Friday, March 04, 2011


A few months back, I mentioned having somewhat obsessively been watching episodes of an old favorite TV show. It’s a damned good show, and it’s held up pretty well over the years, too. Historicals have a way of doing that, since they avoid getting dated by wardrobe and hairstyle the way contemporary shows do.

Anyway, my husband gave me a hard time for gushing like a teenager, and I can sort of see his point, but the truth is, I’ve actually learned a few things I can apply to my own writing from watching those old episodes. And I’m not just talking about the idea I have for a wild west mystery that I hope to be able to write one of these years.

When the idea for what ended up being The Young Riders was first conceived back in the 1970s, it was focused on the character called The Kid. (No, he never did have another name. It became a running joke, all the way up until the wedding in the series finale.) In early 1989, when the pilot was filmed, the series still had that focus, and was supposed to be called simply The Kid.

But in picking up the series, the network decided that it should be about all the characters, not just one. The title of the show changed to The Young Riders and episode 2, which is called Gunfighter, was about another young man. And let me take a break here to say that in any group, real or imagined—be it the cast of a television show, the characters in a book, a bunch of kids on the playground, or coworkers in an office—someone’s gonna emerge as the natural focal point. It may take time, but it always happens. And it isn’t always who you think it is.

And that's my first point. If you write in first person, sure, your protagonist is your POV character. But if you're writing in third person, keep in mind that any one of them could chose to rise up and take over at any moment.

(Although in the case of The Young Riders, let me just express my incredulousness for one measly second and say that how the hell the producers expected to use Wild Bill Hickok as one of the characters and not have him take over, is beyond me. The man's a legend. He probably dominated any assembly he found himself in in real life, too.)

So: as writers, let’s not presume to think we know how things are going to turn out when we first start writing our stories. Let’s please keep an open mind as to how the story will develop, and which of our characters will turn out to be more important and which less, because too much of the time, holding on tightly to our own ideas of what’s going to happen can prevent us from seeing a much better storyline opening up ahead.

Everyone in the world, or at least in America, has heard of Wild Bill Hickok. He was a real person with a real history, one that many people are familiar with. And there were only so many changes the producers of The Young Riders could make to his character. They made him younger than he would have been in 1861, they gave him a job with the Pony Express that he never had, and they gave him a difficult family history. The Young Riders’ Jimmy Hickok can’t read, while James Butler Hickok was actually pretty well educated.

But there were things they couldn't do, and history they couldn't change. For example: Already in the first episode, the writers set up a romantic relationship between The Kid—who was supposed to be the main character, remember?—and the only girl in the bunch, who was pretending to be a boy in order to keep her job. That relationship hit a snag in season 2. However, another of the boys had noticed the same girl, and we got a little bit of a romantic love triangle going. I’ll give you three guesses as to which boy it was, and I won’t hold my breath while you guess.

Jimmy and Lou—that was her name—had a hell of a lot more chemistry than Lou and The Kid ever did, and would probably have been very happy together, but this was where those inconvenient historical facts cropped up again. The real James Butler Hickok didn’t get married in 1861, nor was there any way that anyone would believe that the character as he was played would have left the girl he loved to scout for the Union army. Yet that was what Wild Bill did during the Civil War. It’s a historical fact. It happened. So what had seemed to have such potential on screen ended up fizzling out into nothing.

Now, I know that most of us don’t write about historical characters with real histories we have to work around, but the same issues can come up in our books, if we give out too much information too soon. Some of us plan out everything about our characters before we even sit down to write, and if we put too much of that backstory into our books before we have to, we’ve hamstrung our characters. On the other hand, some of us write by the seat of our pants, and just give our characters a background, any background, without much thought to the future. Either way, we end up with problems. Sometimes, something wonderful might develop in book 3 of a series. But if we’ve already established in book 1 that the character came from elsewhere, the background was different, he/she doesn’t have any cousins, is the wrong age, can’t read... we’ve taken away the opportunity to benefit from whatever wonderful thing it is.

So that’s my bit of wisdom for the day. I’m off to watch some reruns of Firefly now. Research, you know. For that science fiction romance I might write one day.

And if you have any golden nuggets of knowledge gleaned from TV or movies, feel free to share with the rest of the class!


Joyce Tremel said...

Good advice!

My stories never turn out the way I think they will when I start writing. The killer is never who it's supposed to me. Characters get killed who weren't supposed to. Friends show up who I hadn't even known about. I've given up on outlines. All they did was hold me back because I resisted changing anything.

Gina said...

Jennie -

I've gained many nuggets of wisdom from tv and movies. For example:

From the old (black and white series) Perry Mason, I learned that an interesting story can work, even if the characters are stereotypes and the ending is predictable.

From The Sixth Sense, I learned that the most improbable plot twists can work, as long as you play fair with the audience/reader. I admit, I had to watch that movie more than once before I was convinced that the psychologist hadn't been talking with the kid's mother or other characters.

