Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why Writers Should be Watching The Following: A Lesson in Fantastic Storytelling

*this image belongs to Fox

There's no denying that Fox's new drama The Following is dark, twisted, violent, and at times downright disturbing. But what I didn't expect is that it's so unbelievably clever in the way that it tells it's story. Even better it's a great road map for and of a writer, two in fact.

The Following opens with the prison escape of infamous serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) who is known for murdering a string of women often involved in taking his college literature course. Talk about an inciting incident. So who does the FBI to call to help with the case? Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), the former FBI agent who caught Carroll the first time around. Hardy just so happens to be watching the news of the escape which is of course on every single channel and completely unavoidable. Oh no, is that a empty handle of vodka I see in his trash can and more alcohol all over his messy room? Hello flawed hero! So already we have a hugely interesting start, we've met our villain, and our not so perfect hero and we aren't even ten minutes in. And in book world, I'd say a minute per page, so ten pages in, which is sheer perfection.

The story deepens from there. Enter Sarah Fuller (Maggie Grace), Carroll's last and only surviving victim of his brutal attacks. Knock, knock, knock, the FBI are at your door Sarah, they want to protect you from recently escaped psychopath, Carroll. Well that just ruined Dr. Fuller's day. And in just another few short minutes, we've gotten some well weaved back story on the villain without the infamous info dump. HOORAY!

Meanwhile, Hardy is meeting up with the FBI and checking out Carroll's now vacated cell for clues. And what's this? Carroll had a copy of Hardy's book about the whole ordeal surrounding Carroll's horrible string of murders and his arrest. So our flawed hero is also a writer. Talk about character depth!

Cue the police whiteboard on the suspect's history. Here we learn that Carroll, a literature professor, was also a writer. Too bad his book was not a best seller, or rather it was, but not until after he was outed to the world as a serial killer. This little seed planted becomes important later, stay tuned. Oh how I love good foreshadowing.

So where does the hero go next? He retraces the history of the villain. Again we get more back story on the antagonist, in an interesting way, through the eyes of the hero. Hardy pays a visit to Carroll's now ex-wife, Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea). We learn a lot about Carroll from Claire, including that he has a son and that he wrote her a letter while in prison. What we don't expect to learn is more about our flawed hero. The letter states that Carroll knows about Hardy's affair with Claire. So with one simple tool the plot thickens, Hardy becomes more flawed and we tie the knot between the protagonist and the antagonist that much tighter. Their journeys are more than just crossing, they are entangled.

As the story continues to unfold, we learn that Carroll has an obsession with Edgar Allen Poe (yay more writers!) and Poe was the basis for his previous string of murders. Now Carroll is on a mission to finish his story. Mainly, complete what he started with Sarah Fuller. Even with the police stationed inside Sarah's house, she is taken from underneath their noses. But how can this be? Enter the first twist of the story, that gay couple that lives next door aren't as nice as they originally appeared to be. In fact they aren't even gay, but they won Sarah's trust by living next door, and also won access to her place through a shared wall between their closets.

This twist does a few things to the plot. It ups the anti, in that we can no longer trust what we thought we knew about this story. We also know we can't trust everyone we meet, yay for added tension and mystery! And this incident puts a serious mound of guilt and stress on Hardy, the poor hero. He vowed to protect Sarah and now it looks like he's failed.

Despite the grim looking odds, Hardy through a series of clues tracks Carroll's location and sets out to save Sarah alone. Here is a great example of the hero making a bad decision for the right reason. Should Hardy have set out to tackle a serial killer alone? Heck no! But he knows that this isn't about the rest of the FBI, it's about him, Carroll, and Sarah. So does Hardy tell the FBI where he's headed and risk ruining his chance at finding and saving Sarah or does he take off on his own and risk his own safety but therefore have a better chance at reaching her? Talk about some bad options which again makes for some great tension. These are the kind of choices that not only make characters interesting but really define character without just saying he's loyal, finishes what he's started and likes to take risks to do the right thing. With one decision, all that and more, was showed about Hardy rather than just told to the audience.

Unfortunately Hardy is too late to save Sarah, but he does capture Carroll with the help of the FBI, who shows up because they are luckily not as stupid as they look. So one would think the story ends here, the murderer is back behind bars, and despite another few deaths of officers and poor Sarah Fuller, all seems right with the world again. Cue another episode.... But wait! This is where another big twist comes into play and the whole genius of the writing behind this show really begins.

Hardy of course goes to interrogate Carroll. Here we learn the game Carroll is really playing. Carroll tells Hardy he was not only trying to finish what he started with the original string of murders, but he off to write a new story. And who is the main character of his story? None other than former FBI agent Hardy. Carroll goes on to say that Sarah's death is the inciting incident (yes he uses those exact words inciting incident) to his new story, and in killing Sarah, he's created a flawed, guilt-riddled hero with Hardy. Even better still, he's got a host of other players or a cult if you will, under his tutelage and embedded into the lives of others (the gay couple next door to Sarah included) to help drive the story as he so desires. Carroll assumes the God role and he's got a whole host of characters he's playing puppetmaster too. This guy is a crazy, creepy, madman, but he's a phenomenal writer! He has everything in place to complete a fantastic story.

So now we have a story within a story. Only problem is, Hardy wants to play this out by his own rules and not by Carroll's. So the journey continues with Carroll at the helm and his flawed protagonist fighting at every turn to write a different story. Does this sound familiar to any other writers out there? And driving it all is a cast of characters carefully crafted and trained (or written if your will) by Carroll himself. All Carroll has to do it watch how everything unfolds from his cute little jail cell. Now cue chapter two, and yes the episodes are broken down and named as chapters. How clever is that? Talk about phenomenal writing, fantastic story telling, and great entertainment. Something I know every writer ultimately strives for.

So to say I am sold on this show, both from an entertainment standpoint and a educational standpoint is an understatement. There's no doubt this creepy, dark show will give me nightmares, but it will also give me an amazing lesson in good story telling and how to be a better writer. And if there are any other writers out there who don't mind a little gore with a side of jump factor, I invite your to join me on this journey. It's sure to be a great one and I hope to learn a lot.


  1. This one has definitely intrigued me as well!! I never thought of it as a fun lesson though. I'm going to be watching with different eyes this week!

    1. I definitely learned a lot from just the first two episodes. I think you could honestly analyze any show for what they did well and what they didn't from a storytelling end but from a writing standpoint this stood out far above anything I've seen recently. Not to mention it had so many great examples of what writers should do, and added the element of having two characters that are writers. It really opened my eyes!