Externalising the inner voice – lessons from Dexter

It can be difficult to get a character’s inner voice out. With books and short stories we can at least put thoughts straight onto the page, though that can sometimes be overly expository or slow down the pace. And for films and TV it’s even harder – characters’ attempts to express their emotions, to tell us what the writers want us to know of their inner state, can seem very forced. But this week I was struck by a particularly good example that uses varied approaches.

It’s the TV show Dexter.

Dexter

In case you don’t know it, Dexter is a drama about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers. He’s a dark character who has trouble addressing his own thoughts and feelings. The actor can’t always show them on Dexter’s face because he’s a sociopath hiding what feelings he has from the world. But that’s awkward, because Dexter’s inner workings are central to the show.

They get round this in three ways – through ordinary dialogue, through Dexter’s inner monologue, and through the speeches he gives to his victims.

Dialogue

The dialogue is the most standard tool, and applies more to the other characters than Dexter himself. The writers, and the actors performing their words, do a good job of showing rather than telling what’s going on with a character. Someone who’s on edge won’t say they feel on edge, they’ll snap and snarl at people around them. It’s a standard approach, one every writer needs, but it’s easy to forget how hard it is to get it right. And they get it right.

Inner monologue

Every episode we get to hear Dexter’s thoughts. Not the chaotic jumble of natural human thinking, but an organised monologue about things from his past and what he feels about his current situation. Dexter addresses the audience directly, letting us know where he’s at. Done badly, this could just be crude exposition, but here it adds depth to proceedings, showing what can’t be seen on the face of a stone cold killer.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have used a similar technique in some of their comic collaborations, such as Sleeper and Criminal. As well as illustrating a character’s thoughts and feelings this sets up dramatic ironies, with thoughts and visuals in contrast.

There’s show going on as well as tell. Dexter doesn’t always tell us that he’s conflicted over something – as with other dialogue, often he’ll give us just enough to work it out for ourselves. And when he tells us something directly, it’s a way of bringing things together, of highlighting a theme and clarifying an episode’s message.

The villainous monologue

Dexter’s speeches to his victims have something of the super-villain monologue to them, explaining what he’s doing and why. But they don’t feel forced or unnatural. The writers have created a character who needs to vent in this way, and then given him an opportunity to do so.

And of course there’s some show as well as tell here, as Dexter’s inner life becomes more complicated, so his relationship with his victims becomes less straightforward.

The spice of life

The writers of Dexter have created a problem for themselves, and then solved it in a variety of ways. It’s part of what keeps the show fresh and interesting, and I find it a useful example to examine. Which thoughts and feelings are expressed in which ways can be as telling as the words themselves. It’s inspired me to think hard about how I show characters’ inner states.

What do you think? Are there other examples that are good at this, in books or on the screen, or that get thoughts out in other ways? Let me know in the comments – I’m always interested to have more ideas.

Yuck, you got your destiny on me

I found a lot to love about Atlantis, the BBC’s new Saturday night family friendly adventure show, and some things that weren’t so great. But the thing that most got my goat wasn’t unusual or unexpected. It’s something most viewers probably won’t have formed an opinion on, but that’s become a trigger for annoyance from me.

Atlantis - exactly as good as you'd expect from this poster
Atlantis – exactly as good as you’d expect from this poster

It is your destiny

What bothers me is predestination.

As the show went on, it became increasingly clear that Jason, the lead character, is the centre of a web of prophecy, some kind of messiah figure. In a way, that’s fitting. Prophecy was all the rage in the ancient Mediterranean, the inspiration for Atlantis. But it bothers me because, in 99.99% of books, TV shows and films (trust me, I’ve faked the maths), prophecies and chosen ones turn out to be true.

This bothers me for a whole bunch of reasons, so lets start with the easiest one to explain…

Other characters

If a central character is prophesied to bring about salvation / the end times / a nice cup of tea, and the world works in a way where prophecies come true, then this disempowers the other characters. They’re never going to be the bringers of salvation / the end times / a nice cup of tea, no matter how hard they try. They become insignificant by comparison. As a reader or viewer I therefore know there are limits to what they’ll achieve. I feel sorry for them, and a bit cheated on their behalf. How could the writers do this to poor Jo? I had high hopes for him.

I wouldn’t mind so much if this was explored within this stories more. What does it feel like to be the younger brother, the sidekick, the colleague of a person who is known to be so much more significant? It looks like Agents of SHIELD might start exploring this in relation to superheroics, but mostly it gets ignored, or if we’re lucky turned into a couple of lines of throwaway dialogue.

The hero

In my mind, predestination, prophecy, all that jazz, if it’s real then it disempowers the hero as well. Their path is pre-ordained. They can try to find alternatives, but they’ll be drawn back no matter what. Poor hero.

And that also lessens them in my eyes. Even if they’ve struggled against enormous odds to achieve their destiny, were they really enormous odds if the universe had said from the start that they’d win? Not so much. I feel less like cheering and more like giving a gentle thumbs up.

