When writing a long-running series, sometimes significant changes must occur to give the audience a sense of newness and the passage of time, or just to make sure things don’t get stale. There are a number of different things writers can do with a series to shake things up, and as with most decisions a writer has to make, there are pros and cons to consider for each option. It is the mark of a skilled writer to know what sort of changes work best for the story, work best with the audience, and fit best with the writer’s plans as to where to take the series in the future.
I’ve made a list of Top 10 Series Shake-Ups so you can look over them and decide what sounds best for your series at any given time. I’ve put them in order of most commonly used (by my reckoning), which is not the same thing as most recommended. Frankly, more originality might be preferable if you want to keep your audience on their toes, but consider each one and decide for yourself what best fits your ongoing story. Since I’m going into a bit of detail with each one I’ve divided this list into two posts and will finish off the list in next week’s post.
- Kill off a major character
Seeing how someone faces their own death sometimes says as much about their character as how they faced life, and can go a long way when trying to communicate certain messages to the audience. Death is the final stage of character development. Though it takes quite a bit of care to kill off your characters right. As we’ve seen from how audiences react to the deaths of characters on popular shows, there are meaningful deaths and there are frivolous deaths. If you have written your characters well, then your audience will have invested a lot in them emotionally, and you’ll lose the trust of your audience if you don’t seem like you recognize (and appreciate) the investment.
If you are writing live-action, then sometimes character deaths are forced upon you, due to an actor’s contract running out, actual real-life health issues, or public scandal. In which case your audience is probably already aware that they’ll be losing a character ahead of time, but they will be turning to you to bring some sort of meaning and perspective to that loss. One of the most common reasons to kill off a character (or bonuses, if you have to do it anyway) is to establish audience hatred for a villain, by having that villain be the one to kill the character off.
This can be coupled with other shake-ups as well, to add further meaning to the death. Killing off a leader would obviously lead to a change in leadership. Killing off the protagonist, though often the most devastating, forces a change in the focus of the narrative, and the building up of other, secondary characters as the audience searches for a new protagonist to root for.
Of course, as with most seemingly permanent changes, you can usually do a 180 on a major character death if it isn’t sitting well, but this trick tends to annoy audiences, and lowers tension moving forward. After all, if even death doesn’t mean anything in your story then what do the good guys have to fear anymore?
As I’ve said in The Storyteller’s Handbook, “A good way to balance things out is to have the character come back not quite the same. They’ve got cyborg enhancements. They’ve got some serious emotional scar. Their powers are changed. Or have some great sacrifice on the part of the living characters in order to bring the dead character back.” In this way, you make sure that the ‘death’ the character went through was still a death in some sense, by making sure certain things are never the same again.
- An unlikely romance
Gossip time! Romances in stories are a positive thing in general as it creates the potential for future relationship milestones and things for your audience to look forward to; like first kiss, first night together, the proposal, marriage, kids, watching those kids grow up, and then those kids having relationships. It’s even more interesting and stirs up audience excitement when it’s an unlikely romance. This is especially popular when the two characters can’t seem to stand each other. The interesting thing about relationships is the fact that they happen at all. Relationships are challenging, complicated, and messy. Throw in a couple who are natural opposites of each other and it becomes even more entertaining.
People in relationships (or on the look-out) tend to be encouraged by these stories as well, because if so-and-so can find a way to make it work with whats-her-name, despite all of their differences and all of their struggles, then there’s hope for anyone.
Writing each relationship in a way that is believable is more of a challenge, if you don’t have personal experience like your own relationships or friend couples to draw inspiration from. After all, the more unlikely the relationship, the less likely that you’ve actually witnessed similar couples in real life. You don’t necessarily have to explain why the two are in love, because love is a crazy thing to begin with, you just have to show that they are in love.
I think the best expression of opposite characters displaying love for each other (though it’s a bit of a dirty word) is “compromise.” What is a character willing to give up for the sake of the person they’re in love with, even if it’s a seemingly small gesture? How are they stepping out of their comfort zone, and is the gesture being returned? Little things like this have a big impact on the audience believing that the couple can actually make it.
