I watched the first episode of an older show last night: Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye. The premise was intriguing: a deaf woman begins working at the FBI, helping them using her lip-reading skills to catch bad guys. It’s based on the life of a real woman. The show stars an actual hearing-impaired woman as Sue (Deanne Bray), and co-stars the dishy Yannick Bisson from Murdoch Mysteries.
Despite having all that going for it, the first episode of the show was dreadful. And I’m going to talk about it a little bit because it perfectly illustrates a lot of writing ‘no-nos’ that some people get confused by.
Mistake 1: It doesn’t start in an interesting way.
The show starts with the protagonist, Sue, loading up her car with her parents’ help. There is a lot of clunky dialogue between them, but no real information is shared. For example, we know she is moving somewhere, but not where or why. We know she has never lived out of home before, but she must be thirty or so. We know she is going to pick up a “Levi” but not who that is.
This goes on for a full minute and a half.
So, in other words, this show that is about a deaf woman in the FBI shows nothing about her deafness, or the FBI, in the set up. I’m not sure if the writers wanted her deafness to be a ‘gotcha’ moment or what, but nothing we find out about our lead character in that opening moment makes us invest in her or her story.
When writing a story, something needs to happen in the opening scene to hook the reader in. For me, this comes in two forms:
- Something happens to the character that changes the direction of their life
- They make a big decision
For both Station Alpha and Guarding Sierra, I went with option one. It’s an exciting way to start a book, particularly a book with lots of action in it. But it doesn’t have to be a life-threatening thing. The character may get dumped, or lose their job. They might get hit by a bus, or travel in time. It can be anything! As long it is a big external force acting on the protagonist.
This is a way to make the reader invest in the character. The reader gets swept up with the character, and carried away with their story.
Mistake two: Info-dumps galore!
If you ever want an example of why flashbacks are so maligned in writing, watch this episode. After that first scene (and another where she picks up Levi – her service dog) we are treated to multiple flashbacks about everything from how the character became deaf, to doctors visits, to how she was taught to talk, her time in school…There might have been more, but I feel asleep. Holy shit it was boring.
From when she left her house, to when she arrives at her destination, more than twelve minutes of screen time have happened, the majority of which are flashbacks. And the FBI still hasn’t been mentioned.
In those twelve minutes, the only thing that happens is she gets pulled over by a cop. This scene serves no purpose, since we already know that she’s deaf by this point. We found this out in one of the flashbacks. (Side note – if the writers had wanted her deafness to be a ‘gotcha’, they failed at that. Plus, it’s kinda gross to treat a character’s disability that way.)
This means that nothing of interest has happened to the character for nearly fourteen minutes of screen time, nor has she made any on screen decisions. I would have turned the TV off by this point, but I hadn’t seen Yannick Bisson yet, so I stuck with it.
Please, I beg of you, don’t info dump your character’s back story like this. You know in Shrek, when donkey talks about the layers of the onion? That’s how backstory should be introduced. It should be sprinkled into the narrative at relevant moments, with the layers of the onion being peeled back as each new facet of them is introduced. It’s definitely okay to hint that there is more to your character than a reader might initially see, but none of what we found out during the flashbacks in this show was relevant to her current situation. We didn’t need to see how she became the person she was, because we hadn’t invested yet in present day Sue. They could have all been cut, and the only changes it would have made to the narrative would be for the better. Not only would that have made the beginning of the show more interesting, but it would have made us more intrigued about the character, too. We would have kept watching to find out all those defining moments in her life as they impacted her present life.
Additionally, the person she was telling the flashbacks to was Levi, her dog. Now, I love dogs, but this is a real missed opportunity. I like introducing elements of a character’s backstory by having them tell it to other people. In Romance, this is generally the character’s love interest. The reason to do it this way (as opposed to through an introspective moment), is that you can use it to build and strengthen the relationship between the two characters. Telling elements of your past to someone shows trust, and builds a level of intimacy between two people. It’s a valuable tool when writing romance.
Mistake 3: Repeating information we already know
So, we find out she’s deaf in the flashback. This is then elaborated on in the scene with the cop. After that, she’s finally arrived in Washington D.C. and we think something interesting and FBI-related might be finally about to happen.
But, alas, no.
Her car breaks down, and she goes to a nearby mechanic. We are then treated to another scene where she explains her deafness. Like, we know. If you are going to have her tell it to the mechanic, why tell it to the cop? Or in the flashback? We don’t need to hear it more than once.
I get that this is their way of introducing the mechanic character (because he shows up again), so cut the scene with the cop (who doesn’t show up again), or find another way of introducing the mechanic. Don’t tell your readers the same information twice.
(It is okay to remind them of things, and give clues to jog their memories, particularly later in the book. But having two scenes right after the other with the same information in it is pointless.)
Side note: at about 18 minutes, we finally get her first day at the FBI.
Mistake 4: Bad structure
Sue’s first day working for the FBI is pretty dull, for her and the watcher, but that would have been fine if everything else up until that point hadn’t also been boring. But it makes sense that not everything is going to go well on her journey.
Things start picking up once she meets Yannick Bisson (for me, too. That man is fine.) She gets involved in a case for him reading the lips of some bad guys on a surveillance video, and testifies at a trial about it. It goes well. The end.
Well, it was the end of the first part of the pilot.
She isn’t introduced to this case until 33 minutes into the pilot. Which means that this plot is introduced, worked through, and resolved in less than ten minutes of screen time.
When you write Romantic Suspense like I do, you have to be very careful to have the plot, the characters, and their relationship, all develop at the same pace. You introduce the characters and plot close together, and you resolve their character arcs, their relationship, and the plot close together, and every step that happens in between must progress at a similar pace.
That did not happen in this show. The ‘character development’/introduction happened for the first 30 minutes, and the plot happened for the last 10. It’s just bad writing.
I had a lot more issues with the episode going into the second half of it, but honestly I don’t want to rewatch it to pick out specific moments. I do remember thinking that Sue’s character was a bit uneven, but it was a pilot. I can forgive that.
I did watch the next episode of the show after the two-part pilot, and you know what? It improves a little. I might keep watching.
I hope some of this is useful. I know sometimes I learn better with clear, concrete examples of what to do or what not to do. I won’t link to an episode, but there are streams of the show available online (or DVDs from the official site if that’s more your speed).