The reader

And then there’s me, the reader or viewer. If I know there’s a prophecy, and I know that prophecies always work out, I feel less tension. My long-shot hopes for the hero to choose a different path, or for someone unexpected to shine through instead, those are gone.

Plus prophecy tends to be a warning sign that Very Portentous Things are about to happen. That the creator of the story wants a short-cut to making me take things Very Seriously Indeed. This was my problem with seasons three and four of Angel. Things became Very Serious Indeed. In fact, the show spent so time making things Very Serious Indeed that it stopped putting its full effort into character, pacing and humour. If there’s a prophecy, I fear for the future of any story.

I foresee hope

Of course, none of this is absolute. Writers can, potentially, do interesting things with prophecy. George R R Martin lets prophecies motivate people and then go unfulfilled, just like in real life. J K Rowling, whose Harry Potter books suffered from lashings of destiny, played with this a little through Neville (not coincidentally, my favourite Hogwarts student). But usually, prophecy is just a cheap short-cut to express importance, a way to tell us that the protagonist is significant even though we already know that because, well, they’re the protagonist.
There’s a lot of interesting stories that could be told about prophecy, its social impact, its psychological effect on those involved, what happens when it fails. And maybe, just maybe, Atlantis will do that. After all, it’s been created by Howard Overman, the mind behind Misfits. But on the other hand, it’s in the easy viewing Saturday adventure slot, so I won’t hold out much hope.

I know other people must love a good prophecy. After all, they turn up in books all the time. But I don’t get it, I really don’t.

Do you love a good prophecy? Know a good example where it’s undermined? Have an opinion on Atlantis? Then I foresee that you will leave a comment below.

Agents of SHIELD – making the familiar interesting

Like half the people I know, I was in front of my TV at eight o’clock last night for the UK start of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Like many of my friends, I was super excited beforehand, and like a slightly smaller number, I was still super excited by the end. I could do a long post about why I think this show is great, but Hello, tailor has already covered most of what I’d say. So instead I wanted to think about what makes the show interesting.

The SHIELD shield
The SHIELD shield

Lets be clear from the start. A lot about Agents of SHIELD is very familiar. There’s the Whedonesque dialogue of which I’m a big fan. There’s a plot about science gone wrong. There’s some action and some exposition around tables. There aren’t a lot of big surprises, and it doesn’t challenge its audience. But of course it doesn’t – it’s an extension of the Marvel movie franchise, not Breaking Bad. It’s the safest of safe corporate products, and if it makes me think at all then its well ahead of where I once feared it would be.

That connection to the Marvel films is interesting in itself. This isn’t a film spinning off into a TV show, or vice versa. It’s part of an ongoing franchise, in which TV and films can hopefully weave together. If it works well, they’ll reference each other in a way which adds richness to both, without making audiences reliant on catching every single Marvel movieverse product. If it works badly, then the TV show could end up feeling irrelevant to movie fans or incomprehensible to those who haven’t scrutinised every detail of the latest Captain America film. It’s a tough trick to pull off – there are many examples of comics doing it well, many more of them doing it badly – but it’s great to see such ambition in play, and if anyone can pull it off then Joss Whedon can.

That relationship with comics plays into another thing I find interesting. Near the end of the show, a character gives a speech about how it feels to be an ordinary person in a world that contains superheroes, how much less relevant we all become. It’s not a new idea to comics fans, who’ve been treated to dozens of challenging readings on the impact of superheroes over the decades. But it’s something new to see on the screen, taking it to a much wider audience. And I think there’s potential for it to draw out a wider issue, using this as a metaphor for modern culture and how people feel when role models are held out as so much more wealthy, more glamorous, more powerful, more unobtainable than them. This looks to be a big theme of the show, so lets hope it’s handled well.

Another of the obvious points of interest is how they dealt with the previous death of their lead character, Agent Coulson. The obvious option would have been to gloss over this, give a quick explanation and move on, ignoring the awkward point. Instead, as my friend John pointed out, they’ve made it a significant feature of the plot. Alternative explanations are being offered or hinted at, and it’s clear there’s something dubious going on here. They haven’t just hung a lantern on it, turned it into a joke for the audience, and I’m glad of that because such brief acknowledgement would have felt like cheating. They’ve turned one of their biggest plot problems into an asset, and that’s great.

For Whedon fans there’s the almost compulsory appearance of familiar faces from his past work – J. August Richards from Angel as a superpowered unemployed factory worker, Ron Glass from Firefly as a SHIELD scientist. For me, this is turning into one of the pleasures of Whedon’s work. It’s like watching the same theatrical troop putting on different plays, seeing how each actor performs in different roles, seeing the same faces in a different arrangement. Some might find it distracting, but for me the appearance of the Whedon troop adds to the richness of my viewing experience.

