelling goes, you can complain maybe they’re over playing their hand with the Jerk Boss and some other elements, but
the reason I’m pretty much glued to the set is because of the drama, and
the drama comes from the hero having to constantly overcome challenges.
He has challenges everywhere. Inside himself. With his coworkers. With his bosses. With his wife. With his children. And of course, with the bad guy.
That tension drives this story. Make sure it drives yours.
Whether it’s a manhunt or a romance or whatever, overcoming the challenges are what make us keep turning the pages.
Dan Alatorre has had a string of bestsellers and is read in over 112 countries around the world.
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One thought on “Writing Rule #1: Tension Drives Stories”
You are right, the more the underdog is made to look unworthy or wrong, the more we root for him/her. In my MS The Mother of the child (taken into care) says ‘I am sure so and so is behind the poison pen letter,’ the more they point at someone else. Telling her she is wrong, stupid and they will prove the Mother is at fault and the letter writer is to be left alone, forgotten. But the poison pen person has an axe to grind and proving it is her only way to getting her daughter back. Drama does the job.
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