Writing Excuses 11.51: Ensemble As a Sub-Genre, with Lynne M. Thomas
Key points: Heists are often thriller or mystery plus ensemble. Sports dramas often are ensembles. Adding ensemble as subgenre can change the solutions, often adding other approaches. Ensembles often are big. Sometimes ensembles give the main characters a rest, as we follow the rest of the ensemble. Ensembles can provide the strange to mix with familiar main characters. Ensembles also can provide a framework for many small stories of another subgenre, or as the background for a series. Horror stories may use an ensemble is a cast of characters to kill. Ensembles can help avoid polemic and Mary Sue’s. When introducing the members of your ensemble, work hard at compressed, good storytelling. Don’t bury the reader in back story. Ensembles work best without superpowered main characters. “Bad decision theater is how great ensembles happen.” Give the ensemble an arc.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 51.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Ensemble As Subgenre, with Lynne M. Thomas.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, editor extraordinaire, Lynne M. Thomas.
[Lynne] Hello. It’s lovely to be here.
[Brandon] Will you tell us a little bit about yourself?
[Lynne] Sure. I am the co-editor-in-chief and copublisher of the Hugo award-winning Uncanny Magazine, as well as a member of the Verity podcast ensemble. We’re six smart women from around the planet, talk about Doctor Who and argue a whole lot.
[Brandon] And you also have done anthologies, I believe?
[Lynne] I have indeed. I have three non-fiction anthologies, one of which won a Hugo award. It’s called Chicks Dig Time Lords, because we do. I also have done a fiction anthology with my husband, Michael, called Glitter and Mayhem, which is a… It’s nightlife and roller derby with science-fictional elements because why would you not?
[Brandon] Why not? Of course.
[Brandon] So we spoke, a couple weeks ago, about ensemble as a genre. And we love this topic, and we’re happy to be back at it. We’re going to be talking about ensemble as subgenre, meaning how do you take a story that is primarily doing something else… Say this story is an action adventure piece, or a romance piece, and add an ensemble element to it to add spice, to give you subplots, to maybe help you fill out your characters.
[Mary] So, I have been waiting for this since two weeks ago, which in our terms was five minutes ago.
[Mary] Because we’re recording this back-to-back. I realized as we were talking about the sub… The elemental genre of ensemble, and we kept talking about heists… And how they were a subgenre. I was like, “No, they’re not actually a subgenre of ensemble. Heists… Or a… What a heist is… Not a subset. What a heist is, it’s a thriller plus…”
[Brandon] Yeah, you’re right. It’s thriller or mystery. Because sometimes a heist is how are they going to pull this off? What is going on?
[Mary] How will it go horribly wrong?
[Brandon] Yeah, how will it go horribly wrong? You’re absolutely right.
[Mary] I got so excited by that. Because it suddenly made me understand why some heist things failed. Because they were not actually inserting the thriller element in. Or they had the thriller element, but then they didn’t have the ensemble element in there. I was like, “Oh. Now I want to go back and rewrite some things.”
[Dan] That explains a lot about Oceans 12, actually.
[Mary] Yeah, doesn’t it?
[Brandon] The other thing we missed, which our audience kindly pointed out to us, that all of us science-fiction nerds appear forgot that the entire sports drama genre is ensemble. Which I shouldn’t have forgotten, because I’ve studied it in order to use it in science fiction and fantasy quite a bit.
[Dan] We talked a bit about Star Trek. Most of those episodes, I think, are primarily idea stories with ensemble as the sub.
[Brandon] Yeah, I would agree. So let’s talk about why would you add an ensemble to a story as a subgenre.
[Dan] Well, looking at idea stories in particular or exploration or whatever it is that you’re doing, ensemble can change the way in which that problem is solved. Here is a crazy idea we want to explore. Well, if it’s just one or two characters, they’re going to look at it one way, or maybe two ways. An ensemble, they will have five or six different approaches to all solving that problem at the same time.
[Howard] I think one of the challenges with treating the ensemble, the elemental ensemble, as a subgenre is that it’s inherently demanding. It’s big. In order to get all those pieces in, you gotta use a lot of words, you gotta commit a lot of screen time, a lot of picture real estate, you have to do a lot in order to communicate that. So the temptation is, well, as long as I’m doing all this work, I might as well just make that the whole book.
[Lynne] Well, I think one of the other things that you can take into account for ensemble is that it can be very efficient for giving your main actor some time off. Doctor Who is a great example of this, because every single story has a brand-new ensemble that surrounds the doctor and whatever companion he is traveling with, so you literally have a new ensemble every story. Therefore you have a whole new way to solve problems every story. You have a whole new way to cause more problems every story. And you give the doctor and the companion some time off. This is especially infamous in the early days of the series. In the 1960s, they would literally knock your main characters unconscious for an episode or two. Then the ensemble would take over so that the actor who was playing the doctor or one of the companions could have a vacation.
