Are you hooked on Homeland? Yes? Great, we’re on the same wavelength. No? Give it a go, I’m sure you’ll be waiting for the next episode as soon as you have watched just one. Try it and let me know what you think. There is a trailer at the end of the post. I love espionage and secret service dramas. I was hooked on Spooks, set in the UK and now Homeland, a US TV series which was released in October 2011. I watched the latest episode last night and my final thoughts before I drifted off to sleep, and my first waking thoughts, were what makes it so gripping?
There are many good dramas, films, and books that will keep you wanting more – books that will keep you up all night, films that leave you glued to your seat long after the cinema has emptied, drama series that will leave you waiting for the next episode, but how and why does this happen? Like all of you, my life is full and busy, there isn’t much time to watch TV, get to the cinema often or read a book right through in one sitting. So it has to take a pretty good plot and compelling characters to make me want more. These are the two key elements of a good storyline. You can have a great plot with two-dimensional characters and the reader/viewer won’t engage or feel anything, apart from maybe the need to go and make a coffee. Similarly, you might have engaging characters but if nothing happens to them, then there is no tension or suspense, nothing to stay for, nothing to come back for.
I’ll fill you in quickly on the Homeland plot:
Homeland is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, following Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an American soldier returned to the US from years of captivity in Iraq, and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer who conducted an unauthorised operation in Iraq and is put on probation. She is warned that an American prisoner of war has been turned by al-Qaeda. She believes Brody is not an American Hero, but part of a sleeper cell planning a terrorist attack. The only person she can trust is Saul Berenson. The two must now work together to investigate Brody and prevent another terrorist attack on America. Homeland was named Best Drama Series at the Emmy Awards, with stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis winning Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and Lead Actor in a Drama Series, respectively. The series also won Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series.
So, what is it that has made the series so successful, and why am I taking up your time in sharing all of this? Because it is important to learn what makes the viewer keep coming back, and what keeps people reading.
A story has to have some element of conflict – conflict of desires, conflict of interest, conflict between characters. Without it there is very little tension. Not all books are thriller/espionage/action adventure, but even in a romance or historical fiction novel you’ll find some good areas of conflict which propel the plot forwards and drive the action. In Homeland you never really know which side Nicholas Brody is on. There are moments when you believe he wants the best for the US government and the country, and times when he wants to support the terrorist group who he became entwined with during his years in prison. He has allegiances to both sides for various reasons. As the viewer, you never know what he really believes.
Sol Stein, author of nine novels, poet, screenplay and TV drama script writer, and creative writing lecturer, has said this of characterisation – ‘When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.’ He says that we are driven through life by needs and wants, that these desires are the driving force of characters. If a character does not want something enough, the reader or viewer will have a difficult time getting behind them, and will lack the emotional experience that they are looking for. Carrie, in Homeland, is constantly trying to prove her belief that Brody has been turned and is a ‘threat to national security.’ It is this drive in her, despite the obstacles, that keeps you hooked. You want her to succeed.
What have you seen, read or written recently that builds tension? Do you have any examples of good plot or compelling characters?
I’m off to see Skyfall on Wednesday! Enjoy the Homeland trailer…