If my feelings on what makes the show interesting are summed up in one point, it’s in Lola, Agent Coulson’s car. At this point I’m going to drop a very mild spoiler, but then, if you haven’t watched the show you probably haven’t read this far. So, let me rephrase my last sentence – Loala is Agent Coulson’s flying car. Lola’s an old sports car, apparently one of Coulson’s collectibles, that turns out to have something hi-tech beneath the bonnet. But that hi-tech thing isn’t really a new idea – flying cars have been turning up in sci-fi for decades, even if they’ve never made their way into reality. Even Lola’s sci-fi element is retro. She’s a reference to the tradition of sixties hi-tech spies, the James Bonds and Nick Furies of this world, from which Agents of SHIELD springs. She’s an acknowledgement that even the new and shiny parts of this show aren’t really new ideas, they’re just being presented in a new arrangement.

Agents of SHIELD hasn’t brought us anything new yet. It hasn’t broken fresh ground, or turned the world of geek upside down. But it’s doing interesting things with the parts it’s got, playing with long standing elements of comics and TV culture in fun ways, and isn’t that a great thing in itself?

If you’ve not seen it already, try to watch the Agents of SHIELD pilot. And if you’ve got any thoughts on it, I’d love to read them below.

Audiobooks and the oral story telling tradition

When I was about ten, a story teller came to our school. He was, in my memory at least, everything you’d expect – big hair, baggy shirt, new age intensity. He had a bowl that rang out with a clear, captivating note when he ran a stick around it. I was entranced.

He came to mind today as I thought some more about audiobooks and stories as something we listen to. At first, audiobooks might seem like the modern continuation of the oral story telling tradition, with a lone performer drawing us into a story that we listen to, but in a lot of ways I don’t think they are.

One reason is that the old story telling tradition was about keeping the stories alive. The stories were handed down from one teller to the next, and those brains became the repositories in which the stories were preserved for future generations. These days we have books for that, and the internet. Audiobooks are just one more way to preserve the story, and not one most people use.

Then there’s the shared experience. A comment from Sheila yesterday highlighted the fact that a lot of audiobook listening is done on your own. But old-school story telling was a shared moment around campfire or hearth, a whole audience waiting with baited breath to see what happens next. These days, we’re more likely to get that shared experience, that anticipatory tension, from watching the latest episode of a hotly anticipated TV show, then turning to friends, family or the internet to share our excitement. Some friends and I will be glued to my TV at eight tonight for the start of Agents of SHIELD, huddled round the neon campfire.

And then there’s the element of live performance, of the story teller getting caught up in the emotions with their audience, of a performance that’s all the better for its uniqueness, for its small imperfections and sense of connection. Audiobooks, being a recorded form, don’t have that. It lives on for a few in live story telling, but most of us are more likely to get it from a music gig or perhaps going to the theatre.

These changes aren’t a bad thing. They mean that we still get what we used to get from live story telling, in a whole host of different ways. And live story telling isn’t entirely dead – for one of my friends, it’s a favourite hobby. That campfire experience lives on, fractured and varied, but perhaps even stronger for it.

As always, I’m interested to see your comments. Have I missed some key feature of story telling? Have you been to a particularly cool or interesting story telling performance? Let the world know below.

Canadian Commandos

I’ve recently been watching The Border, a Canadian TV show about people policing the hundreds of miles connecting Canada and the USA. I’ve enjoyed its mix of police procedural and commentary on contemporary issues, and now approve of 100% of the Canadian TV I’ve ever watched (which is to say, this show). However, there was one thing I had to get over to take The Border seriously. It’s something that says far more about my attitudes than the competence of the show’s producers, but it also highlights a potential writing pitfall. That thing is best exemplified by the phrase ‘Canadian Commandos’.

I apologise right now to anyone from Canada who’s reading this. I’ve never been to your country, I hear that it’s awesome. However, I have a particular impression of Canada, rightly or wrongly, as a gentle, friendly, slightly quirky, slightly liberal nation smiling in exasperation at the antics of their neighbours to the south. This is not a place I associate with hardened special forces agents, deadly manipulative spies or anything else you might call bad-ass. Yes, this attitude is a sweeping generalisation. Yes, it’s not grounded in meaningful fact. But still, the first time somebody on The Border made reference to Canadian Commandoes I was hit by such a jolt of cultural dissonance that I burst out laughing. I pictured Fraser from Due South abseiling with a machine gun while wearing his mounty outfit. It just didn’t work. This dissonance happened again over several episodes, as I got used to the fact that Canada has all the serious, deadly institutions common to most functional first-world nations, from secret service agents to violent biker gangs. I wasn’t laughing at a flaw with the show, I was getting over my own preconceptions.

As a writer, you can’t bet on getting over the preconceptions of your audience. If your fantasy story involves a hobbit lynch mob then you’re going to have to go a long way to make anyone take it seriously, maybe so far that you’d be better off not including that scene. People have an impression of hobbits, and even if you see them as fickle, xenophobic midgets prone to outbursts of unexpected and deadly violence, others may not. You need to think about who your audience is and how the elements you’re combining will ressonate with them. Otherwise they may give up in bemusement during your touching love scene between an alien and a kangaroo on page fifteen, and then you’ve lost readers.