Typical, last time out in this column I do a round up of the US shows I am following at the moment and I forget two of the best ones - Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dexter.
Not everyone is a fan of T:SCC and I guess I can understand why. It's high octane, hokus pocus nonsense, so if that's not your bag, this isn't the show for you. But in terms of how to do a mini movie every week, with all the production values that entails, sustaining the franchise built up by two fantastic movies (let's not talk about the 3rd) this is an extremely successful show. So successful in fact that I do wonder where the impending Terminator:Salvation is going to fit into the equation. (Especially as by the looks of the trailers they have ripped off the Battlestar Galatica concept of sleeper cylon like terminators who don't know they are machines. But oh well.) Now, it's unlikely any of us are going to get the chance to head up a TV spin off of a successful movie franchise any time soon! But there is still so much to learn from looking at T:SCC. I love watching Cameron's quirks as she learns more about humans and becoming human. It's got to be an interesting challenge as a writer to develop the character of a cyborg! But the show really comes into its own when it handles stakes and rising conflict. Almost purely plot driven, like say, 24, the stakes are always huge life and death scenarios. When you're trying to stop the apocalypse, whatchya gonna do, right? But it's not easy writing either that much action, or to make sure that every single decision, every single perceived solution to the current problem, generates a whole host of other active questions. It's pretty impressive and they do it every week.
And the sublime Dexter is currently taking this tightening of tension to new heights. I was surprised to find that I hadn't talked about this show before as it's so deliciously written. It seems like TV is raining anti-heroes these days, which is no bad thing, but it has to be remembered just how outrageous it is to have a serial killer as your protagonist, a character you are often asked to empathise with and root for. Without a doubt, it would be impossible if it didn't use voiceover to let us know what Dexter is thinking. So it's worth pointing to next time you hear that device maligned. But at the moment, as the net closes in on Dexter, it is the increasing stakes that keeps us coming back for each new episode. And every time Dexter solves a problem, it creates a new one. Wash his boat clean, it gets caught on CCTV. Get rid of Doakes, he is more dangerous than ever. We left him last week having overpowered Doakes (which I must confess I found a bit of a stretch, knowing that Doakes is ex-Special Forces and a trained assassin!) but now goodness knows what he's going to do with him and get out of this jam!
I've been working on an outline for a new project these last couple of weeks. I hate writing outlines at the best of times, mainly cos I am rubbish at it, but this has been harder still. It's the first time I've tried to write a story when I didn't have a clear beginning, middle or end in my head before hand. In the past I usually at least knew where I wanted to get to. That might, and more often than not, changed, but at least it was there at the beginning as a signpost. Not this time though. All I had was a concept, theme and some characters. So I've been feeling my way, literally making the story up as I go along! And every time I've got in trouble, I think about how do I raise the stakes for the next bit? How does what I have just written create more problems for my central characters? T:SCC and Dexter are great examples of how this can drive a plot, and it helped me power through a first draft! Which of course was completely rubbish. But my goodness, it's so much better having that down on paper, to have something to tear apart and rewrite, to now have an idea of what works, what's interesting, and what's useless. And for the rewrite my philosophy will be the same - if in doubt, crank up the tension.