The art of storytelling: what can the Doctor and his companions teach authors?

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.

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42 responses to “The art of storytelling: what can the Doctor and his companions teach authors?

  1. I agree. It’s very clever the way certain story arcs span over several episodes — or entire seasons. My favorite Doctor? David Tennant, although I also like Matt Smith a lot. And Christopher Eccleston is fantastic too.

  2. I haven’t had to chance to see the latest season as we had to shut off cable for awhile, but I do watch it and look so forward to catching up. My favorite thing is they can go anywhere story-wise, as well as time and space. Thinking on that one day, I started a running joke with some people I know where everything else is just ‘the poor man’s Doctor Who.’ Star Trek? Poor man’s Doctor Who. Gattaca? Poor man’s Doctor Who? Buckaroo Banzai? Poor man’s Doctor Who. It’s the dramatic versatility and the built in ability to reinvent itself that keeps me coming back. Thanks for the post!

  3. I liked this so much I need to reblog it! Thanks from another Whovian!

  4. Reblogged this on Darswords and commented:
    David Tennant is my fav!

  5. I mourned Christopher Eccleston, thinking no one could better him – he was funny and full of the life and joy of the Doctor. Then David Tennant arrived and he was THE BEST DOCTOR EVER, showing the tragedy of living for hundreds of years and watching everyone else around him die. He and Rose – well – gorgeous.. Then Matt Smith came along and he IS Doctor Who. The perfect mixture of tragic and comic, the perfect blend of Eccleston and Tennant.
    If I am true to form, I’ll love the new Doctor too. But I have to say, Matt Smith was spot on for me and I will miss him.

    • I agree, Matt Smith is so energetic and funny but also heartbreaking-tissues at the ready in Christmas day 😦

    • I am slowly learning to appreciate Matt Smith. It’s taking me time to accept that he isn’t David Tennant and forgive him for that, haha! 🙂 But he’s very good. Much more subtle and poignant than Tennant’s portrayal.

    • I’ve had the same experience – every Doctor they’ve cast since the reboot I’ve thought ‘this is the best Doctor ever!’ And based on his other work, I expect Peter Capaldi to do the same – he’s very good at combining darkness and humour, going over the top without slipping into pantomime.

  6. I think Matt Smith would be considered a better doctor if it wasn’t for the fact his last season was kind of sub-par. I found some of the episodes really dull, and he was the only redeeming feature in them, I felt like the writers ran out of ideas.

    • Oh no, it’s good to have that warning! I’m not there yet. I’ve ha a friend tell me the show as a whole went down after Tennant… that’s got to be what she was referring to. 😦

      • The Matt Smith seasons really violate your point about the audience being able to trust that mysteries will be cleared up, because they really aren’t – it’s a major failing of the new regime running the show.

        Smith himself is fantastic, but the writing REALLY lets him down, way too often, especially in his last two seasons,

  7. The show did the same thing during a number of doctors runs. 6th doctor Colin Baker comes to mind. Most people agree his time on the show was utter rubbish and killed the franchise dead, but a equal amount of whovians (me at least haha) would say; actually, the way he portrayed the Doctor was really very good… he just didn’t get the writing to back him up.

    The same can be said for Matt Smith, only for some reason a guy with very little famous acting experience managed to breath an amazing life into the scripts. I’m sort of in agreement about the stories going down hill, but then, it’s the 11th Doctor. It’s still great. Definitely not as bad as Doctor Who HAS been in the past….

    • Matt Smith as the Doctor is definitely growing on me! I love his obsession with bad fashion. “Fezes are cool.” “Stensons are cool.” and of course the repeated, “Bowties are cool!”

  8. For me, the definitive Dr. Who was played by Tom Baker, the fourth doctor. I now always expect to see the doctor wearing a scarf, and without it, he’s just not the doctor. But more importantly, Tom Baker’s ways of expressing himself without words is incomparable. David Tennant comes close.

    After the fourth doctor passed, I didn’t think any other actor would be fit for the role, but Peter Davis as the fifth doctor impressed me with his suave and debonair ways, almost making up for the loss of Tom Baker. He wasn’t the same, but he still carried the show, and the writing was excellent for his episodes as well.

    I lost interest in the show when Colin Baker took on the role of the sixth doctor. Never bothered to analyze why.

    When I saw the new episodes with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, the show captured my heart again. Losing Christopher Eccleston after only one season was heart breaking, and predisposed me to not like the doctor who followed, but David Tennant has grown on me just as did Peter Davis after he replaced Tom Baker. I’ve not watched all of the David Tennant episodes yet, so I have no opinions on Matt Smith.

    As for the doctor’s companions, I’ve liked most all of them in the episodes I’ve seen, but I was most sad to see Billie Piper leave the show.

    • Oh my gosh, that was so sad!!!! 😦 I loved Rose. She was fabulous. And I LOVED 9. Haven’t seen any of the classic Doctor Who yet but I understand from lots of people that 4 is hands-down the best. Everyone seems to love him. I will definitely have to watch his episodes!

  9. What a great article! I love Doctor Who, though I am still fairly new to it as well. And you’re right, the storytelling is amazing, and the characterization of the characters are great. I think Donna is my favorite companion just because she had so much personality she just demanded for us to pay attention. She was as normal as anyone could get, yet she did some incredible things.

