The TV Writer on TV Writing
by Larry Brody
Once you the writer have given us, the audience, characters with whom we can sympathize, your next job is to give these new people some “tsuris,” which is Yiddish for “Trouble with a Capital T.”
As Aristotle pointed out a couple of years ago, effective writing comes from building up to a climax, which means that once you’ve established the basic situation for your character – the need the character has that must be fulfilled, or the problem she, he, or they must solve – you’ve only brought yourself to the starting point. Often, that point is one relatively small but nevertheless unmanageable stress. Let me repeat that – “relatively small” yet most definitely “unmanageable.”
This is not going to be a permanent situation for your hero or heroes, not by a long shot. Because even then, right at the get-go, while the hero starts working like a house afire to dig out of the crisis at hand, your job is to ratchet up the pressure and make things even tougher.
That’s right, for your story to be effective, you need to turn more screws. To pile more and more and then even more crap on the heads of the characters we care about. It’s not bad enough that the daughter of the lead has been kidnapped, no sir. His wife or her husband or significant other has to leave as well.
And then, just as the characters and the audience are starting to get a grip on dealing with that – son of a bitch if the hero’s dog doesn’t get run over. Followed by said hero’s boss letting the whole world know that if the hero doesn’t make it to the next PTA meeting and bring the cookies he, she, or they are F-I-R-E-D – fired!
When you get to this point, you’re now talking real stress, the kind that even Xanax can’t handle. Give your character(s) the right set of troubles and the audience will feel for even the most immoral, unethical, should-be-unlikable lead. Take BREAKING BAD. Let’s face it. As the show evolves, Walter White becomes a flaming asshole, a genuine menace to society – but life gets so tough for him that even the most anti-drug viewers came back week after week to root for him.
As writers we’re always playing God. Do as He does: Make your most important characters suffer like unto Job.