One of most writers' favorite pastimes is studying the craft via favorite novels and movies. We admire the way one author plots twists and turns, the way another builds romantic tension, the way a third suspends our belief against the impossible. Movies and television dramas offer mini-courses in these how-to's. One of those is the Fox television series 24, which is a must-watch for anyone who wants to improve their skill at heightening conflict in their stories -- no matter which genre you write in.
Have you ever been told or sensed that your story doesn’t hold enough conflict? Have you ever had difficulty determining your protagonist's black, blacker, or blackest moments? Have you even thought there could be so many dark moments?
Here are the Lessons Capsulated in 24
24 is a thriller, and while not every genre flies ahead with such non-stop tension and breakneck pacing, there is a lot to be learned from a story that manages to accomplish it so nearly flawlessly.
First, the show always starts in the moment. There is no slow, melodramatic build-up in 24. Based on the idea of each episode being one hour of a 24 hour day, the kick-off happens in the first moments, and the first hour-long episode steamrolls ahead. Even if the genre you write is a gentle romance, something has to happen right away, there has to be that opening moment, that emotional ignition switch, which will generate greater conflict with each scene.
Second, things always get worse. One problem for Jack Bauer or the nation isn't necessarily solved before another occurs. It isn't enough that Jack might be leaping across the tops of buildings in a race against pursuers to rescue the president from an assassination attempt (BAM!), he is usually simultaneously in phone conversation with tech wizard pal Chloe averting a terrorist attack on a major metropolitan area (BAM! BAM!) and planning the demise of an international criminal who kidnapped or murdered his friend (BAM! BAM! BAM!). I believe that with every element written in the script, the writers of 24 sit back and say to each other, "Before we go on, what will make this situation worse?" And they hold nothing back. As a result, there is no knowing who will live, who will die, who will turn traitor, who will regret their choice too late, or which way the plot will twist.
Third, every character has back story. It isn't tossed at us up front, but we learn that every player has emotional stakes, something in his life now or from his past that will give his or her decisions greater impact and lend even more tension to the unfolding drama. What gives Kate such courage? She's a widow, whose husband died in prison after being condemned for being a traitor -- which, it turns out -- he wasn't. Why does Mark give bad policy advice to the president (which endangers everyone) and make rash decisions outside his given authority? Not because he's bad at his job or wants to dishonor the president, but because he's terribly jealous of Jack's previous relationship with his wife Audrey (the president's daughter) who married Mark when she thought Jack was dead. He knows Audrey still cares for Jack more than she will admit, and that Jack is willing to die for her.
Fourth, there are no loose ends except for one. Every character's situation is resolved, even if it isn't. Say what? We are given conclusions -- not happily ever after conclusions -- but we see where each character is heading at the end of the 24 hour period. The package is tied up, but not neatly. This one is sent to prison, that one to retirement, another to an unmarked grave... Even Jack Bauer, who never gets a happy ending, moves on -- to another season, we hope. His role is the only one we're left wondering about. We can see what he's facing (he might be off to self-exile one season or imprisonment and torture the next) but we don't know what the outcome will be. Yet, the writers of 24 have made us believe that Jack will overcome -- somehow -- even though the scars will be deep.
We are satisfied, even while we are left yearning for another chapter, another chance to "Live Another Day".
24 is a brutal series. If you're squeamish when it comes to television, you might have trouble with it. But if you can handle high tension and fast-paced action, you can learn a lot about what it takes to create greater conflict for your characters. Writers should watch.