As a newly converted Whovian I’ve been binging on “Doctor Who” lately on Netflix, and the show has really got me thinking about effective storytelling. You don’t have to be interested in Time Lords, Tardises, or sonic screwdrivers to find this post of value, and I promise I won’t deliver any spoilers.
Doctor Who–in addition to great acting and compelling characters–is an all-around solid show, though it isn’t perfect. For some reason, it’s inspired in me a reflection on the nature of storytelling that I hope will be applicable to writers in any genre.
More than most other shows that I love, Doctor Who demonstrates the magic that can happen when we focus on the art of storytelling, and not just on the raw, plain details of the story.
Here are some storytelling tips I’ve picked up from the last of the Time Lords:
- ALWAYS INVOLVE “SMALL” OR “NORMAL” PEOPLE IN SOME WAY, NOT JUST “GREAT MEN.” Your readers are normal people and they want to read about normal people, even if some “great” people are thrown in there too. This is why the Doctor is always picking up companions who have nothing special about them. Rose Tyler works in a shop. Donna Noble is a temp, as she’s fond of reminding anyone who claims she is somehow important. It’s sometimes difficult to relate to the Doctor, the last of an alien species with a machine that helps him travel through time and space. It’s quite simple to put yourself in the position of his companions.
- CONTRASTING PERSONALITIES CAN EQUAL GROWTH, TENSION, AND EXCITEMENT. Birds of a feather shouldn’t necessarily flock together. We can learn from people who are different. We grow as a result of knowing them. When people of different backgrounds and different views come together (such as the Doctor and his human companions), magic isn’t a guarantee, but it’s always a possibility. Spock and Captain Kirk, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, even Elphaba and Galinda in “Wicked”….. this principle is echoed throughout our famous stories.
- MYSTERIES AND SECRETS KEEP AN AUDIENCE ENGAGED (WHEN THEY CAN SAFELY TRUST THAT EVERYTHING WILL BE CLEARED UP IN TIME). It’s no fun to know everything off the bat. A sense of mystery and intrigue…. The chance to make theories to explain something and then see how close our explanation comes to the riddle’s answer…. This keeps us interested. “Doctor Who” makes great use of several “mystery” subplots, weaving them throughout its greater story arc and revealing pieces of the answer bit by bit. What is the significance of the Face of Boe’s last words? What exactly happened in the Time War that killed the rest of the Doctor’s people? How and why do the Daleks keep returning? And what is the significance of “Bad Wolf”?
- PAY ATTENTION TO PACING. I love that “Doctor Who” is well-paced. Some adventures span one episode, from start to finish. More complex stories aren’t rushed when they require more development; there are two and three episode arcs as well. The writers make sure the audience is always grounded and weave backstory into the narrative in bits and pieces, keeping the action progressing. There is no sense of “we have to cram this story into one episode” or “We have to draw it out into three just to have a full season.”
- TRAGEDY AND HUMOR DON’T HAVE TO BE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. Sure, there are moments during tragedy when displays of lightheartedness are inappropriate, but that doesn’t mean laughter is always an inappropriate grieving mechanism…. I will never forget the moment after a certain adventure in “Doctor Who” (won’t say which one) where nobody died. No one. And the Doctor just loses it with joy, jumping up and down like a schoolboy. “EVERYBODY LIVES, ROSE! EVERYBODY LIVES!” One of my favorite moments on the show, a mix of joy for the moment and grief for all those whom the Doctor couldn’t save in previous episodes. So very, very touching!
So, those are some lessons “Doctor Who” has reinforced to me about the art of telling a story, and particularly an adventure story. What do you think of these reflections?
Do you watch the show? If so, what do you love best? Who’s your favorite Doctor? Mine’s David Tennant, for sure. I watched his farewell episode arc earlier this week and seriously feel like I’m in mourning. Not even kidding. BRUTAL. Powerful and brutal.