[Lynne] Because they were shooting 48 weeks a year.
[Lynne] Yeah. 1960s Doctor Who was not for the weak of heart, in terms of actually being an actor on that series. It was a ridiculous amount of work.
[Mary] That’s like the early Star Trek stuff, too. But one of the things that I was thinking about, like when you were talking about giving your character time off, I was thinking that that ties into something we’ve talked about a lot, that what people want is the familiar and the strange. One of the advantages that inserting ensemble into one of these other things is that you have your… You may have your main character that you love, but having a different set of people that they interact with means that you’ve got the one familiar thing, and then each time there interacting with another member of the ensemble, it is… It’s a constantly changing mix and ratio of personalities. Which means that you’re getting the familiar and the strange kind of constantly all the way through.
[Brandon] Well, people ask me, frequently, my students, how do you put everything together into a big story? Right? How do you tell this novel? How do you tell a series? How do you do this? It’s occurring to me that one of the things that we do is, we make an ensemble piece that we tell in little installments. Where we then tell a completed story of another subgenre or another elemental genre in a shorter amount of time. Star Trek’s a great example of this. Right? We are going to progress the story between these two characters a little bit. But we are going to solve this whole problem that’s facing the Enterprise in this episode. That allows you to tie an entire season together while having a lot of little stories that are successful and triumphant and exciting, but also having through lines which are your ensemble getting along together better and better.
[Lynne] That’s something that works in romance literature as well. I’m an avid romance reader, in addition to reading SF. One of my favorite romance writer tricks is to introduce an ensemble in the first novel in a series, and each member of the ensemble, whether it’s a family with multiple siblings or a group of friends who have determined that they’re going to say take on the London season together and succeed and get themselves some husbands, by gum. In either case, what happens is that one of the characters is the main focus of the story in terms of their happy ending and their story. Then each subsequent novel, you have another member of the ensemble getting their own story. So it sort of becomes this wonderful thing where it’s fanfic of the first novel.
[Lynne] In each subsequent novel, because you love the ensemble in the first novel, and you’re like, “I really want to see their story,” and you can, because it’s book 2, book 3, book 4, and book 5, and everybody wins.
[Brandon] I’ve seen this done a lot in teen and middle grade these days, with these kind of giant mega-series written by different authors and things like this, that they’ll stake out different books for different characters of the ensemble.
[Mary, Dan] Yeah.
[Howard] Oh. So ah… Another reason to use the ensemble as a subgenre is if you are a horrible person, and you’re planning on killing them off as part of your horror story.
[Lynne] So the George RR Martin series.
[Howard] In the beginning of… Oh, for instance, The Devil’s Only Friend…
[Howard] Where we create this fun ensemble of characters, and then through the course of the book, spoiler alert, begin mercilessly…
[Dan] One by one. That’s a very good point, because a lot of horror, and a lot of horror movies, trick you by starting off as ensemble pieces. Cabin in the Woods starts off as an ensemble story, precisely because we want you to love them and I can pretend I have friends. Then you lose them one by one because the world is pain.
[Mary] Well, but the reason that you do that, rather than killing off strangers, is because it raises the emotional stakes for the reader.
[Lynne] If you’re just killing people off at random who you don’t care about as characters, there’s no emotional impact whatsoever.
[Howard] You’re less likely to get caught.
[Brandon] Then you’re just a super [garbled – green nose?]
[Lynne] In terms of getting away with the actual murder, it is far more effective to have it be completely random, however, if that is not your goal, but your goal is to traumatize your reader, then really what you want to do is raise the stakes by killing off characters that are beloved, and I just going to stare squarely at George RR Martin once again.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop…
[Mary] Totally sitting in the audience right now.
[Lynne] Oh, yeah. Definitely.
[Mary] I did just see someone look around, just in case.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Lynne, you have a book that you’ve been loving that you wanted to pitch to everyone.
[Lynne] Yes. My book of the week is the one that I started yesterday, and I’m being good and doing my critiques and not reading more of it yet, but I’m going to. I am reading Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn, which is a story about two best friends and Asian superheroes and loyalty. Right now we are in the assembling an ensemble phase of the novel. So it ties into this week’s theme as well, and I’m enjoying the heck out of it. It’s set in San Francisco. It… Everybody’s got superpowers. It’s a lot of fun.
[Brandon] One more time. Title and author?
[Lynne] Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn.
[Brandon] Excellent. All right. So… Mary, you look like you have something to say.
[Mary] So we were talking about the reasons to do this. One of the things that… it occurred to me was that Writing Excuses is actually a very good example of an ensemble show. We are a combination of ensemble and education. But the reason that there…
[Mary] Yes. We have totally… Whose trade marking? Okay. But the thing… The advantage that it gives us is that it gives us multiple perspectives, which is useful if you’re doing issue, as we were talking about, to avoid keeping it from becoming polemic. But it also means that you do not have to have a character become a Mary Sue. Your character does not have to be unbelievably good at everything in order to…
[Dan] Well, Howard is a little bit of a Mary Sue out of us [accomplish]…
[Mary] I’m a Mary Robinette, does that count?