    And after David Tennant left, I think I waited months before continuing on the series in Netflix, just because I didn’t want him to really be gone.

    Thanks so much for the reminder!

  10. Doctor Who is a great show to analyze for writing advice, both in what it does well and what it does badly, I think. I’ve only watched New Who, and I’ve loved all of the doctors and all the companions, but Matt Smith is my favorite doctor, Donna Noble my favorite companion. I got frustrated with the overarching series arcs in Stephen Moffat’s era, especially Season 6, but that’s not Matt Smith’s fault, like Jc said. More than the previous actors, Matt Smith really made me believe that he was an alien with centuries and centuries of life lived. And I LOVE his obsession with silly clothes. 😀

    • I think the clothes obsession is my favorite aspect of him. And I totally get why you would call him the most believable. For sure. I’m growing to like him a lot. Tennant was just so magic, I can’t get over losing him 🙂

      • Tennant was lovely, too! I was sad to see him go, but I fell in love with Matt Smith immediately. I also love how whimsical Matt Smith is, and how clueless on how to deal with people. Sometimes Davit Tennant was a little too over-the-top. 😛 Matt Smith is more subtle.

  11. I really need to get into the whole Doctor Who movement. Almost everyone I know, in real life and on the internet, talks about him all the time. But if the storytelling aspect is strong, then I’m definitely interested!

    These were great tips. I just started writing a novella, and I’ve been thinking about how to ‘make it great’, so these were perfectly timed. Thanks Victoria!

  12. I love Doctor Who. I’ve been watching it since I was a kid, and still miss the fifth Doctor, who was the first one I got attached to. I love the reboot too, and think that Davies and Moffat have done a great job of revitalising it. But some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from the reboots have come from what they’ve got wrong.

    I liked that Russell T Davies put all this emotion into the show, but then he started fixing everything with emotion and belief, rather than solutions that were interesting or clever or made sense, and I found that pretty unsatisfying. Moffat got away from that, but he’s a bit too proud of some of his own creations – the weeping angels and River Song in particular – and uses them past the point where they stop being effective. He’s not great at killing his darlings.

    Similarly, Davies’s tendency to make every series finale world-threatening actually undermined the tension for me. I never believed that the world would end, so I never believed in the stakes of the story, so I cared less. If he’d just put the Doctor and his companion, or a few people we got to know, in peril, I would have cared more. But the whole universe, again? Nah. High stakes are no substitute for stakes you really care about.

    On a more positive note, I wrote a whole blog post about regeneration as a plot device in the show, because I think they do some clever stuff with what’s basically a way around a TV production problem:
    https://andrewknighton.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/regeneration-as-a-plot-device/

    • so awesome, Andrew!!! I pretty much agree with everything you say here…. River Song is driving me NUTS. And while I did appreciate the end of the “Are You My Mummy?” episode I definitely see your point about emotion being the “fix” too much. And there is such a thing as stakes being too high. I hadn’t really considered that, but that’s a very astute observation.

  13. Glad you’ve converted. I’ve been a Doctor Who fan for ages. Tom Baker was my first Doctor. But I love David Tennant. Thanks for this post. I’ve been watching Season 4 again (I have the DVDs for all of the seasons from Christopher Eccleston through Matt Smith). I so agree. This show is such an inspiring show, mainly because those who work on it love it and believe in it. Just watch Doctor Who Confidential and you can see that. If we emulate anything about the show, we need to emulate a true love for what we write.

    • That really got me thinking about my kingdom of Herezoth, and why I love it, and how my characters’ defenses of why it’s worth fighting for are really my own. WOW. Awesome stuff 🙂 So true!!!

  14. Some great points. I think the way Doctor Who mixes humour with tragedy, light-heartedness with darkness is genius. As for picking one favourite doctor – that’s hard. Tenant was amazing, but Matt Smith was so much fun. I also have a special soft spot for John Pertwee and Tom Baker.

    • Smith really grew on me the more I watched him. His take was very different than Tennant’s, and brilliant in its way 🙂 I need at some point to watch some of the original series…. at this point I’ve only seen the reboot but have heard LOTS of good stuff about Tom Baker as the 4th Doctor

  15. My favourite is David Tennant, I love how he can be so funny but also the sad, emotional moments. My favourite episode is the one where at the end the Doctor loses Rose into the other Universe, I cried my eyes out and it was so believable.

    I like Matt Smith too, not as much but he plays the Doctor so differently that I can enjoy it while still missing David.

  16. Well spoken Victoria and welcome fellow Whovian! I’ve been a fan of the series since ’85 so I know quite a bit about the classic series if you have any interest.

    Doctor Who is classified as a Sci-fi show but when you watch there are so many more facets to the series: Romance, Comedy, History, Adventure, and Drama. Storytelling is one of the great assets to the series and why it has lasted 50 years!

    As for my favorite Doctor, going back to the classic series, it would be Sylvester McCoy (7th). His stories started out lighthearted but then turned dark and moody.

    • sounds fun! I will have to give the classic series some attention, when I find the time! Have heard lots of good stuff about the fourth doctor in particular. And now the seventh 🙂 yea!

  17. Pingback: What Reading Can Teach a Writer (That TV and Film Can’t) | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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