Writing Fiction: Ghost Whisperer Plotting Lessons
Just finished the last of the five seasons of Ghost Whisperer (GW.) All as homework for some stories I’m writing. About a ghost detective. (Plenty more homework to do.)
The idea is to train my inspiration with Ghost stories, and long-running series to learn the long arcs, cliffhangers, and so on. We first went through this with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
So I got onto Wal-Mart and ordered a few complete sets. (I’ll tell you about the others later.)
GW was basically a cross-genre procedural. Mostly, it was a mystery plot with a longer arc of romance. Various minor characters showed up and were replaced. Other genre points showed up inconsistently.
The plus to this is that it won many awards per Wikipedia.
Yes and no. The main character, Melinda Gordon, is constantly putting herself in harms way to get ghosts to “go into the light.” She gets threatened every show with things exploding at her and horrific physical effects that turn out to be visions. Her first partner gets killed when a plane lands on her at the end of season one, her husband gets shot and dies (then moves into another’s body with no memory in season four), but otherwise there are people dying every episode – because the ghosts have to come from somewhere. Usually, the deaths are off-screen. In fact, the highest stake here is dying and death. But not the heroine (well, she does get a near-death experience at the end of season two.)
Melinda has a gift of being able to see and hear ghosts, but that’s it. Mainly, this is a female-oriented show. Lots of grief. You’ll get tears every show. We’ll get to what else is missing later. Here we see that the main character has only a single super-skill here. (Other than shedding glycerin tears at the end of nearly every episode.)
Well, OK. Through the show, there’s suspense. And as the series went on, they got better at cliffhangers and front-end hooks. This is another weak spot, which is really because they have an underlying problem with the characters and stakes. Neither are very strong in this show. It ran for five seasons, with the ratings on the fifth tanking.
Outlandish premise, but actually based on real people who could actually talk to ghosts (like the hit movie “Horse Whisperer”.) So this kinda, sorta fits here. Zuckerberg points to “highly dramatic situations, plots that include bizarre and surprising actions… one powerful confrontation after the next.
Star Gate had these in spades – people who walked through a special gate to transport across the galaxy and defeat far more powerful beings with far less powerful weapons, mostly due to their spunk. Jeez.
Multiple Points of View
This show is about the main character’s angst, as well as the resolution of the ghosts, who are typically antagonistic at the start of the show and then get all mushy and apologetic at the end. We don’t really see any insight into the other characters, except slightly and temporarily through her husband after he comes back from the dead. Otherwise, the supporting characters aren’t well developed, regardless of their acting skills.
This is a small town scene, not “new, unfamiliar, and even exotic environments.” Same town (or one up the road) every show.
Characters – A Missing Over-arcing Villain (Or several.)
Other than the setting, this is the real rub.
By the end of Season 1 (technically, the very first episode of Season 2), they had developed and discarded Romano, who wore a dark fedora and was collecting souls to make him more powerful than the living.
There was a twin brother Gabriel who was collecting souls (“Lost Spirits”) for the Dark Side and isn’t mentioned after the third season.
There are Shinies and Shadows who mostly start working in earnest during the last season. Per Wikipedia, the Shinies defeated the Shadows in the fifth season final episode. (Not apparent that this was worldwide, as it could have been a local infestation.)
There are a lot of these lost spirits who haunt the underground beneath Grandview, and can be accessed through Melinda’s store basement wall (and City Hall’s). But nothing is ever done to either rescue them or vanquish the threat. Lost spirits cannot be recovered, apparently.
If you add these up, they are a series of lost opportunities.
For real drama, you need to have super-hero protagonists and opposed by super-villain antagonists. That’s the real conflict – equally potent opposites. Practically, it’s usually that the hero is a puny nobody who then learns and grows through his efforts to be a formidable opponent to the super-evil antagonist. Again, Star Gate had a regular series of these. The one-season Firefly met the blockbuster requirements better than Ghost Whisperer. And so had a movie to wrap up the loose strings. Star Gate had three movies, one before and two afterwards. Star Gate had three villain story arcs over their ten-year run, with a “replicator” scourge they had to defeat as well.
