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Transcript for Episode 17.26

Writing Excuses 17.26: Hanging Separately


Key Points: What can go wrong with an ensemble story? Waiting too long to bring them together. Breach of promise. No cohesion or lack of bond. Ensembles need both arguments with each other, and we are a found family. If you fail, make the arguments shallow, but make the family strong. There may be one character who needs to change or just be tossed out. Listen to your readers, then figure out what the real problem is.

[Season 17, Episode 26]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Hanging Separately.
[Zoraida] 15 minutes long.
[Kaela] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we should be hanging together.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Zoraida] I’m Zoraida.
[Kaela] I’m Kaela.
[Howard] I’m Howard, and I’m stealing the thunder of our whole title.
[Howard] Sorry, Dan.
[Dan] Awww.
[Howard] Who was it who said that?
[Dan] That was Benjamin Franklin.
[Howard] If we don’t hang together, we will…
[Dan] He said when they were plotting the revolution. If we do not hang together, we shall all hang separately. Or some variation of that.

[Dan] So we want to talk about this time the pitfalls of on ensemble. If the ensemble fails, if the characters don’t mesh, there’s lots of different ways this can go wrong. We are going to talk about it. So, let’s start with that first. What are some ways that ensemble can go wrong?
[Howard] I want to clarify here that we’re not talking about the pros and cons… The cons of an ensemble. We’ve already established that you’re going to try and write an ensemble. What are the common mistakes? What are the disasters? What are the failure points? For me, the most common failure point is when we wait too long to bring them together or to bring them back together.
[Zoraida] Right.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Zoraida] I have some examples.
[Dan] Okay, let’s hear them.
[Zoraida] One example to me which is… I guess this teeters on the success/failure rate for me. I think that The Defenders was a great show in the second half of the show. But as an ensemble… I… To me, it failed to ach… Like, the adhesion of the characters waited too long. If I hadn’t gotten deep enough into episode four, which I think is too late, I would have turned it off.

[Dan] Yeah. I do think that there is room in the world for slow burn stories about teams coming together. Season one of Heroes did the same thing. But a lot of it comes down to promise. Heroes promised, look, people all over the world are suddenly developing powers for no reason. Over the course of the season, we’re going to very slowly watch them begin to come together. The Defenders promised us, hey, all these other shows you love? This is the show where they team up. Then it didn’t give us that for way too long, so it felt like a breach of promise.
[Howard] One of the things… This isn’t necessarily an apologist approach to The Defenders…
[Howard] But one of the things that made Daredevil so strong in its first season was that the four act format of TV with commercial breaks wasn’t being adhered to. So, the flow of the show was much different. Conversations went on longer than they would have in broadcast TV had this been something that had commercials in it. So I feel like they leaned into that when they built The Defenders and shouldn’t have. We needed to put people together sooner. But talking about the promise, the first Suicide Squad movie, the trailers promised me witty banter and antics. What I got was a depressing movie about criminals with bombs in their heads.
[Dan] There’s room in the world for depressing stories about…
[Talking about bombs]
[Dan] Criminals with bombs in their heads. But that’s not what anybody wanted or thought they were getting from that particular story.
[Zoraida] Right.
[Dan] So what are some other ways…
[Zoraida] For me.
[Dan] What are some other examples of ensembles that… Ensemble stories that failed in some way?
[Zoraida] Kaela, you were starting to talk.
[Kaela] Yeah.
[I’m going into depression, sorry.]
[Dan] You didn’t want to go on public record bashing somebody’s arc?
[Howard] Look, I went on the record saying that I loved the Hobbit movies.
[Howard] So nobody’s heating you more than they hate me.
[Zoraida] I love them too. I really dig them.
[Kaela] I like a lot about them, but at the same time…
[Zoraida] Look, honestly, I feel like I most creator’s ideal target, because I really just watch to be entertained. Right. Like, I will have a good time almost anywhere. Right? I enjoy so much that I feel like my friends who have, in their opinions, more discriminating tastes…

