Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Working, Learning, Loafing...

By Annette Dashofy

…while these three seem to imply totally different things, I am attempting to rationalize that an activity which ordinarily might be considered “loafing” could also rank as “learning” and perhaps even “working.”

Or I may be following in Nancy’s shoes and just trying to avoid working on the new book.

For Christmas I received the first three seasons of HOUSE on DVD. I love HOUSE. But somehow, I frequently miss it when it’s on TV. So now I can catch up and fill in the blanks as well as re-experience my favorite episodes.

I’ve been engaged in a HOUSE marathon for the last week or so. Instead of reading, I watch an episode. I hit “play” while I’m fixing supper. Can’t sleep? Pop in another disc.

So the loafing part is pretty clear. However, I am not watching mindlessly. I’m studying the construction of each episode. I’m paying attention to things like plot twists and red herrings. Since HOUSE is based on Sherlock Holmes, I figure it’s a great tool for learning the craft of writing mysteries. Take our protagonist. He’s flawed. Seriously. Physically and emotionally. But he’s brilliant. He’s cranky, yet strangely likeable.

How can I write a character with those kinds of complexities?

And each member of the supporting cast brings out a different aspect of House’s personality (prickly though it may be). They are all flawed in their own ways, too.

Lesson: Secondary characters must be more than window dressing.

There is usually a subplot that somehow plays into solving the main mystery of each episode. And often, the episodes carry a theme. More often than not it’s some variation of “Everyone lies.”

That being the case, we must solve the mystery by looking for clues which are skillfully hidden amongst the dialogue. Or search out evidence in test results. A simple observation is made early on and is either overlooked, ignored or discounted. But it ends up being proved as the key element to diagnose the illness.

Can you tell I’m taking notes?

Often, the illness has been diagnosed halfway through the episode. Well, of course it hasn’t really. It’s an hour long show (forty-some minutes on DVD without the commercials). At mid-point, the patient takes a turn for the worst or develops a new symptom and the whole story does a U-turn.

Yes, I’m claiming my HOUSE marathon is actually Mystery Plotting 101. I’m not loafing. Really, I’m not.

Now, how to also rationalize my HOUSE fixation with work? That’s a little tougher. But since I’m currently in the plotting/planning phase of my new book, my brain virtually explodes with inspiration and ideas every time I watch a new episode. Okay, I may not be writing a medical mystery (one of the main characters is a paramedic, but that doesn’t count), but the skill in which the writers hide clues in plain sight and distract the viewer with red herrings gives me grand ideas about how to do that in my own work.

Stuck on a plot point? Oh, well, gotta go turn on the old DVD player.

Or I might just be procrastinating in a big way.

Hey, I’m almost through Season One. Two more seasons and my Mystery Plotting 101 course will be over. Then I guess I’ll HAVE to focus on things like who gets killed in Chapter One and why.


Anonymous said...

My lesson from House: if I don't like any of the characters, I'm not willing to stay with a TV series, no matter how interesting it is in other ways.

Annette said...

Apparently SOMEBODY besides me likes the show. It won a Peaople's Choice award for favorite drama last night.

Anonymous said...

Annette, good morning. I did a similar thing with LOST. Watched the entire Season 1 in 2 days - it was like living in a really long movie. I called it my Lost Weekend.

Another benefit I found from watching a series in DVD versus TV is you can see how the wider season's arc (subplot) is structured. (Lesson definitely learned).

It came home to me how important this tool was when I first started my Nantucket series - there's more character information in each novel than just that current mystery development. It's a great way to use foreshadowing in a very subtle way, and it can flesh out the characters so that they continue to develop throughout the entire length of the story line, and not just drop sudden insightful bombshells.

Nice post!

Joyce Tremel said...

Good post, Annette!

Another show that is a great teacher for writing is Law and Order (any of them, but I like SVU).

My guilty pleasure has been watching Miami Vice on DVD. I'm on season 2 now. It's about as far from realistic as you can get, but it's so entertaining. I love seeing all the 80s stuff. I have to laugh at some of the things we thought were so cool back then: the car phone as big as a shoebox, the big hair, the fashions. Sonny Crockett is still cool, though.

Annette said...

Joyce, I have frequently made the observation that you can tell the age of a TV show or movie by the size (or existance) of the cell phones. I, too, loved Miami Vice. The music was great. The fashion...well, at the time we thought it was hot. Now...???

Martha, I may have to try that with Lost. Season 1 was good, but I've got to admit, it sometimes seems to me that the writers of the later seasons were either on drugs or had no idea where they were going with the story. Maybe I just need to sit down and watch them sequentially.

Anonymous said...

LOAFING?? Annette, you're dissecting plot and character WHILE MAKING DINNER! This sounds like a terrific achievement in multi-tasking.

What I don't get is why House is considered such a great diagnostician, but he always screws things up for the first 45 minutes.

My husband and I did the Sopranos first season on a weekend--I made so much spaghetti!!--but the upshot was that our language was just awful by Sunday night.

Anonymous said...

We enjoy watching House, too. I'm usually up and about doing other things, so the DVD idea is enlightening.

This new novel--are you continuing your series or headed in a different direction?

Annette said...

Nancy, I guess if he got it right the first diagnosis, the show would only be ten minutes long. I have noticed, though, he does very little of the work. He lets his team do all the brainstorming and treatment. Then after they've nearly killed the patient, something someone says triggers his memory and suddenly he knows what's wrong. It's not a good show to watch if you have to go to the hospital any time soon.

And, Cathy, thanks so much for asking! While I have a rough outline for the third in the veterinary mystery series, this one is completely different. I'm taking the characters from my Derringer finalist short story and fleshing them out a lot. When the veterinary series sells, I'll be ready to whip out book number three. In the meantime, I'm veering away from the amateur sleuth thing for a while.