Suprising, yet inevitable

There's the old guideline in TV (features as well, I'm sure, but I've been hearing it here and there, not surprisingly, in regards to TV) that endings should be surprising, yet inevitable. It's a guideline that's both obvious and contradictory. And really damn hard.

It's something I've been thinking about as I've been succumbing to Mad Men and catching up with the show at a furious pace. The endings to Mad Men's episodes are fantastic. They're both text book and yet still ahead of the curve. And they're most definitely surprising, yet inevitable.

Surprising is a tricky thing. I've been thinking about it as I've been tinkering around with some pilot ideas. Because this guideline can obviously be applied to any good script as a whole. And especially to a pilot spec, as a good series -- or the promise of one -- should absolutely create a world and a story that is both surprising, yet inevitable.

I'm not going to pick apart this guideline, I think despite it's difficulty it's incredibly self-explanatory.

But it keeps rattling around inside my head these days because it's been helping me weed out the holes in my pilot ideas -- and the lack thereof. I have one for instance that I keep deciding is too lean. But the concept is too much fun; so I keep coming back to it. The problem with it is that it's not surprising. The great concept, once successfully plotted out, is simply inevitable. Forget the ending, the entire last act is paint-by-numbers.

And I kept beating my head against its wall. But as I was watching the final episode of Mad Men's first season, it hit me: There's nothing surprising in my pilot idea's ending. There's nothing to rework. Whether or not I can inject it with some surprise -- maybe. It's possible, of course. I just don't see it yet.

Now, the inverse -- the lack of holes -- is a more interesting issue. I've been slipping back into old habits lately. I've been over-thinking things. Making things too difficult. Overdoing the prep work.

Patricia Highsmith once wrote that she didn't believe in outlining the ends of her books. She said that if she knew what was going to happen, there'd be no surprise in it for her. And what was the fun of that?

Now, I'm not espousing throwing outlines out the window. Let's not get crazy. But I've been finding as of late that my ideas that are too fully fleshed out -- without any problems or holes to be filled, without solutions to be discovered along the way -- well, they just don't have the life and the spark of those that I have to discover myself as I go.

I'm not talking big holes, like missing acts, or act breaks or characters. I'm just saying that, for me, there has to be some lingering questions. Like everything else in life, you have to keep the mystery alive.

From start to finish it's got to be inevitable, yet it still has to be surprising. Even for me.

ps. RIP David Foster Wallace. Always surprising.


Amanda said...

this is a bit cliche advice, but maybe the key is starting backwards. dreaming up a a surprising, edgy, cool ending and then plotting out really logical ways to get there. I noticed the same quality in WEEDS, so when I wrote my spec I definitely thought about my ending first.

and don't forget to think big. how crazy was the mad men that ended with bets and the shotgun? crazy, bu amazing.

adam _______________________ said...

Thanks for the advice, Amanda. Cliched, but likely for a reason. I've been really big on beginnings recently, as far as ideas go. I should give that a try.

And I loved that ending with the shooting at the neighbor's pigeons. Loved it.