- Newly discovered power
This connects very closely with character development. If your hero has the same set of powers (and the same finishing move) for the entire run of a series, without ever learning anything new, then audiences will become bored and you will also lose credibility, since, why hasn’t the villain learned how to counter-act this power yet? If both sides of a conflict remain completely stagnant in the types of weapons and tactics they’re using then it isn’t realistic to what combat is really like. Of course, the same issue doesn’t apply if you know that you’re writing exclusively for younger children, since each member of that particular audience will have moved into a different category before they realize the story is not going anywhere.
It is important however for new powers to fit the personality of the character discovering it, or else audiences will want to see them change back and essentially (regress). A way to spin this, though, comes to us in the example of Spider-Man’s black suit which, when audiences complained about the change, was later revealed to be an evil symbiote that was also changing his personality. By adding that twist, the writers were able to market the change back to the classic suit as Spider-Man sticking to his true self. You can sometimes pull off a similar twist if you find that audiences are not responding well to something new.
Another variation is to have the new power be identified as something negative from the start, or at least something questionable. New is often unknown, and there’s a general fear of the unknown. As long as the powers don’t feel completely out of place with the world you’re writing, you don’t even have to divulge the source of the new power until later. You can use this uncertainty to add tension to the story. Or if you want to go the route of the power definitely and obviously being bad, such as the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then forcing the character to use it sparingly, or not at all, can be used to further develop the character’s personal strengths.
- A new enemy
The biggest surprise to an ongoing conflict is sometimes to resolve the conflict – have your heroes actually achieve a definitive victory over the enemies they’ve been struggling with for so long. But if your series is still going then you’ll need another conflict to take its place – a new main villain or evil group. Sometimes it’s fun to introduce new major villains while the old ones are still an active threat, thus creating a rivalry between the two evil forces and a three-way tension with the heroes. Either change can make audiences wonder what’s going to happen next, and add some exciting tension.
When introducing new villains, it’s important to make sure that their feel and style are distinguishable from the other villains, otherwise you end up simply replacing one conflict with a carbon copy of itself and audiences won’t buy it as anything actually new. One of the biggest criticisms for Star Wars Episode 7 was that the Empire had been replaced by the exact same thing with a different name, thus rendering the defeat of the Empire in Episode 6 as ultimately irrelevant. You don’t want to lose the sense of tension by making changes that don’t actually matter.
Shows that do this well tend to introduce villains that put a twist on the kind of threats the heroes are facing, sometimes an immunity to one of the heroes’s greatest strengths, thus forcing the heroes to improvise and devise new strategies for facing these opponents, all of which also forces character development. When The Walking Dead introduced the Whisperers, it meant that a zombie was no longer just a zombie, and it forced the heroes to change their approach to taking on their most common enemy. Game changers like that are a major shake-up for a series and can leave the audience wondering what will happen next.
- Change of scenery
Everyone appreciates a change of scenery now and then. If your story takes place in the same few locations for too long then a change of scenery could be a fairly simple way to shake things up a bit. This could mean where your characters go on missions, or it could be home base, or even their personal homes. If your story is set in the real world, for example, in a particular U.S. state, then cycling through other states could be a way of gathering interest from audiences who themselves reside in those states.
If the setting is a central part of your story however (like Brooklyn 99) then doing a long-term relocation to another district would be going against the core concept of the story. A change of scenery in that case would be better as either a temporary switch, or a spin-off concept. And as with most shake-ups, the kind of new places you send your characters to can create some interesting challenges for them – learning to live in the city or the country, learning to survive in the desert or the snow.
A long-term change would also mean that the overall tone of the story would change drastically depending on the nature of the new environment. Remember, a big chunk of your audience uses your stories for escapism, to be a part of your world for a few minutes or a few hours at a time, and your setting has a huge impact on whether your audience feels comfortable or excited by being enveloped in your story.
I’ll finish off this list in the next blog post.
You can also check out The Storyteller’s Handbook on Amazon for more in-depth info on writing stories in general.
Cheers! ~ Ben