Monday, November 22, 2010

Writing Lessons from the TV Series "The Vampire Diaries"

One of the first bits of advice we writers who wish to be more prolific receive is to cut waaaaaaaaay back on our TV watching. For the most part, I don’t have a problem. I’m not into soaps, haven’t seen an episode of Oprah in years, but at night I will admit to unwinding in front of the flat screen. I can take the high road and say I only watch NatGeo or TLC (which can be a pretty bizarre trip into voyeurism) but if you’re looking for me on a Thursday night at 8:00PM - I’m usually curled up in my favorite chair with a cup of something warm anxiously waiting to travel to the fictional town of Mystic Falls to watch the Salvatore brothers get themselves into more trouble.

Did I mention the Salvatore brothers are vampires?

If you’ve taken leave from the planet for awhile you might not be familiar with The Vampire Diaries. First a YA novel series written by L.J. Smith (published in 1991, btw) and now a television series developed (and often penned) by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec.

The Vampire Diaries on television follows the story of Stefan and Damon Salvatore, brothers from Mystic Falls, Virginia, who were ‘turned’ in the late 1800s by a vampire they both fell in love with named Katherine Pierce. Fast forward to modern day, Stefan returns to his home of Mystic Falls only to fall in love with Elena Gilbert, a young girl he saves from a car that had swerved off a bridge and into a river. Elena happens to be the spitting image of Katherine. Stefan enrolls in high school so he can get to know her. Elena is immediately intrigued by the smokin’ hot and brooding, Stefan. Soon after Stefan’s bad-boy brother Damon comes to town, with his own agenda, part of which is to make Stefan miserable and baboom!– instant intrigue.

My goal is not to summarize the series for you, but to point out some writing tips I’ve learned along the ride. And yes, this is an absolute justification to completely enjoy my guilty pleasure, but I’ve learned a lot.

Vibrant Characters – All of the main characters on the show are multi-dimensional, but for my purpose I’m going to focus on Damon Salvatore (played with sigh-worthy brilliance by Ian Somerhalder). Damon is described as the bad-boy. The pure evil boy might be more like it. One moment he will charm you, the next, rip out your heart. And I mean that…like…literally. And yet whenever the softer side of Damon is shown – you can’t help but fall in love with him. When he professes his love for Elena, even though he knows how many times he’s wronged her, it’s with genuine emotion, so that when he compels her to forget that he told her he loves her…you are just left heartbroken and rooting for him. Even ‘good boy’ Stefan isn’t all good, especially when he drinks human blood, which he’s sworn off of, even though it’s what makes him stronger. And it turns out innocent human Elena can pull a few deceitful tricks out from her sleeve in order to protect her man, um, er, vampire, as well. No one is either all good or all bad. It’s truly an awesome lesson in character development.

Well developed ensemble cast – The supporting characters are equally as intriguing and layered as the main triangle. There’s Bonnie, Elena’s best friend and yes, witch who helps her friend out of a myriad of tough situations in spite of having an intrinsic dislike for vampires. Jeremy, Elena’s brooding little brother (a character created for the television series) whose legacy is to be a vampire hunter and yet he can’t help befriending some of the bloodsuckers. And there's Caroline, Elena’s other BFF, often misunderstood and in Elena’s shadow, who becomes a vampire quite by accident. (yes, you read that right). I could go on and on, even with one-episode-only players, but I could fill the page. The lesson here is to make your supporting cast as interesting as your main cast so when they interact, your story is that much richer.

Triangles - There’s Stefan-Katherine-Damon, Stefan-Elena-Damon, Damon-Katherine-Mason, Elena-Bonnie-Caroline, Caroline-Damon-Caroline’s Mom (which is not as creepy as it sounds), Elena-Matt-Caroline, Bonnie-Jeremy-Luka, etc. etc. Having triangles – ever shifting and changing - keeps things interesting. Having trouble with a ho-hum relationship in your book? Throw another character into the mix, preferably one who will shake things up, and you’ll see sparks fly.

Keep upping the stakes – There’s barely a moment on Vampire Diaries that is NOT without life and death peril. And just when you think the story has slowed down or the characters are safe…another variable is brought in. How nice – Stefan and Elena are finally going to get some couple time, WAIT, in walks Katherine. Look - Elena has the moonstone in her grasp…oh no, watch out for those SNAKES! Whew –Damon staked the evil uber vampire Elijah…but wait, he’s not really dead, dead. He survived the staking and is now coming after Elena. Upping the stakes, and placing your characters in further peril equates to page turning plots.

All of this and more is why although I enjoy watching The Vampire Diaries, I consider it a master class in great story. Makes me feel a little less guilty enjoying my guilty pleasure. Kind of like knowing that dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidants. A win-win situation!

So tell me Paper Waiters, have you found sound writing advice in the not so usual places?

The Vampire Diaries is on the CW, Thursdays at 8. For a more detailed episode guide, producing/writing credits and info on the gorgeous and talented cast, go here.


  1. We've often talked about READING as writers, but you WATCH as a writer.

    Can't take the writer out of the girl!

  2. Yes Gale, it's hard NOT to do that. Even in movies I'm fascinated by how certain plot twists work. My writer's mind hardly takes a break, lol.

    (and yes, justification for watching a very addictive program)

  3. This is a very interesting post, Robin, but it leaves me in a quandary. You see, my newest guilty pleasure is The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. (I kid you not.) Despite the fact that is has vibrant characters (dripping with vibrant jewels), triangles aplenty (though, so far they're all bff-based), and the rest, I don't think I'll find any sound writing advice from that show. Darn. Maybe I should find a new one.

  4. I used a scene from Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" in my critical thesis to show how bad-guys can be presented in a "good" way so as to develop empathy from the reader/watcher. It is possible to learn things from TV - besides the migratory patterns of wildebeests and zebras.

  5. For great writing and great story telling, I watch Mad Men. I love the way characters return from previous seasons, clues are dropped and you may or may not know it's a clue, but you can't wait to see how it will pan out, and tension is always palpable.