In terms of ‘things that taught me about good storytelling’, one of the most powerful moments in The Shield is the end of season three’s “Posse Up”. It shouldn’t feel like a satisfying ending; the majority of the plot has been explosive, a tit for tat battle between Dutch and a serial rapist/killer. Almost any other cop show and any other procedural would amp up the complexity and spectacular nature of the action; maybe Dutch would come up with some complex and specific profile based on the phone call he gets, maybe some CSI techie would track him down using background sound or vibrations or some shit, maybe the whole thing would end with some Hannibal Lectre argument with the killer, roll credits in forty-five minutes. By those standards, the ending of this episode just kind of peters out – the killer draws Dutch out to a public space, and then just… leaves him out there? The whole thing feels kind of petty and insignificant on both sides; the killer hasn’t achieved much more than embarrassing Dutch and wasting his time, and Dutch isn’t any closer to catching this guy than he was at the start of the episode, at least in any practical sense. And yet, I find myself moved. One of the things that separates Dutch from Vic is that he’s willing to commit to the daily grind of doing what he does, and this is a moment of him seeing that the battle is over but the war is ongoing. I always read him as thinking about what the FBI profiler in the first season said – catching serial killers is a marathon, not a sprint. If he wants to catch the big fish, he has to put in the time to get it.
What I learned from this ending is not to worry so much about whether my characters succeed or fail at their goals. Most procedurals are concerned with making their characters look competent at all times, which means they’re concerned with externally determined parameters; these characters are worth following because they’re in near-complete control of their environment. This episode presents an internally determined conclusion – Dutch and Claudette create a sense of closure by analysing the data they’ve taken in over the episode and, you know, drawing a conclusion from it, and we don’t even have to be told what Dutch’s conclusion is to get that feeling. This is something I’ve factored into my storytelling; the aim is always to figure out what the characters have learned about what happened to them and how they’d use that information in the future. This, of course, means tension is raised – now that failure is an option, success becomes rarer and more valuable – but it also makes it easier to write, as I no longer try and sweat out the smartest solution to the problem and focus on what’s really important to me and the characters, and even when I’m writing someone who cares about being smart, I’m comfortable with letting them try something that leads to failure.
What I think is that I should also have been applying this kind of thinking to the start of the story. Every storyteller, wannabe, professional, or legend, will tell you that first blank page is the hardest to write. It’s an ancient variation on the Netflix Anxiety – there are a near infinite number of things to write about, so how do you pick between dozens of good ideas? I’ve been finding that even a few chapters into a specific and peculiar world can make it easier to narrow down choices to kick off a smaller or one-off plot (a war brewing in the background can blow back on the main characters in unpredictable ways). That same arrogant insecurity and desire to be the BEST and MOST INTERESTING can drive you to distraction trying to pick something complicated or cool enough to impress people. In contemplating this, I found myself thinking of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; as I’ve said, it’s a show that will just grab a concept and throw it into the character’s world and watch it bounce around. The fact that the quality of an episode is rarely connected to the cleverness of a concept is something that’s always struck me – one of their best episodes spun out of the Gang buying a boat! It’s like, there is a baseline standard for how good a concept has to be – “Frank’s Brother” doesn’t work for a lot of people because it’s not about the Gang – but so long as it gets a plot in motion, a concept works. I went in my own direction with this, coming up with (or stealing) vivid images to which my characters can respond, but the principle remains the same. Beloved Soluter wallflower has often remarked on storytellers ruining their story by trying to get to a specific image or idea they wanted; I say, put that image or idea right at the start, even if it’s a small story in a larger one, and trust dramatic structure to do the rest.