From every tv show and movie I've ever liked, I learned that you need a satisfying ending - even if it isn't happy, even if it doesn't resolve everything, the ending has to satisfy.

C.L. Phillips said...

From the series Serenity, I learned that the values of the Wild West, even the tools, are not limited to our past. And that idea has subsequently taken on a life of its own...

Thanks for the thought provoking post! And Happy Weekend to all.

Misa said...

I'm a big fan of learning from TV (of course maybe that's just rationalization for wanting to watch the Winchester boys, Dexter, et al).

Love this post and your thoughts on being open to accepting our stories however they unfold.

And yipee! Now I will have another show to search for on my watch now Netflix.

Jennie Bentley said...

I've had a few like that too, Joyce! In A Cutthroat Business, for instance, I didn't know the murderer until I was halfway through.

Gina, good points. On the reverse, a semi-boring story with a predictable ending can also work, if the characters are compelling enough.

C.L. - sounds interesting. You working on something Firefly-like too? Happy Weekend to you too!

Misa, the fact that I was young at the time, and the show has/had an overabundance of testosterone, may have had something to do with my enjoyment. Lots of eye-candy! But it's also a lot of fun, and the writing's pretty good at points. Some of the acting isn't bad, either.

Patg said...

Let's face it, if TV teaches us anything it is definitely that there are few original ideas just original variations on a theme.
I loved Firefly/Serenity. I enjoy rewatching it and I'm not into anything Wild West or Cowboy.
Oh yes, Gina, The Sixth Sense was a wonderful learning lesson. No matter how many times you rewatch that one, you see something new.
I never watched Young Riders, Jennie, but if your comments about the 'rewriting' of history is just another example of the attitude that we are all illiterate out here in TV land.
Oh well.
My word verification is 'winga' that's a female Wingie. My publisher is Wings.

Jennie Bentley said...

I didn't see Firefly when it was on, but I've been watching it recently. It's fun, and certainly enjoyable enough, although I don't think I quite understand why so many people are so crazy about it. I very rarely watch TV, to be honest. Usually I limit myself to episodes of Criminal Minds. But if you like Firefly, Pat, you might just want to check out The Young Riders. There's a little bit of that same attitude in it. Plus the horses and guns. But no space ships.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Firefly! An awesome series that I can't believe didn't make it past one season. Or was it two? What a cool meld of wild west & sicence fiction with a Chinese mix tossed in.

Nathan Fillion is good in the series and the characters were captivating.

Mei Mei, I hope you like it. Mei Mei is Chinese for "Little Sister."

Jennie Bentley said...

It didn't even make it through the first season, Freddy. The last few episodes weren't aired, which may be why the DVDs sold like hotcakes when they were released. People wanted to see the episodes they'd been cheated of.

Interesting concept anyway, with the US and China being the two superpowers that influenced the worlds of Firefly. Makes perfect sense, if you think about it.

So did you understand the Chinese parts, then? And if I'm mei mei, does that make you ge ge?

Annette said...

I love all Westerns. My absolute favorite was Alias Smith and Jones, but Young Riders was a good one, too. Cute cowboys. How can you go wrong? And I did recently added Young Riders to my Netflix queue.

Good writing advice, too, Jennie.

Happy trails, y'all.

Jennie Bentley said...

The boys were cute, weren't they? ;-) I never saw Alias Smith and Jones, to my knowledge, but I think I remember my parents watching. Same with Gunsmoke. Before my time. And I've honestly never been a big fan of westerns in general, I just happen to really like The Young Riders.

Patg said...

I hated Gunsmoke, my dad had to watch it all the time. The only good thing about James Arness is that he played the original THING.
I saw the whole first season of Firefly, I own the DVDs and a copy of the movie Serenity.
Yes, it is cowboyish because it deals with dumping settlers on all kinds of worlds, but the main point comes over and above that. It is about the control of populations to keep them docile can backfire in the most hideous ways.
Yes, Jennie, most of the first season wasn't shown, that is why the set sold so quickly. Try watching the movie, it is really good, and if you don't understand Summer Glau's character, I'll give you a rundown.
So, who watches all the Stargate Shows?

Annette said...

Thanks for making me feel old, Jennie. ;-)

FYI, Alias Smith and Jones can still be seen on

Or on DVD, which I have the complete set.

Jennie Bentley said...

I haven't seen the Serenity movie, Pat, but it's in the queue. I just have to find the time. Deep in revisions at the moment.

Actually, Annette, you're just a few years older than I am. Alias Smith and Jones was definitely during my time - early seventies - although I was too young to watch. If it's that good, maybe I'll check it out. I remember Charlie's Angels, but not a whole lot of American TV before that. Except for Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and Flipper the dolphin. But you may not have had those here.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Ge ge or shong di works for me.