Today, I want to talk to you all about storytelling. I’m going to use the first episode of “The Walking Dead” as an example of an excellent story, because I just watched it the other night and holy crapballs. (Yes, I am desperately late to the party. I brought extra dip.)
Now, before you get all “Hames, that’s a TV show, it’s totally different,” I’m going to have to say no, it’s not different at all. Movies and television use the same techniques as writers do to build tension, develop characters, etc. It’s executed differently, but it is all storytelling.
Storytelling, my doves, is universal. Basic storytelling rules include:
- Make me care about the characters.
- Show, don’t tell—promise the audience this story is going to be worth their while through actions.
- Make the audience figure things out for themselves. Give them the tools to put the pieces together, but don’t assemble the furniture for them.
- Give your characters one goal that defines all their choices.
- Change things. Drama + anticipation=audience’s attention.
Now, let’s look at some suspense building techniques:
1. Ticking clock.
2. High stakes.
3. Characters under pressure.
4. Create dilemmas—and then let problems fall from the sky in a deluge.
5. Be unpredictable.
Okay, everybody up to speed? Now, I’m going to break down that pilot episode and let you know why I no longer feel safe living near a hospital.
SPOILER ALERT, PEOPLE. Haven’t seen it? Don’t want to hear about it? Terrified of zombies? TURN BACK NOW.
We start in the present-day rural Georgia, encounter zombie child, and then flashback to The Time Before. Interlude establishing character relationships, Rick’s (the main protagonist) familial state. Then, Rick gets shot up. Boom. Hospital. Hazy montage. Awake to abandonment.
The next sequence is what really sets the tone for the episode. Hallways are littered with broken equipment. Walls are smeared with blood. Lights flickering. And, in an excellent choice by the producers, there is no soundtrack. No music at all, just ambient noise. We see “DO NOT OPEN DEAD INSIDE” written on a chained up door. Yikes. We start hearing some moaning, some gnawing, and see a couple of corpse-white fingers poke through a crack. Guh. Oh my gawd. Need to move away from the hospital.
Then, the moron goes down a pitch-black staircase with nothing but a pack of matches and the hope that he’s not boxed in. I was screaming at the screen. (Matches? That’s it?)Stupid move, man. Stupid move. Damn. I was clutching my face in fear for this character.
Pop quiz! What’s going here? We’ve got: making me care about the characters, showing not telling, character under pressure, and a hell of a dilemma. Does he get out? Is there a zombie horde hidden in the dark? Why did he make a face like that? The fuck was that sound?!
He manages to escape the hospital into a strange, silent, seemingly human-less world. Now, the audience (me) is starting to believe that this is a much bigger problem than we thought, possibly a global one. Dilemmas are raining from the sky. Who is alive? Who is undead? How does the Rick get to his family? And the biggest question of all: what the fuck happened? Go into a coma for a couple of months and the apocalypse hits. Sheesh.
The suspense was reaching critical mass.
Now, we get to know Rick’s driving force, which is to find his family.
He stumbles upon a couple of live humans, and we get a little bit of backstory—just enough to know that the zombies are here, we have to deal, and you do that by shooting them in the head. Several scenes are spent in Zombie 101. Headshots, always. Never get boxed in. Avoid congregations of Walkers at all costs. Cause: some freakish, unidentified disease—possibly. Fever gives away the ones that are about to turn. Don’t get bitten, or scratched (or, you know, eaten). Did I mention headshots? Super.
Oh, and by the way, there is a refugee center in Atlanta that has food and shelter, which was the place to be according to all the broadcasts, until those stopped.
Um, anyone else see a problem with this? If the broadcasts stopped, that means something stopped them. And cities have large populations, potential for hordes. But these newbs, to include me as an audience member, just blow right on past those facts—which, my dears, is what we call foreshadowing. Hindsight is 20/20.
So, another couple of scenes are spent “suiting up.” We acquire guns, car, clothes and other supplies. Rick splits from his friends, promising to meet in Atlanta. Typically, car runs out of gas. Acquire horse at abandoned farm. Continue on to Atlanta.
Scene switch! Here’s the family, all cozy in a refugee camp, talking about setting up signs along the highway to warn people about staying away from the city. “Folks don’t know what they’re getting into,” I believe one unidentified character uttered. Understatement of the year.
Scene switch! Rick, on horseback, moseying down an Atlanta street, which is littered with debris and abandoned cars, tanks, and burned out buses. Burned out buses with dead people inside.
Oh, excuse me, undead people inside. They follow, shuffling along behind Rick at a leisurely pace. He tells the horse they can outrun them. Good plan, right? Oh, sure, dash around that corner and–ZOMBIE HORDE.
Remember Zombie 101? Yeah, he failed that course. Horse gets eaten. He gets stuck in a tank, Walkers swarming all over it. The CB radio goes off—it’s a live person! And he is asking if Protagonist is cozy!
Cue my angry Kermit Flail. I have a love-hate relationship with cliffhangers.
Three questions: Is the voice on the radio trustworthy? Does Rick get out of there? Do his little friends wander in to Hordelanta, unprepared?
Now, the things this episode did particularly well were making me care about the protagonist, building continuous pressure, and having that ticking clock.
That clock is something that hung over the whole episode. I always felt like the characters were out of time, like a Walker would appear at any moment—which, I suppose, was the point. I’m still tense.
Of course, the best thing this episode did was get me to want to turn the metaphorical page. It ended with the best kind of cliffhanger, one that not only put a person you care about and identify with in danger, but also one that left several very important questions unanswered.
And that is how you tell a good story.