Saturday, 24 November 2012

Don't Lose Sight Of Your Concept

I saw two things lately---a movie and a TV series...that I felt illustrated a writing mistake. Both of these pieces lost sight of their concept.

The movie was a German movie called Hell and the series was the second season of The Walking Dead.

I saw Hell in my local DVD store at a bargain price so I bought it in the hopes of discovering an unknown gem. The blurb sounded intriguing...

"It was once the source of life, light and warmth. But now the sun has turned the entire world into baked and barren wasteland. Forests are scorched. Animal carcasses line the roads. Even the nights are dazzling bright. Marie, her little sister Leonie and Phillip are heading for the mountains in a car with covered windows. Rumor has it there is still water there. Along the way they run into Tom, a first-rate mechanic that becomes indispensible. But can they trust him? Tension grows in the small group. As if things weren´t bad enough, they are lured into an ambush. Their real battle for survival begins..."

Now that was enough to get me to buy and when I started watching the movie, I first thought I had found a nice little undiscovered gem. A post-apocalyptic tale of survival in a world where the sun has become lethal. The story started with the main characters facing the problems of a sun-baked world....travelling in a car with covered windows, wearing protective clothing, searching for water and gasoline.

So far, so good.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead:

If you are thinking of seeing this movie, don't read on. I have to reveal the plot to examine what I thought went wrong with Hell.

After a while, the characters, who are travelling through the sun-ravaged world looking for a safe haven, are captured by a family of farmers who don't have any livestock but eat humans instead. Now the entire movie shifted focus to the characters trying to escape from the farmhouse.

At this point, the movie lost sight of its concept.

Characters trying to escape from a farmhouse full of people who want to murder them has nothing to do with a world where the sun has gone super-hot and people struggle to survive. Now the movie could be any other horror could even be a World War 2 movie. The sun and its dangers were totally removed. It simply became a story of flesh-eating farmers and the characters' atempts to escape bing eaten. The sun problem simply became a gimmick to set up the rest of the movie...which was a generic "escape the farm" flick.

Don't let your concept be reduced to a gimmick.

This movie could have been so much more but the post-apocalyptic survival in a sun-baked world promised in the blurb (and on the cover) simply degenerated into a plot that could be found in any horror movie from the past thirty years.

Now onto a a TV series that I think also lost sight of its concept. The second season of The Walking Dead.

Take a look at the trailer for this season...

See all those zombie encounters and the main characters in seemingly-constant peril? That's what you should expect from this series because The Walking Dead is a series about survival during a zombie apocalypse.


In the second season, the characters spend most of their time on an isolated farm which is relatively zombie-free. They literally escaped from the main concept of the series. This season was more like a soap opera. Will Rick find out about his wife and Shane? (he did but apprarently didn't care). What is the secret that was whispered into RIck's ear at the CDC in season one? (that everyone is infected and if you die, you become a zombie...the standard zombie lore in any George A Romero movie)

In many ways, the main concept...the zombie apocalypse.. became nothing more than a gimmick to keep the characters on the farm and present some preil when they left it. Overall, season two was a soap opera about people living on a farm. The zombie became a secondary consideration to the relationships between the characters.

Now there is nothing at all wrong with character development....but The Walking Dead is a zombie series. The character development would have been much more effective if it was done within the realms of the concept the show set itself...survival in a zombie apocalypse.

It was only at the end of the season that it lived up to the promise of its concept.

So what can we learn from this? If you have a concept for your series that is original and interesting, use it to its full advantage. Make sure it permeates the characters at every level and is a constant in the plot.

Don't let your plot regress into something that is interchangeable with any other story. Your originality is your greatest asset....use it to its potential and your story will stand out from the crowd.


  1. I'm pretty sure that "Hell" is a Swiss rather than a German movie, though the stars are German actors. Or maybe it was a co-production.

    But otherwise I agree with you. Not necessarily about "Hell", because I've never seen more than the trailers, which focused on the whole "sunbaked world" concept, but definitely about "The Walking Dead". I missed most of season two due to the idiotic broadcast scheduling over here, but when I tuned in for the last two or three episodes of the season, I found that I hadn't actually missed anything regarding the overarching plot. Okay, so I have no idea what happened to the missing little girl, but considering what sort of series it is, it's rather obvious what happened.

    Talking of movies, Die Wand/The Wall is another German language (Austrian in this case) movie with a similar problem. Cool sort of apocalyptic concept (a woman goes hiking in the Alps and when she tries to return to the village, she suddenly finds herself faced with an invisible wall, which she cannot breach. Plus, there no longer seems to be any life beyond the wall), but the movie (and the novel that it's based on) does nothing with it and instead turns into a parable about female independence and living close to nature.

  2. Actually, I think The Walking Dead series, just as in its comic books counterpart, has the following concept: how far are people willing to go to survive.

    The title refers, in my opinion, to the people alive in the series, who are "the walking dead", which means they're going to die - and Kirkman does that job pretty well, no one is safe in that series.

    The most interessant parts are the conflicts between the humans, how they react to each other, what they're willing to do for survival.

    You're right in this: this has never been about the zombies, it's just a setting and could be replaced, but I think it had been true to its theme. :)

  3. I've lost sight of something. Or I never had it in site. I haven't nailed down any of several series ideas. I can come up with the main character, and associates, but when I start to outline the series it comes out as an ongoing type neverending story thing. No Monster of the Week. No character development. Just them going from crisis to crisis (at best). And worst of all, no overarching plot to tie them all together.

    I'm beginning to think I wrote too many stories in 2012, and now my brain is just exhausted. But still, I trudge on. Though, I probably will go with at least one of the "neverending" story ideas, since I do enjoy a character maybe traveling and helping people, solving problems in each town he visits.

    TW, how do you do it? Do you come up with the main baddie first, and then divide by the number of episodes and come up with a new little baddie/minion for each? Once I get the big baddie, and them the monsters of the week, then I have to figure out how to tie them all together so the big baddie plot line is forwarded with each installment.

    Whew! Standalones are so much easier. ;)


  4. Tom,

    Yes, standalones are much easier! Nobody said writing serials was easy. :) That's why I have such respect for some of the great TV series writers out there like Joss Whedon, Tim Minear, Eric Kiripke, Stephen S DeKnight and others. address your 'neverending' problem. Think of it his way: when you write a standalone, you choose which part of your character's life to tell the story about. You know what will make a good story and that it has a beginning, middle and end. You don't write about that character's entire life.

    Same with a serial. Yes, your characters may be in a job that takes them from crisis to crisis every day of the week but you have to pick one big crisis and have that as your main 'big bad'. Then use the earlier stories to lead up to that crisis in the end story.

    You only have to hint at the big bad in the early stories, or even just lay groundwork so that when it appears, readers will see it as a logical plot turn and they will have emotional ties to your characters (from earlier B Arcs) so the big bad will seem dangerous. Remember, we aren't necessarily talking supervillains in island lairs surrounded by henchmen...your big bad could be something as simple as a new chain of command coming into the department/organisation and disbanding it. (so now who will fight the monsters of the week?)

    Hope that helps


  5. I don't have anything substantive to say, I just wanted you to know that I promoted the Lair to my favorites bar. :)