Last Thursday I caught the premiere of the new Shondaland smash “How to Get Away with Murder.” I had heard of the show but knew zero about the premise before watching it, so I had no expectations whatsoever. Then it blew my mind.
Ignoring the fact that Viola Davis is a goddess sent from awesome actress heaven, this show electro-shocked my writer brain by doing all the things that a good story should do. So if this were a book, what did they do right? (relatively spoiler free)
Title: How fantastic is “How to Get Away with Murder”? Provocative, indicative of the story and a little double entendre. Well played. Although not all book titles scream at the reader, a solid title like this one could at least get people to pick it up.
Open with Your Main Characters: There were many places that this show could have started. It could have followed some of the students around to get to know them. It could have followed the professor. It could have even started with the flash forwards. But did it? Nope. There was no prologue, no slow start, the opening threw all the main characters in a room and tossed conflict at them. Bam!
This type of opening achieves many goals. It introduces our characters and ensures that we want to root for them, plus it tells us the main conflict. On top of that, the dialogue is sharp and the scene is active, engaging the audience to want to know more.
Show Don’t Tell: Further to the introduction of the characters, this show did a great job of showing and not telling us about them. They don’t load the reader down with backstory, nor do they explain who people are, they just let them be and leave the audience to figure it out.
One particular exchange comes to mind in the opening scene. Wes is put on the spot for not having the assignment completed. He notes that he didn’t receive the email because he was waitlisted. Another student, Michaela provides the answer and is met with the professor’s scolding to “never take away a learning opportunity from another student.” Thirty seconds of dialogue, maybe less, and we already know that a.) Wes is likely not the smartest kid in the class and has a lot to prove; b.) Micheala is a know-it-all who is very competitive, and c.) Professor Keating isn’t just a hardnosed attorney, she actually does want to teach people and may not be who we thought she was.
There are other ways we could have got this information, but from this one exchange with characters we haven’t met yet we know what we’ve got. They continue this throughout the entire episode, only giving the audience what they need and in interesting ways. That, my friends, is showing.
Breadcrumbs: Anyone else notice the set up for next week’s episode? Of course, it’s obvious what this Thursday’s case is going to be considering it was spelled out in the last five minutes of the show, but did anyone notice that the characters in that story made cameos all throughout this episode? As a reader, we are already interested in book two before book one even ends. Now that’s a way to sell a series.
I’m excited to see where they take this show, or if the great storytelling of week one fizzles out by Christmas time, but I do know where I’m going to be this Thursday -- on my couch. Are you?
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