[Zoraida] But, so, like I… So when something like lets me down, I feel really like passionate about it. I actually watched Oceans 8, and I think that like as an ensemble cast, I wasn’t invested in them at all. I think it’s like a powerhouse [garbled actresses], then there was like… It’s like there was… The tension that was there, there was no cohesion. I think that when you don’t have that bond between all of your ensemble, it just feels like there’s just somebody there doing a job as opposed to we are… As opposed to, like, we said in previous episodes, we’re all in this together.
[Kaela] Yes. I was going to say, I think that the big draw of an ensemble story is the bond between the characters and how their bond affects the plot and how they have to come together in different ways in order to accomplish the thing that needs to be accomplished. So when you have characters who, like, don’t care about each other, particularly, or don’t get to a place where they care about each other, that’s a big let down. If you have characters who you’re like, “I literally don’t even know why you’re here.” You know?
[Kaela] Like, they just showed up in your house and you’re like, “Why are you here? Get out. Please.” Except it’s the movie or it’s the book, like, I think [garbled]
[Howard] I’m a drummer and you had a couch.
[Kaela] Yeah. Exactly. You’re like, “What? Why are you here, man?” Anything that does that, one, it throws you out of the story, of course, like most flaws will in a story. But, two, like those are the things like in an ensemble, everything gets compounded when you make mistakes in characterization or in the way that the characters affect plot. Because it will like keep pinging around all of the other characters in the ensemble. It would be a domino effect of, like, one character here doesn’t have their motivation figured out, we don’t know why they’re here, and everyone interacting with them either has to address that is like an actual character point or it gets confusing why these other capable characters aren’t addressing that, and why, like, all of their decision-making processes get affected by this person who we’re like, “Why are you here, though?”

[Howard] I’m trying to create a dichotomy here. This is… This might just be the medication talking…
[Howard] But you’re familiar with the phrase surprising yet inevitable. When you write surprising yet inevitable, if you fail at inevitable, you’ve got deus ex machina and we hate you. If you fail at surprising, we might just feel smarter than you, and that’s actually not a bad thing if I’ve bought the book. So I lean toward if I’m going to fail at surprising yet inevitable, I want to fail on the surprise, I don’t want to fail on the inevitability. The dichotomy I’m reaching for is what are the poles… Surprising on one pole, inevitable on the other pole. What are the poles for an ensemble? Like, we hate each other, but we’re a family. Or something. If you have to pick which one to fail at, which one do you pick? Which one is worse? I feel like if there’s that thing where we argue with each other, but we are a family… Boy, howdy, let’s err on the side of we’re a family and make the arguments feel a little shallow, rather than make the arguments feel just unovercomeable. Oh, man, there’s not enough medication…
[Howard] In the world for me to parse all these thoughts at once. I don’t want to fail on that, because, at the end, I don’t have an ensemble, I have a group of angry people who all got to be in a book together.
[Zoraida] Like a structural Thanksgiving.

[Dan] We’re going to pause here and talk about an ensemble that absolutely worked, and did not fail. The Expanse.
[Howard] Oh. My. Goodness. Which one of us was going to pitch that?
[Dan] Zoraida.
[Howard] I’m talking.
[Dan] Or you.
[Zoraida] You do it.
[Howard] I love the adaptation of the Expanse. It’s its own master class in trans media, translation from book to show. But, just as a show, the building of the ensemble, the setting up of the promises, the characterization, it’s… It is brilliant and beautiful and I love it. I’ve watched it end to end… End to end, all the seasons, probably three times. But, like the first four seasons, because they’re older, I think I may have gone through those eight times. Just turning it on while I did other things. Because I love the way those characters interact. They are in such horrible trouble so much of the time. They have so many reasons to fight with one another, and yet, they are a found family and they love each other, even their sociopath Amos.
[Zoraida] Yes. Oh, my God. Amos forever. I… So I chose The Expanse too because it… I started reading the book, and the book has one of the best openings that I’ve read in a very long time. This is like… I’m 10 years late to this book. I started it a month ago. So, it’s… For writers who are like worried that their work will never find a reader, like, I’m 10 years late to this series. Okay. One of the things that I found while watch… Switching over to watch the TV show, was that everybody has their own clear motivation and reasons to stay together. I think that when a book doesn’t give me that… That’s… It’s all subjective, because I’ve read books that are ensemble cast that people love and I’m just like I don’t get it. But it’s… It really is so tightly woven that I feel like I’m going to have to go and watch it eight more times. Like Howard.
[Dan] So, that is The Expanse TV show, that’s our thing of the week. It’s also a book series, starting with Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey. So, go…
[Howard] Real quick, let me just say that the books… The series ended where the books took a big time jump forward. The ensemble would’ve had to change… For one thing, we’d have to age all the actors up. So, the fact that there isn’t an Expanse season that takes us all the way through to the end of the whole proto-molecule galaxy spanning whatever story is nicely illustrative of the understanding that people are watching this, even if they don’t know it, they’re watching it for the ensemble, and if we break the ensemble in order to push through into the big Galactic story, people will be disappointed. The books can do it. It’s really hard to keep that audience on TV though.
[Dan] Yeah. I will say as a closing note, if you are interested, Howard and I did an episode a few years ago with Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who are the authors that make up James S. A. Corey. They wrote the books and they are the show runners for the TV show. So look back through the Writing Excuses archive and you can hear a lot more about how they did that.
[Zoraida] This is me discovering that they are two people.
[Dan] Yeah. James S. A. Corey is a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.
[Zoraida] Incredible.

