Okay, today on Writers Monday on the blog, I’d like to point out one of my biggest pet peeves; I call it “Our Hero’s Boring Hurdle.” In essence, it’s when a television (or movie) character has an arbitrary, predictable or annoying problem that keeps him or her from doing what we came to see them do.
When you step back from storytelling, it’s been oft defined as this: you get your guy up into a tree, you throw things at him when he’s in the tree, and then you get him out of the tree. Basic stuff, our hero’s journey from Point A to Point B and how they (and others) change during the voyage.
Problem is, television is like Scheherazade – you have to tell a fantastic story with a cliffhanger every time or else the king kills you. In skilled hands, or rather in a multitude of skilled hands, this is possible for a number of seasons – but even the best shows occasionally get complacent (or exhausted) and simply offer up a challenge to your hero that is merely an annoyance to be endured rather than a twist that enlightens.
Again, I’m going to reference my beloved “Glee”, since it’s a show that has enough surprises and reversals to know better. The character of Will Schuester’s wife, the one who is currently faking her pregnancy, is almost unbearable. If you care about the romance between Will and the guidance counselor Emma, then the wife is – at best – a screeching harpy who needs to be jettisoned. She’s merely a hurdle masquerading as plot.
In fact, during the pilot, I moaned “how long are we going to have to put up with this woman?” Anyone who watches the show knows it’s just a matter of time before the pregnancy canard is exposed, and she has no other redeeming qualities, so why are they waiting so long to send her away?
The answer is obvious: you need to keep the romantic leads apart as long as possible, but there are far more interesting ways to keep star-crossed lovers from ever achieving full satisfaction. “Lost” is not perfect, but they’ve done a pretty good job keeping Jack, Kate, Sawyer and Juliette tantalizingly close – but always a fingertip too far – from real happiness.
Look at the shows commonly thought to be brilliant – your “Sopranos”, your “Mad Men”, “The Wire”… hell, even go with the first season of “Prison Break”. Notice how their characters are presented with challenges that manage to say something bigger about who they are, and what the theme of the show is about. A monstrous enemy morphs into the last person you’d ever thought would save your life. What starts as a throwaway plot point becomes the key to the season.
I want my challenges to be delicious. I want to slay the monster with advice my last enemy gave me. I never want to wait for someone to disappear so the real show can start. As they say in Sweden, don’t bore us, get to the chorus!