Watch and Learn

I don’t normally recommend television. As a rule, it’s filled with such stupidity that the term idiot box denotes far too much intelligence to the device. If you want to know the true meaning of the old hippie saying “Turn on, tune in, and drop out,” just watch TV. Especially one of the old broadcast networks. To paraphrase the bard, they’re a lot of sound and noise signifying nothing (it was Shakespeare who said that, wasn’t it?).

But there are a couple cable shows I’ve been catching on DVD that I have to say are well worth watching: Breaking Bad and Justified.

I’ve seen more of Justified than I have Breaking Bad because I’m at the mercy of the library. They have all of the first two seasons of Justified, but their Breaking Bad collection is spotty at best. Bits of the first two seasons are all I’ve been able to find, though they might have more. One of the librarians told me that both series stay checked out on a regular basis.

I’ll concentrate more on Justified just because I’ve seen more episodes of it, but I’d have to say that both series share one thing in common: what I guess you’d call an economy of plot. What I mean by that is that even the subplots contribute to the main plot.

Yeah, that’s what’s supposed to happen. But a lot of subplots don’t, and there’s some good reason for it. It shows that the main character (usually, anyway) has a life outside of whatever occupies him at the moment. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself. That’s the way it is in real life, at least to an extent. But what we forget in our own lives, mostly because we’re too close, is that everything that happens to us has an effect on most other things. We don’t always realize it, but it’s true. A good example of that is having a bad day at work and then bitching at your spouse and/or kids for no real good reason. What happened at work isn’t their fault, and they’d probably listen if you’d try to talk about it instead of taking it out on them. We learn to live with this kind of thing in one way or another and accept it as part of life.

But as fiction writers, we have to be very aware of these kinds of things, even learn to use them in our stories. For instance, in Justified, Raylan Givens, the main character, looks to be getting back together with his ex-wife. It looks all well and good, but then at the end of Season Two, his job—or, more properly, his work ethic—dictates that he help out a young girl whose father was killed at the beginning of the season. His ex-wife, Winona, doesn’t like that. In fact, she’s insisted that he take a job at the Marshall’s Academy or whatever it’s called (for some reason I always have trouble remembering the name of the place) training new recruits how to shoot. It’s safe, it’s out of the field, and she won’t have to worry all day long whether or not he’ll be home from work that night.

It’s reasonable, unless you subscribe to the idea that you’re supposed to accept people the way they are. I’m not going to go into all the philosophy there, but suffice it to say that, when Raylan goes to help Loretta (the young girl), Winona tells him to drop her off at work—which was where they were going in the first place—but that she might not be there for him to pick up afterwards. And you’ll have to wait till Season Three to find out what happened there. Of course, there are some other cliffhangers, but I’m using this one as an example of what I’m talking about.

Raylan and Winona getting back together isn’t part of the main plot, which deals with Raylan dealing with the criminal element in Harlan County. But his job is affecting them getting back together, so it all ties in.

This is the kind of thing we have to do as fiction writers, and it’s hard for me. I can think of all kinds of neat things to write about that show character development and interesting subplots. But I forget to tie them back into the main plot in some way. In fact, I seem to have trouble sometimes discerning when something connects and when it doesn’t. My first Pipeline novel was rejected again, and for the same reason: the first part of it just doesn’t move.

Now, to me, it does. Lyle gets involved with a couple of local dealers who are bad news and he’s trying his best to do something about them. To me, everything that I wrote has to do with that plot, but I seem to be the only one who thinks that.

The funny part is, everyone seems to think the rest of the story is good. It’s streamlined, and focuses on the main plot. And I can see what they’re talking about. My problem is that I can’t tell the difference, and I know it’s because I’m too close to the story. So, what I’ve decided to do, for a time, is get away from that book and concentrate on some of my other stuff. I want to finish Hillbilly Hunt, the third book in the series—my revision on the first one isn’t working out too well—and edit Spree, my Bonnie and Clyde type book about two guys from California who go on a crime spree that more or less follows I-10. It needs a lot cut out of it, and if I can get enough cut, I might try submitting it as my first novel. Haven’t made up my mind about that yet.

But I’ve been paying close attention to Justified to see how they do things. One of the reasons I give it so much credence is that it’s based on an Elmore Leonard story, and Mr. Leonard is an executive producer on the show. In one of the extras from Season One, one of the writers and the creator said that any time they come across a problem in the script they ask themselves what Elmore would do to solve it. And, since Elmore Leonard is known as the guy who takes out anything that sounds like a writer, that’s probably a good idea. He’s not heavy on description. In fact, he says that he tends to take out—or just not write—the parts that people don’t read. So his description is sparse. You won’t get much about trees waving in the breeze and all that. He’ll give you enough to set you in place and the rest is up to you.

So if you’re wanting to learn this economy of plot, watch either or both of these shows, because they’re both good at it. I know I’ll be paying a lot of attention to them, since it seems this is a lesson I have to keep relearning.




2 thoughts on “Watch and Learn

  1. Greg Camp

    I’m hoping that this age of digital publishing will give authors the opportunity to slow down and let stories develop again, rather than having to jump straight into wild action. Since e-books are cheap to produce, publishers ought to take more risks.

    My point here is that your Pipeline novel is a good story. I like the main character. I like the situations that he gets into. I’d buy the book and read it all the way through on the strength of the character alone. Publishers, are you listening?

    1. gilmiller Post author

      I wish they were listening to you! Lol. I can kinda see how it bogs down a little but, at the same time, my argument still stands: to me, it’s all got to do with the plot. It would be difficult setting up in that business. It’s not like walking into Walmart and applying for a job. Not at all.

      And by the way, I’m thinking of writing an ebook that is a prequel to that story and tells the details of him first gettting into the business. Learning the recipes and all that. Then I’ll give it away here on my blog as an enticement. So stay tuned.


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