Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)
I’ve had the good fortune to watch and read a streak of really excellent stories lately and, like any writer worth the ink spilled on their fingers, I’ve been tabulating the elements that make them work so well and cataloging them in my ‘How-Do-I-Insert-This-Technique-Into-My-Own-Writing? file.
This month I am all over Riverdale; the Archie gang rebooted into something a whole lot less sanitized and a whole lot more edgy than the comics ever were. The Riverdale writers employ some superb techniques in this trippy new series. Here’s a quick laundry list of devices to steal—er—admire from the episodes that have aired so far:
1. A Love Triangle Redux
Any of us who write romance are well acquainted with this romantic staple, but Riverdale does it a little different. While neither Betty nor Veronica would toss Archie out for eating crackers, what’s refreshing is that they are both more taken with each other (as friends) than they are with him. And not in an ‘I’m your bestie, so I am obligated to choose you over the dude’ way either; these two genuinely put friendship ahead of the guy and that’s so…empowering, to see young women do that. It’s feminism in the most understated way possible. The unexpected, in the face of what’s become formulaic, holds our attention in a different—and bold—sort of way.
2. Tropes With A Twist
Familiar characters with unfamiliar flaws. Like a wholesome Archie…who can’t keep his pants on around his (outwardly) prudish teacher Miss Grundy. Or quirky Jughead…whose kink isn’t only an obsession with hamburgers. The guy’s a true-crime aficionado. Spoiled, rich Veronica…whose loneliness far outweighs her wallet. Even perfect Betty spurts out the word ‘bitch’ when it needs to be said, and isn’t averse to a steamy li’l girl-on-girl lip lock during cheerleading tryouts. Take home lesson: try twists that don’t totally derail your character’s personality, but instead create internal conflict for him/her and, for the reader, generate a ‘Whoa! I didn’t expect that from him—but can see why he would say/do/feel that’ reaction.
3. Variety Is The Spice of Life
Diversity abounds in Riverdale. Kevin Keller, the series’ first openly gay character, has appeared in the comics themselves, so isn’t new per se—but Moose Mason’s bisexuality certainly is, a layer added within the TV adaption that lends complexity to an otherwise arguably cardboard character. Cultures and gender roles add layers too: consider Veronica’s Latina ethnicity. Reggie’s Eurasian descent. A black principal Weatherbee. Single dad Fred Andrews, trying to raise a son while making ends meet. Alice Cooper—not a villain, but rather a villainess who has the potential to be far more dastardly than any dude could ever be (unless Hiram Lodge makes an appearance. Oh PLEASE let Hiram Lodge make an appearance. And let said appearance see him portrayed by none-other than my love Donald Sutherland). Don’t get suckered into believing that diversity in your literature is some sort of obligatory effort at being politically correct. Real life is neither vanilla nor chocolate, and different is interesting. Different is learning. Different is authentic, and different is what keeps readers and watchers engaged—because human beings truly do want to know and understand one another.
4. Exponential Ick Factor
Riverdale has enough ick to swim in (you’re gonna wanna shower after that…). When a character executes their role in a way that’s polar opposite to the societal trust and expectations of that role, it is an obscenity. Yet it is also riveting. Like a school marm who is a femme fatale beneath those Buddy Holly glasses—and, to make matters worse, Miss Grundy bats her baby blues as if she, not her underage sex partner, is the victim. Wait…what? Then there’s Mommie Dearest Alice Cooper who makes her kid gobble a prescription for Adderall…which may be to cure Betty’s dysfunctions, or may actually be causing the dysfunctions (and that doesn’t even touch on Polly, kid Alice has locked up in a group home. If Polly truly is in a group home). The Grand Marshal duo of all ick, though, is clearly Cheryl and Jason Blossom who romantically hold hands as they climb into a canoe on what appears to be a date. Lovely, except…they’re siblings. Twins, to be precise. Pass the barf bag. But keep watching, because abominations hot glue-gun us to our chairs and we cannot look away.
Anyone who follows my articles knows I love atmosphere—creating it, and being immersed in it. Riverdale has no shortage of ambiance, yet again manages it just a little…differently. We’re clearly rooted in the present—there’s texting, tweeting, and hashtags—yet there are also enough vintage and retro props and costumes to have us feeling a bit like we’re in a dream sequence where reality and fantasy are blurry, past and present lie on top of each other like transparencies, and we’re never quite sure which world our foot is in. Uncertainty, and certainly unreliability, of mood keeps tension jacked as we can never be certain what it is about the setting we can’t trust, only that there’s something. I love it.
Now you’re up! Is there an element about Riverdale’s excellent writing I’ve missed? Or—(gasp!)—is there something about it that is a miss for you? Share and discuss away!
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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About No Vacancy
When therapist Lucas Stephen’s sister returns from a legendary Los Angeles hotel, she’s a shell of the artist she once was. Nearly catatonic, deteriorating rapidly, Michelle alarms Lucas by painting the same old-style straight razor over and over.
Heartbroken and frightened, Lucas resolves to find out what happened to her. With his beautiful—and psychic—colleague Della, Lucas travels to L.A., booking a room in the hotel Michelle stayed at.
They barely cross the threshold when Della senses evil. She sees bodies falling out of the sky. Broken dreams. Imprisoned nightmares. She begs Lucas to leave, but the hotel makes both time and truth shift, and when Lucas looks into the mirror in his sister’s room, he sees the straight razor—and is drawn to the bright, scarlet stain of fresh blood…