As a Working Writer, I need some time to unwind. While I like watching the old boob-tube, cable is expensive and the economy sucks. Instead, my husband and I buy DVDs of our favorite series and watch them over and over.
One such series is The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (from here on out just called Brisco), a western/science fiction series from the early 90s. If the ideas of cowboys using futuristic gismos didn’t do it for you, it stars Bruce Campbell as Brisco County Junior, a smooth-talking cowboy who always gets his man (and always gets his woman as well). And if that didn’t get you interested in watching it, I don’t know what will; Bruce Campbell is a genius.
Before I start fangirling, let me get to my point. Here’s my list of the seven things Brisco can teach every writer.
7 – Suspension of Disbelief
The first time I ever saw this show was back in the early 2000s. A friend of mine owned the series and loved to watch it, mostly because of the strange things that would be thrown into each episode. He put on the pilot, but warned me that he tended to yell at the TV when things happened that were too far gone.
During the first episode, Brisco saddles up a rocket and rides it down train tracks.
Yep. You read that right.
My friend started yelling about how “physics doesn’t work that way” and some such other rot. The problem is, it fit the story. While it would never work in the real world, we find a lot of things in Brisco don’t work like it would in the real world. Where it counts, however, the writers always pay up.
So the first lesson you can learn is to treat your readers right. If you’ve written your world a certain way, make sure everything that happens makes sense within that world. If you’ve got a lawless society full of mutated bad guys, a human vigilante type character wouldn’t last long enough to buckle his belt, let alone save the girl. (Yes, I did just diss on Batman. Make something of it!)
6 – Infodumping
There is one thing all writers are guilty of: spewing information at the reader like a drunken fratgirl who thought it was cute to mix a fifth of vodka and The Thong Song.
Our readers aren’t stupid; they can handle a little more mystery than we give them credit for.
Brisco handles infodumping in a very classy mannor, avoiding all “as you know, Bob” situations with careful storytelling.
While watching a random episode today, I notice the only real infodumping moment was when Lord Bowler turned to Brisco and said something like “won’t it be a sweet moment to finally catch the 12th member of Bly’s gang?” It was so very subtle (and very fitting to the direction of the episode), but it was assumed that we’d watched the previous five disks and would know what was going on. And that’s how it always should be. Don’t handcuff your reader to the facts; if you sprinkle the facts in, your readers will feel more satisfied when they’ve come across something important.
5 – Reoccurring Characters
This kind of ties into infodumping; Brisco has a lot of characters that show up for an episode or two before vanishing again. The writers never felt like they needed to give us a long hem-and-haw about who Whip was or why he was hanging around. They never dumped the history of Dixie and Brisco on us, even though it was hinted at through conversation.
I feel like I need to say this again though: our readers aren’t stupid. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they’ll remember who a character is, as long as you make them memorable.
4 – Over-arching Plot
Brisco has a great over-arching plot. Every episode touches on the plot, but very few of them are 100% about the over-arching plot itself. The overarching plot in Brisco is that he’s trying to bring in all of the members of John Bly’s gang to avenge his father’s death.
There are many scenes that don’t have anything to do with capturing Bly or his crew. Some of them are pretty random, but, in the end, they bring Brisco a little closer to catching his man.
The point to this is: the plot might not be the forward thought of this scene, but it better be kept in mind the whole time. Every scene should add to the overall goal, even if it isn’t obvious as to how.
3 – Humor
One thing Brisco is good at is humor. There’s not a time where you forget that you’re watching something for fun; even the sad episodes find a way to make you laugh (or just groan – sometimes these are the better jokes anyway).
Bruce Campbell brings humor and fun to everything he’s in, and Brisco isn’t any different. No matter how serious something is, you should try to add a little humor in it. You want to remind your readers that they are supposed to be enjoying reading.
2 – Dialogue
I hit on dialogue a little under infodumping, but there’s a little more to the dialogue of Brisco than that. Every word that comes out of a character’s mouth means something. There isn’t any rambling conversations. Every word that is spoken tells us something about the characters, the plot, or the world. No word is wasted.
The same should be for your writing. Characters aren’t supposed to ramble around and have the boring conversations that we humans enjoy. Writing should be tight and more-than-real.
1 – Cliffhangers
Brisco is one of my favorite shows, because of the cliffhangers. Every episode has its own plot, even though they are all following the over-arching plot.
So, within each episode, there is plot. But this isn’t three act or anything – the writers made it so that every time the show fades to commercial, there is a cliffhanger.
Brisco is staring down the barrel of a gun – oh no! If you wait three minutes, you’ll find out how he’s going to get out of it.
Brisco is tied to a flag pole in a thunderstorm and we’re sure he’s going to get struck by lightning! How’s he going to get out of it? Wait three minutes and you’ll see!
Cliffhangers are what keep people watching or reading. Breaking to commercial or ending a chapter on rising action means that the reader is going to sit tight (or flip the page) in anticipation of what happens.
A warning: know your pacing and don’t always end on the same height of action. If your book is full of heart stopping chapter ends, a reader is going to get tired of being strung along. Use different types of rising action (drama, suspense, romance, secrets, etc.) to spice it up a little.
The next time you watch a TV series you really like, think of why you like it. Observe it from a writer’s point of view and ask yourself what works, and what doesn’t. You might be pleasantly surprised.
As a side note: I mentioned last post that I’m starting Candy’s Fast Draft this week. Starting tomorrow, I’m going to have a couple of short posts every day about how that’s going. If you’ve been looking at joining her July 7th course (and I highly recommend it!) make sure you stop by to get a first-hand look at the process.