Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What "Scandal" Can Teach Us About Plotting and Tension

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The first season of the TV show Scandal has some of the best plotting and tension I've ever seen. It's just seven episodes long, so it unfolds more like a long movie than a series. It's worth watching even if you don't watch another episode after that (though honestly, it's hard not to).

When I first heard about this show I thought, "cheesy political melodrama." It didn't look like the type of show I'd enjoy, but the hubby and I tend to give everything a shot (gotta love DVRs) and we've been pleasantly surprised by shows before. This was one of those shows.

Scandal centers around Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a political fixer who ran the President's election campaign and is now helping others fix their problems (usually scandals, hence the name). She and her staff call themselves Gladiators, and typically fight for "the good guys," or at least helping those who haven't done what they're being accused of. But in the political realm of Washington DC, it's often hard to know who the good guys actually are.

The first season's main story arc focuses on a woman claiming to be the President's mistress, and the White House comes to Olivia for help fixing the ensuing scandal. This is tough for Olivia because A) She doesn't want to work for the White House anymore and B) She had an affair with President Grant during the campaign and they are the loves of each others' lives. She doesn't believe he had the affair and takes the case to prove that.

It's not long before the story twists and turns and dives. You never know where it's going or what's going to happen next and you're glued to the screen to find out. The tension is fabulous and the pacing fantastic. You're dying to know what happens next or find out what's really going on--and that's the beauty of this show. This is the element worth capturing for you own novel.

Here are a few of the things Scandal does so well:

1. Everyone has secrets

Every character has a past and things to hide. Some are small secrets, more embarrassing than dangerous, while others have secrets that could bring down regimes. It's also a deep pool to draw from when plotting, because at any time those secrets can come into play and send the story in an entirely new direction.

How you can use this: Characters with things to hide will act in ways to keep those secrets hidden. These characters can be obstacles to your protagonist's goal without actually being a villain, because it's not about the protagonist--it's about keeping their secret. Sure, the best friend wants to help the hero save his mother, but that requires revealing that he spent six years working as muscle for the local drug dealer. He'd be ruined if anyone found out, so he doesn't share his contacts or admit that he recognizes the man in the photo connected to Mom's kidnapping.

Secrets don't need to be this dangerous to be effective though. Avoiding things that skirt too close to something embarrassing about can also cause trouble if it distracts the protagonist and works as a red herring. Why is Jane lying? Is she in on the evil plan? What is she avoiding?

Try giving every character a secret and asking how and when that secret might affect the protagonist's goals. You don't have to use everything you come up with, but you'll probably find a few ways to deepen the plot or add an unexpected twist.

(Here's more on keeping secrets)

2. Answers just lead to more questions

Scandal's pacing of reveals is beautifully done. You get an answer, and it's great, but it leads to more questions and you're dying to know the next piece of the puzzle. Every bit of information is rationed out so there's always something you need to know. It also mixes up the size of the reveals, so sometimes they're small details you were curious about, and other times it's a major plot-changing twist.

How you can use this: This is what will keep the tension in your story high. It's all about tiny breadcrumbs leading the reader to the payoff, and if you give too much away too fast, there's nothing for them to crave. Think about how you reveal information to the reader and look for places in your novel where there's nothing to discover. How can you fill those holes in the tension?

Try spreading out the information, or adding a few more steps before the final secret is revealed. Or reveal information out of order by having characters learn a piece that isn't clear what it means until a few other pieces are discovered. Think of your story information like puzzle pieces--maybe you give readers corner pieces here and middle pieces there, and until they have enough they can't see the whole picture.

(Here's more on story questions)

3. You don't know what you think you know

This is my favorite aspect of this show. You're dying to know the truth about a character or a situation, and you uncover delicious facts and details and you think you have it all figured out. Then wham! you get one more piece of the puzzle and everything you thought you knew has changed. A character you were sure was a victim turns out to be the villain. A fact you knew was true turns out to be a lie. Characters you'd never trust turn out to be the people who can save the day.

