Wednesday, September 23

Picking a Piece Apart & Plucking The Gems: Thoughts On The Killing—The Techniques That Make It Sensational (And How To Steal Them, Of Course!)

By Bonnie Randall 

Special Guest Author

I think all of us writers read books and watch films with a critical yet deeply appreciative eye. What makes some of the blockbusters work so well? What sorts of techniques have the writers utilized that have deepened the atmosphere, given it a bigger feel, or underscored the theme in ways that live with us long after the credits roll?

I am a passionate fan of the Netflix sensation The Killing, and every episode blows me away by how exceptionally it is executed. From this series, I have plucked the following techniques which I believe contribute to its powerful construction. Each one of these methods can, happily, be replicated in our own writing. Here goes (with a good ol’ college try at avoiding spoilers):

1. Names With Implicit Meanings

Hear that a teen is named ‘Rosie’ and one immediately thinks of glowing cheeks and beauty and optimism—‘Everything is coming up roses’. Then there’s Seward. As we watch his arc unfold we saw that he was, certainly, ‘sewered’. ‘Skinner’—Skinner is a long-held slang term for a kiddie diddler or killer in the prison system. No surprise that this character appears in Season 3, which focuses on the serial murders of dozens of female street youth. Then there’s Holder himself, the emotional nerve-center of the show, Stephen Holder is, quite literally, the ‘holder’ of the hope, the compassion, the optimism, and occasionally he is also the holder of Linden when she falls apart.

Exercise: Do the names you’ve chose for your piece of fiction have implicit meanings? Should they?

2. Use of Weather

I won’t expound too much on this, as I have written an entire article on incorporating seasons and weather already, but I will say that The Killing is an excellent example of how this technique works; every episode either starts, ends, or stays in a downpour, and what is rain? Rain is a reminder that we are in a bleak, dismal place both literally and figuratively in The Killing. Rain is a symbol of tears, and embodiment of sorrow. It is also, in a broader sense, a symbol of the deluge of clues, red herrings, and dysfunction that muddy the waters of Linden and Holder’s investigations.

Exercise: Try a scene where inclement weather can represent the mood beneath the occurring action.

3. Repetition of Theme

In Season 3 the theme is all about being wrong. Linden is perpetually wrong. Wrong about little, incidental things. Wrong about the big, life-altering things. Her judgments are wrong, her timing is wrong, her love life is wrong and her conclusions are wrong. She is wrong and that’s her emotional arc in this season—and while in a normal piece of fiction this may turn the writer off (‘Can’t she ever be right?!’) we never lose pace with Linden. Why? Because the writers also make sure she is so earnest, so tenacious, so tireless, so just, and also because she works so hard. We keep rooting for Sarah Linden even though she’s wrong. Now that’s exceptional writing and phenomenal character development.

Exercise: Make your theme appear in small, incidental ways within your project. Make it also appear in large, can’t-miss-it ways in your project. Ask your crit partners to remark on it specifically to see what to keep / what to cut.

4. The Power of Flawed Characters

Linden and Holder are grit-lit cops; they couldn’t put together a pressed-perfect uniform between them if they tried. (In fact, I think Holder’s cut the sleeves off of his). These two look nothing like clichéd cops and everything like deeply troubled human beings. She’s a former foster kid who ran away from more homes than she stayed in. She is a single mom who acquiesced her son to his Dad—and now Holder talks to Jack more often than she does. She is an obsessive workaholic and a chain smoker. She’s been institutionalized as a result of a breakdown she’s never really healed from. She is a mess—and we don’t necessarily love her, we don’t even always respect her—but we’re sure as heck compelled by her. Now that’s fantastic writing.

Exercise: Consider your character’s backstory and the traumas he or she has endured. What sorts of impact have these experiences left behind? Is there addiction now? Trust issues? Inability to commit? Is it emotionally safer (like Linden) to stay at work versus home? Make your characters’ traumas serve your story.

5. The Power of Detail

Setting details are a little easier to execute on film than in writing because when viewing film, our eye is struck with these images again and again. But we writers have a couple more tools with our pen and paper that directors don’t have (we can refer to smell and taste where on film this cannot happen, for example). We can also plant powerful visual descriptions that stay consistent with the theme, geography, and population our pieces are telling, placed in, and about respectively. In The Killing’s third season, all about street youth, we’re in flop houses with bare mattresses oozing stuffing. In trailer parks and inside circa 1970's mobile homes (which also saw their last deep cleaning in the ‘70s. Yech). The characters wear dirty clothes (including Holder and Linden). There are late-night greasy spoons with vinyl booths and grubby floors. We are, in short, immersed in inner-city Seattle (or inner city anywhere) and we are rubbing shoulders with the population who live there. It’s uncomfortable and icky—just as it should be, and owing to the excellently, and accurately tricked-out set.

Exercise: Imbed the most vivid setting details possible into your piece (and you get to also use smell and taste!) in order to paint a ruthless picture of the place where your story is set.

Five observations, five exercises, and a challenge to each of you to hone in on the show (or shows) which hook you the way The Killing hooks me. Analyze what makes them work so well—then perhaps share your observations and accompanying exercises for us to all try!

Yes. You read that correctly. You just got wounded doing something few people are courageous enough to do. So like the skier who broke a leg trying the Black Diamond run, or the vocalist who got his heart ripped out by Simon Cowell after being brave enough to audition for American Idol, you now have a scar you can talk about, a scar you’ve earned through hard work, learning, discipline, perseverance, passion and love. You’re a writer—and should be damn proud of it.

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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  1. What a great article! I loved The Killing and I love the idea of picking apart films and TV shows that we are hooked on in order to improve our story-telling. Thanks so much for this!

    1. Thanks, Fiona - and glad to meet another Killing aficionado!

  2. I don't watch The Killing but I love picking apart tv shows and films. I think novel writers can learn a lot from the great writing in tv. Some great writing - it's not all good!!

  3. I watched the first season. It was the details that turned me off. I live in Seattle and the series is filmed in Vancouver, Canada. Unfortunately for me, I can tell the difference. By the way, this is the fault of Seattle politicians who make filming in Seattle impossible. The series might have worked for me, if it were set in Vancouver.

    1. I can totally see why someone familiar with Seattle would find it being replaced by Vancouver to be very distracting. Being very familiar with Vancouver myself, I do concur; it is very recognizable in the series

  4. This is weird, I was just talking about The Killing with another writer on Twitter--except we were talking about the Danish version, which is the only one I've seen. I loved it, more than any other TV series. I think it's similar, in that the details really are the key. (By the way, this post keeps jumping down to the bottom of the page--something not right!) I also liked the atmosphere, but in this case, it was the dark Danish nights rather than the seasons. And Sophie Grobel's acting is just superb: I do this impression of her where she walks into a room and just looks around, and then her gaze stops, and you know she's seen something important, but you don't know what it is! Anyway, I will have to watch the US version one of these days! (And figure out what's going on with this post...I can't type anything without the darn thing jumping to the bottom of the page where a video of moldy bread is playing!)

    1. I haven't watched the Danish version yet myself so that would be interesting, to swap 'em and see what's similar vs what's different