[Dan] But let’s talk about some more… While Kaela was talking earlier, a really cool example of a failed and then repaired ensemble came to mind, which is the TV show Parks and Recreation.
[Dan] In the first season, season and a half, they had Mark. Mark was kind of intended to be… When that show first started, it was basically The Office, but re-done with a government office instead of a corporate office. Mark was supposed to be the sardonic Everyman. He was the Jim of the cast. Then, over time, as they refined their show, as they changed the focus, it stopped being a show about look at all these losers and their terrible job, and it started to be, hey, look at these good people who are trying their best in a crazy system that they have to work within. Once that focus changed, then Mark, the sardonic Everyman, absolutely did not fit in the ensemble anymore. Because his job, his archetype so to speak, was to make fun of everybody else. But we liked everybody else. It was not the Office that was full of misfits and losers anymore. It was full of people we genuinely loved. So he did not fit. They wrote him out of the show completely because he was a failed part of that ensemble. They brought in instead two other characters, Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, whatever their characters are named, I don’t remember. They fit better, because they were part of the we’re kind of strange people, but we love our jobs which the ensemble had morphed into. So identifying why the ensemble doesn’t work… Maybe it’s just one character and you can tweak that character or change them completely. Then everything suddenly jells. So what are some other ways to fix on ensemble? If an ensemble is broken, what are some things people can look at to help identify the problem and then fix it?
[Howard] There’s a principle here that I learned when I was drawing a Munchkin deck, and that is that the customer always knows when there’s a problem, but never knows what the actual problem is.
[Howard] Learning to listen to your alpha readers or your beta readers… When they say, “Oh, the story’s not working for me. I hate this one character.” Does that mean that the character needs to be cut? Does that mean that the character needs to be made likable? Or does that mean that they need someone in the story to agree with them that this character is being a jerk so they can feel vindicated in not liking this character and be okay to move on? It is really tricky to understand that. But, for me, the key piece of the toolbox is having a beta reader or an alpha reader who has been well enough trained to be able to say rather than I think you should get rid of this character to say I don’t like what this character is doing. I don’t like… I don’t feel like these two people would be friends. I don’t think that their plan is the smart one, and I don’t like reading about stupid people. Whatever. You get them to say what it is that they are feeling so that I can step back and troubleshoot it and find the core of the problem.
[I think that…]
[Howard] Yes, this may be extremely difficult to troubleshoot books that you’re writing just on your own. I am exceedingly fortunate in that I have a couple of alpha readers, Sandra Tayler and Bob Defendi, who I know how their opinions work. I know… They know how writing works, and that’s awesome. They know how to tell me things in a way that I know what to fix.

[Dan] All right. Let’s jump to our homework now. Zoraida, you have our homework.
[Zoraida] We have our homework. I would like you to pick an ensemble story that you think fails, and explain how you would have fixed it.
[Dan] There you go. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.

[Mary Robinette] Oy. Have you checked out the Writing Excuses 2022 cruise yet? We’ve got all the details about guests, dates, and destinations at This will be the 10th workshop we’ve done. We’d love to have you join us.