How you can use this: Remember there's a difference between what you as the author knows and what the characters in the story know. All they have to go on is what they've learned at that point in the novel. You can trick them. Lie to them. Lead them down the wrong path. As long as everyone is acting plausibly based on the information at hand when the decision is made, readers will love it. It's only a problem when the author purposefully hides information a character would have known or figured out just to trick readers.

Just because you know the truth behind a situation doesn't mean the characters in that scene know it. Let them act how someone in that position with that information would act. If they're wrong, let them be wrong and figure that out later.

Try looking for places where your protagonist can think the wrong thing and how that might affect the plot. Where are potential places to lead readers astray? Who might not be who they claim to be? What might not be it looks like? How might you use those moments?

(Here's more on red herrings)

4. People lie

Olivia Pope has her team of investigators verify everything they learn, because they know that no one--especially powerful people in trouble--tells the whole truth. They lie, even if it's not malicious in nature. These lies cause trouble because if Olivia doesn't have the whole picture, she can't help her clients.

How you can use this: Let characters lie to hide their own shortcomings. Let them embellish, or obfuscate, or edit the truth so it shows them in the best light. Let them be people with flaws and faults like anyone else. White lies told to spare someone's feelings could turn out to be horrible mistakes that cause tremendous trouble. Big lies could be the obstacle to solving a problem. Lies can delay actions or revelations, they can influence decisions and behavior, or change the path the protagonist takes.

Why not every character has to be a liar (that would get tedious), people usually don't volunteer exactly the information someone needs when they need it.

Try looking at what characters might lie, what they'd lie about, and when they might do it. See what possible areas of conflict this can create, or how a lie told at the wrong time can send the protagonist further away from her goal.

(Here's more on manipulating the reader)

5. People work at cross purposes

Olivia frequently clashes with Cyrus Beene, the White House Chief of Staff. They both want to help the President, but she does what she thinks is best, and he does what he thinks is best. These plans often conflict or flat out contradict each other. Even when they're both trying to accomplish the same task, they can make things worse by not talking to each other.

How you can use this: Characters can be wrapped up in their own lives and problems and just not think to tell anyone what they're doing. They might have the same end goal in mind, but have different ideas on how to get there and act without sharing that information with other characters. Let sidekicks try to help and this change how the plot unfolds. Let actions by other characters affect the plans of the protagonist.

Try looking at how every character can act in a way that will make the protagonist's job harder. Where might they disagree? Where might they act without asking or considering the protagonist? You don't have to use all of the ideas, but just looking at the possible conflicts can sparks new plot ideas.

(Here's more on multiple character's and their goals)

6. Everyone has skills

Everyone on Olivia's team brings something to the table. An investigator, a lawyer, an ex-wet works assassin--useful skills that can be tapped when needed. They're good at what they do, and this can be both a benefit and a detriment, as being good at something can make you think you're invulnerable in that area.

How you can use this: Give your characters skills you can tap to create unpredictable outcomes. Even small skills can be useful and turn the tide of a problem just when it's needed. An origami flower made for a social worker who won't talk might just get her to open up. Or those years on the bomb squad could come in handy at the right time.

Trying looking at each of your characters and give them something they're really good at. Think outside the box--making people laugh is a skill same as crafting the perfect milkshake or hacking into government files.

(Here's more on fleshing out characters)

If you want a story that will grab readers and keep them guessing all the way to the end of the book, try giving Season One of Scandal a try and applying some of its techniques to your own work.

Do you watch Scandal? What are your thoughts? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Loved both this post and the link to manipulating the reader. Emotions really do rope us in!

  2. I loved the metaphor of the puzzle pieces. This is a fantastic post! My book is about a family secret that the two protagonists learn links their families. I'm going to save this post and reread it when I go back and rewrite this draft. Make sure all sorts of little clues lead up to the reveal--or get readers going down the wrong path. Thanks.

  3. I did a Scandal marathon via Netflix. "Gladiator in a suit!" The tension was taut. Plot twists whirled on the scene from left field and I loved every minute.

    You make some excellent points with your list of ways the show really worked the tension angle.

    Another show I've been told has excellent plot, pacing and tension is Breaking Bad. I think I'll have to Netflix it and check it out as well.