(“Things You Can Learn From…” is a weekly feature I’m starting. I’ll take things I’ve watched, read or experienced and talk about certain things you can learn from them, in regards to writing)
True Detective is a television show on HBO. It could be seen as the “hard-boiled film noir” style turned modern, the show focusing on a new case with new characters each season. The show focuses not only on the mystery of the case that needs to be solved but on the mysteries inherent in the detectives involved, each one flawed and struggling in different ways.
I’m not here to review the show, there’s plenty of that around the internet if you look. I will say I enjoyed the first season of True Detective, with it’s Cthulthu-esque hints in the mystery, it’s present/past timelines, the great acting, powerful camera work, etc. It all worked into a fantastic television show to watch, with the most intense one-take scene I’ve ever watched.
The second season, on the other hand, was an enormous let down.
Here’s some things I believe writers can learn from it.
Don’t Make Your Plot Too Convoluted
I couldn’t follow the plot in the second season. Maybe it’s because I watched every week, leaving seven days in between episodes, making it difficult to remember the many different characters, the different plot-lines interweaving, the various threads going on. Multiple times in the season, I had to look up recaps to figure out who was doing what, who people were and why they were involved in the story.
Even in a detective story, the reader needs to be able to follow along even if they don’t need to remember every singe detail. They need to be able to remember the characters that matter and the important clues. They need to follow the threads you leave behind. They need to remember WHY THEY CARE! That’s the fun part of following a mystery, figuring out and connecting the pieces but when the reader (or viewer) has to keep saying “Whose this again? Why is this person dead? Why do we care about this?”, it frustrates them and takes them out of the story. It’s a delicate balance. As a writer of a mystery, you want to give enough so the reader can follow along but not too much so they guess the twist/ending and then aren’t enjoyably surprised.
Season 2 lost me at multiple points in the story because it had too many things going on and continued to pile on more strings before wrapping up previous threads.
Don’t Sideline Your Best Asset
Rachel McAdams plays a kickass cop with issues and in my opinion, is the best character in the show. Unfortunately, she gets sidelined at a pivotal point in the series while the two males go off and do stuff. It’s really unfortunate and after a whole season of trying to like the show, it really soured me on the whole thing. After crafting a great character, they go and have her act like a sad girl whose boyfriend is away? It’s disappointing and a great learning tool. Don’t reduce your best character to a secondary role at important points of the story!
Dialogue Needs to be Literary but also Logical
Matthew Mcconaughey had some weird crazy lines in the first season but they worked. They worked into the theme of the story and they made sense because his backstory as a nihilist detective was made clear through clues and dialogue. He said crazy shit because you learn he has a slightly crazy way of looking at the world. It was great! I loved his lines. He was such a different and unique character in the role of detective, I loved it.
Now let’s come to Vince Vaughn. I actually think Vaughn is a good actor but his dialogue was ridiculous. He spouted fancy one-liners, perhaps the most egregious being “don’t do anything out of hunger, even eating.” I mean, come on! Look at that line! Try to say it without laughing! You can’t!
I think Vaughn did his best but his dialogue just didn’t work, and it didn’t make sense logically. He’s supposed to be some mob boss that comes from the streets but he says these Shakespearean-sounding one-liners that come off atrocious and silly.
Dialogue does need to be literary, it has to have meaning within the story. It can’t be “How’s it going?” “Oh, real good, how about you?” But it also has to make sense from a character aspect and it has to make sense in the world you’ve created. Dialogue has to have meaning and has to reflect the character. Otherwise, the reader is lost, wondering to themselves “why is this character saying this? It doesn’t sound like them, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t sound right.”
What do you think? What kinds of things do you think a writer could learn from True Detective? From something else? Have other ideas for me to write about? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts. Thanks for reading!