The first time I watched an episode of “Criminal Minds”, I watched it with my parents. I caught the last ten minutes or so, just enough time to see the very end of the case, and then the denouement. A man in a suit walked into the bullpen carrying an envelope, and I shouted “Divorce papers!”
“Did you read spoilers on the internet?” my mother asked, once Hotch had been served. (She may not have used the word “spoilers”.)
“No,” I said. “Suit and an envelope. What more do you need?”
I joke a lot that I learned everything I need to know from Star Trek. It’s not entirely true, mostly because Star Trek is really not good at romance, but there are Rules when it comes to TV, and Star Trek is really good at those. The first alien is ALWAYS lying. Never trust a girl/guy/etc who kisses on first contact. Your first made up science-solution is probably not going to work, but it will mess up in such a way as to make your second attempt successful.
You can do anything in Star Trek, as long as it takes you six acts to do it. There are some episodes that pull this off better than others. There are also some that require use of the Idiot Ball. Learning to avoid that is one of the most important things a writer can learn, and over the years I’ve developed an arsenal of tricks to move the story forward. Most of these tricks I’ve seen in other stories, but I don’t think that negates their usefulness.
Let’s look at something famous and recognizable: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The entire plot of that book hangs on Harry having to figure it all out based on the hints Dobby gives him. All Harry knows is that this wacky House Elf doesn’t want him to go back to Hogwarts. If Dobby was just being obtuse, it would be kind of dumb. Instead, though, Dobby’s entire character goes into the reason he can’t just tell Harry “Oh, and by the way, THE MALFOYS ARE TRYING TO KILL YOU.” (spoilers!), to the point that when he finally can give Harry just that tiny hint, it’s a BIG MOMENT.
It requires a bit more handwaving in, say, Lord of the Rings, where several of the major plot problems could have been solved by various characters LOOKING OUT A WINDOW*. That narrative has other strengths, but one of the things I often find frustrating with Epic Fantasy is that it always, always plays the long game, and sometimes I just want closure and comeuppance.**
Anyway, the Rules of Star Trek are all well and good if you are writing a fairly linear story, with good guys and bad guys. I do like that kind of story quite a bit. The stories I absolutely LOVE on the other hand, are the stories that tell me what happens at the end, and then work backwards to fill in the blanks. Since Memento made it famous, other movies, shows and books have jumped on board. Many TV shows do this with one or two episodes at a time, and it’s becoming more common with books, but the show that really made it a big deal was How I Met Your Mother.
It was a bold choice. One of the very first things we find out is that Robin isnot the mother, and then we STILL spend a goodly amount of time watching her relationship with Ted. There are entire episodes of the show where I forget what the actual plot arc is, because I get invested in the day to day details. It does get bogged down in places, and it’s not perfect, but as an idea it is quite a bit of fun.
Leaving aside the actual story, how Ted met the woman he married, we have the storytelling mechanism, Ted talking to his kids. This is my favourite part. Saget!Ted forgets things. He misremembers. He tells out of order. He edits for content (the “bagpipes” and the smoking episodes are two of my favourites). He mentions details and comes back to them seasons later. This is exactly how you tell a story, and even though the show is sometimes too awkward or raunchy for me to watch, I always come back and try again, because of the structure.
Whether it’s linear or nonlinear, the idea of story construction remains the same. I have to be able to believe it, but it can’t be oversold. I’m reasonably sure this is one of those things you have to learn by doing, but I also know that I learned to do it through a series of accidents that worked out. The most important lesson, I think, is to not be afraid of giving your characters, major and minor, details. It might never show up in the story itself, but it will give you, as the writer, something to hang on to.
The other key is experimentation. If the beginning isn’t working, write the ending. If the ending isn’t working, write the middle. Make them go for a walk. Give them a hobby. Have them kiss that first alien. Tell the story in whatever order you want, and then make it work for your readers. A well placed hook has worth beyond measure, and can be as simple as “And that’s the story of how I met your Aunt Robin.”
I’ve never understood how people watch TV with their brains off. There is so much going on, and so many details on which to focus. I do not read spoilers (usually), but I am pretty good at calling the ending. It’s a fine balance, between being logical and being predictable, but if you make it, your story will be that much better.
“Did you read spoilers on the internet?” my mother asked. I told her it was the suit and the envelope, and it was, but it was also the fact that if I was writing the story that’s how I would do it. It’s a matter of finding the style that works for you, and then working on it until it works for your readers. Best of luck.
*Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but there really is no excuse for Thranduil not knowing what’s going on with the Necromancer! They practically share an apartment!
**This is probably why I’ll never read Game of Thrones. Also, I accidentally spoiled myself for The Red Wedding, and now I’m just sad.