Four years ago, after watching way too much One Tree Hill and McLeod’s Daughters, I got fed up with TV cliches and wrote this. Please enjoy it in lieu of this week’s review, as I will not be anywhere with a movie theater this weekend.
Say you’re a television writer and you’ve got writer’s block, but you’ve got to keep the drama rolling if you want the paycheck that’s going to put food in your kids’ mouths. You’re doing 24 episodes a year, writing flat out. Your house looks like a bomb went off in it. Your kids are whining that they a) never see you and b) are hungry. Your boss keeps thrusting the ratings in your face. Your show is supposedly grounded in reality, so you can’t bring in aliens or magical fairies to poof you out of the corner you’ve written yourself into. What do you do?
You turn to the writer’s ammunition pouch and pull out the surefire guaranteed instant drama pills. Don’t let the fact that these magic pills are known as cliches in critical circles stop you. Remember: your kids need bread. If you’re new to TV writing, let me fill your ammo clip for you by giving you examples of instant drama pill storylines from the one hour drama series SATURDAY NIGHT TRAILER FEVER.
If you’re not familiar with this fabulous yet relatively unknown show, here’s the premise:
Mulleted idiot Joe Bob opens a discotheque with his brother John Bob in their trailer park after they discover they both love to imitate headless seizuring chickens to the beat of porno themes sung by men with voices only dogs can hear.
THE TRAINWRECK LOVE AFFAIR
It’s hard to keep two characters with a lot of sexual chemistry from becoming a couple like normal non-TV people, so the introduction of a barrier love interest to keep them apart is crucial. These relationships should end as badly as possible just for the sake of entertainment value.
For example, on Saturday Night Trailer Fever, Joe Bob’s girlfriend Mary Sue Ellen May turned out not just to be underage, but also:
THE FAMILY FEUD
Just because you’ve ruined a relationship by throwing a pre-existing marriage and the threat of prosecution for statutory rape into the mix doesn’t mean you can’t still capitalize on the situation to cause even more drama.
As we see on Saturday Night Trailer Fever, it turns out that Mary Sue Ellen May isn’t just married, she’s married…
Having a bun in the oven isn’t exactly a unique or dramatic occurrence in real life, so to use this natural fact of life on a television show, you can’t just have a couple get pregnant with their own child. You need to throw some extra complications into the mix.
Saturday Night Trailer Fever pushed this concept to its limit of shock value and brilliancy when Mary Sue Ellen May announced…
(note – this is also a good example of how not to let anatomical impossibilities distract you from your storytelling)
Whenever you think that a family of characters is getting on a little to well, you need to throw a stick of dynamite or two into their midst to stir up some trouble. A good way to do this is to reveal that one or more characters in a family are actually not related to the rest of them and that their whole life has been a huge lie/conspiracy.
Take, Saturday Night Trailer Fever, where they used Mary Sue Ellen May’s grannychild arc to launch a new storyline….
ARRIVAL OF LONG LOST RELATIVES
Adoption revelations are great, not just for their inherent entertainment value, but also because they give you a chance to set the scene for another doozyblaster of an episode – the one where said adopted character’s long lost relations turn up out of nowhere for no reason!
One rule of television writing is that you should never leave well enough alone. If your character is not under constant and ridiculous bombardment by the forces of a vindictive fate-god then you are not doing your job. If at any point you feel that your characters are managing to get by, the logical answer is of course to suddenly kill someone. Preference is given to happy couples recently or about to be engaged, or any character whose actor wants to leave the show.
On Saturday Night Trailer Fever, once the shock value of Joe Bob’s new parents wore off and he was forming a new relationship with his old dad, it was therefore necessary for one of them to kick the bucket…
You can add fuel to the sobbing and soul searching that naturally follows the death of a character by suggesting that it may not be a one-off event. The easiest way to do this is have it be the result of a hereditary medical condition that could strike other (related) characters at any moment.
It sure came as a shock to Joe Bob on Saturday Night Trailer Fever when his father’s doctor told him:
REMOVAL OF PREMISE
If you think there’s nothing further you can do to a character after you’ve driven away their love interests, killed their families, and given them a deadly medical condition, you’re dead wrong. You can switch your bombardment from the character to the premise of the show by removing the reason that people like it.
For example, there’s nothing more pointless than having a show called Saturday Night Trailer Fever if there’s no dancing.
ORGANIZED CRIME TIES
Once you tamper with or remove the premise of your show, it’s over, right? WRONG! Now you’re totally free to take the storyline in any direction you can think of. And what’s the most dramatic thing you can think of? That’s right! Organized crime!
Saturday Night Trailer Fever even managed to attract fans of The Sopranos to the fold when they revealed that:
LOSS OF POSSESSIONS
Involvement with organized crime is a great way to lead into a “loss of possessions” shocker story, or you can pair it with the “sudden death” storyline for a two parter. It’s your choice. With the character’s job, family, and love life in ruins, why leave him with a place to live? That’s not dramatic!
Saturday Night Trailer Fever showed us what’s what when they hit Joe Bob with this double-whammy:
The final trick up the writer’s sleeve is the best one, because it can be used over and over again in every single episode and it never gets old! The trick is to create a situation in which one or more characters are in danger of dying (note this can be used as a fake-out lead-in to the “Sudden Death” of a completely different character). Popular situations include: hitmen, car accidents, kidnappings, run-ins with serial murders, and fires.
In Saturday Night Trailer Fever, they wrapped everything up by planting the fruits of all the previous magic pill storylines in the soil of mortal peril. The result was this ratings-buster final episode:
So now that you’ve loaded the proper magic bullets into your writing shotgun, get out there and start blasting holes in your show already! (and be quick about it. I read kids can only last about two weeks without eating)