[Dan] It’s close. I actually had a bit of a revelation sitting here thinking about…
[Mary] But I wasn’t finished.
[Dan] You’re not… Then please go ahead.
[Mary] As I will demonstrate.
[Mary] Because it also gives you built-in conflict.
[Mary] Okay. Now you can go ahead.
[Dan] That actually segues perfectly. So. I’ve been thinking about Firefly, which we talked about as an ensemble. I think in contrast to Star Trek, Firefly for the most part is primarily ensemble. I think that’s the main genre. What they’re doing is they’re saying, “Look at these characters. Look at the ways that they fit together, and more importantly, look at the ways that they don’t.” But then there are three or four episodes where they flip over into heist. That is where they are thriller primarily, with ensemble as the sub. They use those episodes is a way of saying, “When we need to, we can all come together.” And the teamwork works and it solidifies that group and their friendships and their roles. So the ensemble serves a very specific purpose as subgenre in that sense.
[Lynne] Oh, absolutely. Out Of Gas in particular is there to create an emotional high note in terms of the bringing of that team together and the demonstration of their unity. I mean, there’s… The big red button has a massively important purpose in the entire series, and it’s a wonderful thing.
[Howard] Ensemblecation.com is available as of this hour.
[Howard] Yes. As the rest of the crew was doing their thing, the domain search guy was over here in the corner looking it up.
[Lynne] That’s your superpower.
[Brandon] I’m looking at you and you’ve like got this smile on your face, like I’m oh, he’s got something brilliant. You get that smile.
[Dan] It’s so good to finally know what Howard’s specialty is on the podcast.
[Lynne] So fundamentally, you are the Villa in the [Spike 7 team?]
[Dan] Like four people got that.
[Brandon] Okay. So, parting words on ensemble? Any advice on doing it right? Rather than doing it poorly, particularly as a subgenre?
[Howard] Take the things that… I mean, we talk so much about show, don’t tell, don’t do the maid and butler thing, those kinds of problems that you can run into anywhere else in your work are especially problematic when you are introducing the members of your ensemble. The compressed storytelling where you show us them being competent, being friendly, being characters, being whatever, getting that bit right, I think is… For me, it’s the most important part. And it’s the hardest.
[Brandon] Right. Making them work together. Yeah. I would agree 100%.
[Mary] I would say that making sure that the characters are well-rounded and developed, but with the caveat and warning that just because you have figured out the character’s back story does not mean that the character’s back story has to play a role in the story. It’s just going to affect how the character perceives and attacks their problems.
[Brandon] One of the reasons why Mistborn didn’t work as an ensemble, and it works on as many other things… Was that I made several of the characters to multi-ta… Or multi-capable. I would say when I approached the second Mistborn series, I said I really want to do on ensemble this time. One of the things I decided was I’m going to back off on the power level of characters, so that I can have the specialists work. That would be my suggestion. Whatever you’re doing, it’s going to be hard to do an ensemble if your characters… Your main characters can do too much. Which you can still tell that kind of story, but it’s not going to be on ensemble the same way.
[Lynne] I think one of the other important things to do is to make sure that your… All of your characters have inherent flaws that lend themselves to bad decision-making.
[Brandon] I would agree.
[Lynne] Because bad decision theater is how great ensembles happen.
[Howard] Yeah, that’s this podcast in a nutshell.
[Dan] Bad decision theater, I think, is our subtitle. My quick piece of advice is going to be, as you look at your main characters, your sub-characters that are part of this ensemble, and you give them arcs, give the ensemble itself an arc. Whether it’s the Avengers-style let’s come together as a family or the Firefly-style let’s all just try to survive and not kill each other. Treat that ensemble as if it were a character. Give it an arc. Let it grow.
[Brandon] Excellent. Well, Mary, you are going to give us some homework.
[Mary] Right. Since we are talking about ensemble as a subgenre, what I want you to do is look at some of the elemental genres that we have already discussed. See what happens to them if you introduce ensemble into it. Like, if you introduce ensemble into an issue, if you introduce it into a mystery, or into a thriller? What does it do to that story if you introduce the ensemble?
[Brandon] Excellent. We’d like to thank our special guest, Lynne M. Thomas.
[Lynne] Thank you. Lovely to be here.
[Brandon] We would like to thank our Writing Excuses cruise members.
[Brandon] And I’d just like to take a moment to say we have really enjoyed doing the elemental genres with you. We only have a couple more weeks left of the year. We will be doing a Q&A on ensemble, but that will be the end of the elemental genres for now. I will encourage you to get excited and get ready because we will he introducing the new season to you and a couple of weeks.
[Howard] 2017’s going to be pretty cool.
[Brandon] Look forward to that. And you are out of excuses. Now go write.