Warning: No spoilers exactly but spoilers are hinted at.
As I write this, I’m watching Bates Motel on Netflix. This season is undoubtedly the best of the series. Here’s why I think it stands out and what we might take from it for our own storytelling:
- There came a point where a lesser storyteller would have made Norman’s psychologist do a dumb thing. The writers didn’t take that easy turn. Instead, they made him sharp and consistently observant. I hate it when plots only work because a character is suddenly an idiot.
- Consistent menace. The writers had me vaguely worried even during an innocent game of croquet. That game has mallets and the scene contained a possibly dangerous conversation.
- The end of each episode is addictive, even when it’s not a cliffhanger per se. If this were a book, I’d keep reading. I’m still watching. This book would be a page turner.
- Complex characters. People are neither all good nor all bad, like real people. Would-be killers sometimes show mercy. (Chick is a fantastic character who reminded me how much I love complex villains. There aren’t enough of those in fiction.)
- Believable detail: Freddie Highmore delivers an amazing performance. More than that, the production really sells the authenticity of his incarceration, even down to the legal nitty gritty of getting out of an asylum (without boring us).
- Complexity of plot. The plot unwinds as the pressure slowly builds. Foreshadowing is hinted at here and there. Something terrible is going to happen. Even when nothing appears to be happening, the subtext is rich.
- Emotional depth. The plot is good (and by that I mean it matters) because it develops from rich characters. You don’t have to empathize with every character to find each one compelling.
- Stakes. There are innocent people (or fairly innocent people trying their best) who will meet bad ends, no doubt. What makes it work is that the secondary characters are about to get knocked off their planned trajectories. No red shirt knows he is a red shirt. He’s got plans for a long happy life until the phaser is set to kill.
- Mystery. Confident authors don’t spill their guts all at once. For instance, someone goes missing without explanation of where they went. The payoff is coming. If there is enough going on, readers will wait. (They won’t wait if we don’t give them enough to chew on, of course.)
- Every character wants something that conflicts with others’ aims. Not just heroes versus villains, either. People we love can stand in our way for their own good reasons, too.
I have the same feeling about this season of Bates Motel as I do with a good book. I must keep going to find out where all this will lead. I think I’ll be sorry when it’s over. Compelling entertainment is not ubiquitous.
~ I am Robert Chazz Chute. I write books about AI, zombies, cool anti-heroes and strange apocalyptic scenaria. I make podcasts about how we can calm the hell down. See what I mean at my author page (and pick up a freebie) at AllThatChazz.com.