by Brandilyn Collins
House of Cards is Netflix’s huge hit, based on a popular British series and starring Kevin Spacey as congressman Frank Underwood. HOC has won eight awards and has been nominated for many more. The show is so successful that its second season--13 shows streamed all in one day, February 14--caused Netflix stock to rise to an all-time high.
I really enjoy the series. But why? I can’t say I like the characters as people. In fact, I feel sorry for the shallowness of their lives. And they make choices I would never support and can’t respect. But therein lies the genius of the show’s writing. These characters may not always be likeable but they’re fascinating. Surprising. Multi-layered. With every chapter it seems I learn a little more about them. It’s a great series for novelists to study.
HOC uses an aside technique in which Underwood speaks directly to the camera. This would be easy to overdo, resulting in too much “telling.” But Kevin Spacey has so perfected his character that the planned asides can change considerably. “Sometimes we've discovered in the course of shooting that, actually, the dialogue that is written [for the aside] isn't necessary. All you have to do is a look.”
A sampling of Underwood’s pithy advice to the camera:
“Shake with your right hand but hold a rock with your left."
"The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties. Never regret."
"When you're fresh meat, kill and throw them something fresher."
Of his wife, he says, “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.”
House of Cards had me from the very first scene. (And isn’t that of utmost importance in our novels?) In my imagination, here’s how the creation of that scene went down:
A room without windows. A group of frazzled writers who haven’t seen daylight in over 24 hours, surrounded by coffee cups, empty pizza boxes and cans of Red Bull.
Writer 1: Come on, guys, we have to come up with something BIG. Some first scene that utterly grabs you.
Writer 2: Plus it has to say something DEEP about Underwood.
Writer 3: Something that’s never been done before.
Writer 4: Everything’s been done before.
They think. The clock ticks. And ticks. And ticks …
Writer 5 jumps to his feet. Thrusts both hands in the air. “I’ve got it! Let's start with a pet-the-dog scene—”
Writers 1-4. Groan. Moan. Roll eyes. “Are you kidding me, that’s been done a million times!”
Writer 5: “—and then he kills the dog.”
Stunned silence. Jaws drop.
Writers 1-4: Whoa! Amazing! I LOVE it! That’s brilliant!
And so we see Frank Underwood come upon a dog who’s been hit by a car. He feels bad for the dog, who clearly won’t live. In an aside to the camera: “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” Then he matter-of-factly strangles the dog. Next he consoles the owners about the fatal accident, promising to “put his people” on the case to find the hit-and-run driver.
I think about that scene and all the various “colors” it shows of the character. How it completely surprises and grabs attention. Then I think about the first scene in my own work in progress.
The first scenes of Brandilyn's latest Seatbelt Suspense® and Southern contemporary releases--Dark Justice and That Dog Won't Hunt--can be read on her website.