Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What Dexter's Pending Demise Has Taught Me About Writing

It was time. The actors and crew all agreed. Dexter, that delightfully twisted serial killer on Showtime had run his course. Ultimately, there's nothing left for our favorite sociopath but death or capture. But don't underestimate the writers of this clever series. You never know what's coming up. This past Sunday premiered the first episode of the last season. I watched it twice to make sure I caught every subtle nuance.

Watching the series since the beginning, I've learned a lot about writing, but also, in a gruesome kind of way, about life too. Let's start with the writing lessons. 

1. You must torture the characters you love. Doakes, Lila, Rita, the briefly charming Mike Anderson, even Brian all made such an impact on Dexter and his viewers. Their deaths left us agasp. Stephen King is known to advise writers to "kill your darlings," but that goes for characters as well as lovely turns of phrase. Make them suffer.

2. When something's not working, twist it. Sure you can fit a square peg into a round hole. You just have to reshape it. Don't be afraid to try something new. Case in point: Lumen's abrupt departure. Whether you believed Dexter's relationship with Lumen was going somewhere or not, the loss of her "dark passenger" was  a twist--and Hannah the following season was in some ways, a near copy of Lumen. (Which ultimately meant, she'd have to go.)

3. Contrast reality. Dexter's not just a serial killer: he's a brother, a single dad, an employee of the Miami Metro Police Department, and a good friend. His personal life is rife with areas of conflict. By giving your characters more dimensions, you add more conflict to your story.

4. Secondary characters should have their own issues. In the series, Miami Metro is a hotbed of drama. Dexter and Doakes, LaGuerta and Angel, LaGuerta and Deb, LaGuerta and Matthews, LaGuerta and Dexter, Deb and Brian, Deb and Lundy, Deb and Quinn, Deb and Dexter. I could go on, but you get the idea. Real people have real issues with other people. Don't leave all the conflict to your protagonists.

5. Always leave your audience wanting more. Whether it's the end of a chapter, the end of the book, or the end of the series, don't become one of those writers going by rote.  When you find yourself bored with your story or sensing you've done all you can with your characters, it's time to wrap it up.

Later this week, I'll post life lessons learned from Dexter.