Ghost Whisperer could have taken the Romano character to organize the Lost Spirits and the Shadows, to wreak some serious havoc – such as they tried with the Gabriel character, but failed to push any of these through.
Most all of the above are abandoned by the end of the third season. The fourth season starts with a “Book of Changes” and a recurring University President, and this is kept as an element through the end of the show. And their fourth season was the most highly watched. Suspense is being built with hooks from the earlier shows, and cliffhangers for the next ones. The show started to hang together in longer story arcs, but not really. Again, because there wasn’t a coherent villain story arc through the whole scene.
(By the fifth season, the plot actually started to hold together better, but fell apart for other reasons below. The low ratings of that season made it the last.)
Buffy was much better in this account, as her super-villains would rise and get vanquished, but there was a real continuum built up – until they ruined just about everything by forcing the show to continue after the end of the fifth season. (There was a perfect wrap up there, and the other two seasons were contrived.)
The Insufficient Dynamic Duo and Scooby gang
In several of DW Smith‘s video workshops (mainly the one on Depth) he leaks out the secret that the current model that continues to run (and was probably started developing as early as the Doc Savage book series) was to have a main hero and heroine, supported by a group of also-rans with their own specific talents. The main duo are in a romance arc, and the individual team members have their own minor arcs. The villain is equally talented in a bad way as the hero/heroine is good, and also has flunkies that support him. (The flunkies are seldom well developed with arcs.) Having two main characters well developed sets the stage for this multiple viewpoint element above.
GW (and Star Gate, and Buffy) all work through this model. In GW, Melinda’s husband is only partially developed, and that is the main flaw other than missing any all-powerful consistent villain. It’s all about Melinda, and everyone else is bumbling around. When they introduce her child (who ages five years in a single episode) this then splits everything again, losing the actual format that works.
Star Gate moved the main hero off to another duty, but brings everyone back with a new leader of SG-1, who gets the gang back together again. Buffy loses her first love Angel (to a spin-off series) but then acquires Spike as a new lover. The Scooby gang continues meanwhile. So both of those shows stayed true to the format. (And yes, Star Gate had Jack O’Neill and Samantha Carter as star-crossed lovers through most of those years. When Jack moved off screen, she got other lovers and even a husband for one episode.)
GW was all about Melinda. Her Jim Clancy was really just part of her Scooby gang. So the main approach was flawed.
The real bottom line is that they were milking a emotion-laden procedural weekly mystery. But the larger character arcs didn’t progress. So it wasn’t a blockbuster.
(Someday I’ll have to take apart a procedural that does work, such as NCIS or Law & Order. Gunsmoke would probably be more profitable – per Wikipedia, it still has a couple hundred more episodes than Law and Order, plus it had four subsequent movies and started from a radio show… And I just found out that The Simpsons has started to beat out Gunsmoke.)
But Don’t Take This Seriously
Again, I’m working this out backwards from what makes a good novel, according to the sources I’ve collected. All these shows won lots of awards. (And I was leaking tears almost every episode of GW, so the writing and acting was good.) The point of this, and the Great Fiction Writing Challenge, is to do our studies of the stuff we like to read and watch (or binge-watch) in order to improve our craft.
The approach should also be:
- Do I like watching this – does it transport and involve me emotionally?
- What are the commonalities with other successful stories?
- How could they be improved where they are lacking?
Because I’m staying up late, doing an entire post right after the final episode of the final season of Ghost Whisperer, means it was actually quite good. (I didn’t do one for Star Gate, or some other series, such as the BBC TV Series Sherlock. But you can see some of those critiques above.)
And that’s the craft lesson boil-down of Ghost Whisperer.
While I now have a study of Randall & Hopkins (Deceased) to do, I’ll probably return to the Angel series and see how that developed, keeping the above in mind. (Meanwhile I’m also in the middle of a study of DW Smith’s take on Cliffhangers.)
So, the “game’s afoot,” at it were.
Good hunting, all.
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Also published on Medium.