Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Pet The Dog--Then Kill It

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.

Frank Underwood, his wife and everyone else around him are ruthless. After all this is a show about politics. About power—and whatever it takes to gain more.  As Underwood says of another character: “Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power--in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn't see the difference.”

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.


Ron Estrada said...

This is why I love you, BC. You get such joy out of scenes like this. I haven't started this series. But I did start watching Breaking Bad this year. With all the hoopla, I figured it would serve me well to find out what made it so attractive. Of course, it's the characters. Any one of the five main characters are fascinating by themselves. They are far from ordinary, not even the wife of the DEA agent (a awesome!). It's been a good lesson for me. Readers don't want ordinary people in their novels or TV shows. They want to be shocked. It sounds like HOC does that (and like you say, it's politics, so no big stretch). It pays to check out these hit series and take notes.

Ane Mulligan said...

And I know why I won't watch it now! BHCC, y'know. No, I'll stick with That Dog Won't Hunt. Love that book, Ms. B. :)

Brandilyn Collins said...


Gina Holmes said...

I'll have to add this to our netflix. I got sucked into breaking bad and from a writer's perspective, it was pure genius and actually had a great message. (Though not recommended for kids or teens without a good moral compass). Blacklist is good too. Throw everything at them and then throw some more.

Maryann Miller said...

While I can recognize the brilliance of the writing in the show, I just can't stick with it. I tried several episodes when I heard how good it is, and it is on so many levels. However, I can't stay with a character I don't like, no matter how pithy his lines or how well-played. And Kevin Spacey is amazing. Perhaps I am just too old-school, but I really want characters that I can care about.

Brandilyn Collins said...

So do I, Maryann. And for that reason, although people rave about Breaking Bad, I couldn't watch it. I just couldn't fill my head with it, and I didn't care about the protagonist. Do I care about Frank Underwood in House of Cards? Well, I guess I care about what happens next, because you never know--and the characters do continue to surprise. But this just shows how subjective reading and watching shows are. Sometimes a book or series can be very well done, and we can see that, yet not like it. I've learned that in my own writing. Some people just won't take to a character--while the majority raves about her. I've learned to let that go. It's not that I wrote a poor character. It's that my character and that reader just don't mix.

Nicole said...

And the minute I realized he was going to kill the dog, I would've been outa there. Like Maryann, give me somebody I can care about. I do appreciate those writers who can create a TV series with despicable characters and make it stick. I watch primarily forensic and murder mysteries, but if I didn't like a few of the characters in each series, I wouldn't waste my time. Gotta love somebody. (You do great characters, BC.)

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Interesting! I love multi-faceted characters, but I'm finding that some readers don't like seeing too much of the dark side in their main characters, if you will. Flawed characters are so fun to write, and yet we have to maintain that balance. It seems more and more often in TV shows, there isn't really a "hero" character to root for (case in point--Vikings TV show I've been following). I'm glad that as authors, we can show that balance--flawed characters, even evil characters, but at the end of the day, there is hope. That said, I will watch shows and read books with characters that I know are NOT going to change (like the one you're talking about, or Vikings, or The Talented Mr. Ripley, etc). But many readers won't read it. I find this sad, because some classics portray characters that don't have much growth (like Scarlett O'hara) and yet those characters stick with us for the very bad choices they've made.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

And Brandilyn, thank you for that thought. I find it sad when readers knock off stars b/c they don't relate to the main character's personality. I'm currently reading a very well-written book where I KNOW I would not act the way the MC does and respond how she does to situations. But that book is getting 5 stars from me, b/c it's well-written and I know that character represents a REALISTIC personality type. My MC is a married woman who is emotionally tied to other men. I find some readers HATE this about her. And yet I've known so many married women who struggle with this very issue. It would've been totally disingenuous if I hadn't showed this aspect of her, and yet I realize not every reader will relate. Anyway...all that to say, I appreciate your wise advice that some people don't take to certain characters.

Anonymous said...

I received this blog post of yours, Brandilyn, in my e-mail, responded to you with the reply submission after typing to you via that e-mail from Novel Rocket. Just got note saying have to go to your site. Didn't know this. Anyway, basically I said I have no plans to delve into HOC as I don't want to hear politics, especially British, and am almost burned out on U.S. politics, plus my state's politics are overwhelming. Enough is enough. And I also read nothing in what you wrote about it that interests me. I don't care if it is so popular and receiving great awards. I did find your imagining of the writing process for it witty and liked that! Lastly, I cannot tolerate even a fake scene of a wounded dog being strangled ("mercy" killing). I see other options. I find that very disturbing to even think about. I have a very, very tender heart for animals and most people. So that's all. Thank you, Brandilyn, for passing the HOC info on, though. This is my first time to write a response in this unfavorable way. ~ Jaylene

Brandilyn Collins said...

Thanks, Jaylene. My post isn't really about trying to make people like the show. It's a post for novelists--because we always tend to study characters, good and bad. We study scenes to see how improve our own writing. I can think a scene is well done even if a character does something I would never do or agree with.

Brandilyn Collins said...

Oh, by the way. I should probably add you never see this character strangle the dog. That's done off camera and is merely suggested. I'm with you--I couldn't handle that either.

Casey Miller said...

FU is not a character one would really like (you don't want as an enemy, either), but you do have to love how the show portrays how Congress works and all the scheming and planning that goes on. I worked with my lobbyist at a state level and this show is spot on.

Kellie Coates Gilbert said...

I'm late commenting here....but wow....was it an accident your book covers, one dark and menacing, and one with a dog show up after that post? Yikes!