The Legos Theory of Storytelling as Applied to Turkish Television. Seriously.

Happy 2017! I spent the holidays reading almost nothing, writing a lot, and engaging for better or worse in self-reflection.  I concluded that the best thing I could do for myself and for my work was to go back to basics.

What follows is aimed more at those folks in our audience who are struggling with getting that first novel done. It is easy enough to explain in the context of childhood: rather than struggling to build a motorized crane using an Eitech Erector Set, I need to grab a box of Legos and start building little cars and and people and such, working my way forward by starting with the small and simple and building gradually, but steadily.

I came to this conclusion after watching two television series. You’ve almost certainly heard of one, and probably have never heard of the other. Our own Kathryn Lilley discussed Westworld on this blog a few weeks back. It was beautifully filmed, intricately plotted, startling, and full of surprises. The major rub against it was that it was difficult to understand what was going on from episode to episode. I still have a little callus on my thumb from rewinding it to pick up certain plot nuances that I missed. There were several — maybe a dozen — plot lines that spun off in different directions, some of which were relevant to the story, others which seemed to have been included simply to create a mood. All of them were interesting, but only a few minutes were devoted to each at any one time. Characters? More characters had been introduced by Episode Three than I could keep track of. I found it to be worth working through it — it raises some stunning and yes, frightening issues concerning reality, mortality, and other areas — but the general consensus seems to be that it arguably is a series that more people heard about than actually watched.

The anti-Westworld, if you will, is a series available on Netflix called Kacak (“The Fugitive”). If Westworld  is the result of the Eitech erector set I referenced at the beginning of this post, Kacak comes from the basic box of Legos, and it is wonderful. Kacak is a genre-blurring television series produced in Turkey, throwing together elements of thriller, suspense, romance, drama, and yes, a bit of comedy to create a slow-boil story that sucks you in and doesn’t let you go. It is subtitled, but the story is simple enough, and the acting is good enough, that one could glean the context without it. It begins in a remote Turkish village where a man named Serhat operates a tea shop. He is loved by everyone around him, and one gets the sense of “why” from his interaction with his clientele and another shopkeeper. For his own part, Serhat is devoted to his wife and their young son, who somehow in a few moments becomes the cutest little guy to ever walk the face of the earth. All of this communicated with a few minutes of interaction here and there over the course of a day or so. Just when you think you’ve stumbled into an episode of Lassie, however, Serhat interjects himself quite forcefully into a dangerous situation. He is immediately hailed as a hero throughout his village; when news of Serhat’s heroism spreads to Istanbul, however, a danger from his past — a past of which even his beloved wife knows nothing — quickly intrudes and irrevocably blows up Serhat’s perfect life. Does this sound familiar? Sure. The movie A History of Violence explores a similar theme, as does Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Kacak goes further, however. Serhat vows revenge. As Serhat carries out his plan — and attempts to put what is left of life back together — the audience learns about his past, in dribs and drabs, not in meal courses but in tapas or dim sum, small portions which are easily digestible and brought out over the course of the very long meal, where the surprises keep coming. To put it another way: just when you think you’ve reached the smallest Russian nesting doll, there’s another one within.

Kacak does all of this without a big budget, or, interestingly enough, without nudity, graphic sex, or (much) gratuitous violence. Some of the acting is a bit stilted, and there are momentary but noticeable lapses of continuity, to the extent that on occasion the series is unintentionally funny. That is part of the charm of it, however. It isn’t subtle or nuanced for the most part. What it does, however, and does very well, is tell a story.

I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not much of a teacher. If I have a strength in the area of education it’s the ability to point people to something that will illustrate, quickly, how something is done. If you are having trouble getting your story off of the ground, or that you are getting bogged down under the weight of your own plot, or are having trouble keeping your characters straight, hijack the family Netflix account from your teenager and watch at least the first few episodes of Kacak. I have watched the first ten — Netflix lists fifty — but you can learn a lot just by watching and studying the first three or four. I think, however, that you will want to eventually watch the whole series, which takes that little box of Legos and slowly builds from it, using just a few parts at a time.

My question for you: is there a television series you use to jumpstart your writing, to clear the cobwebs, whatever? My own answer: in addition to Kacak…True Detective: Season One, which I have practically committed to memory (time, indeed, is a flat circle). You?

 

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31 thoughts on “The Legos Theory of Storytelling as Applied to Turkish Television. Seriously.

  1. “…the best thing I could do for myself and for my work was to go back to basics.”

    And you say you’re not much of a teacher… 🙂

    I find most parts of Major Crimes “relaxing” and instructional ~ characters and their interactions, usually intelligent and often subtly humorous dialogue, plot droppings and twists. Some of the parallel/side-stories are a little distracting at times, but still… (there’s a lesson there, too, I s’pose).

    • Thank you, George. I was unaware of Major Crimes (where have I been for seven seasons?! And what else am I missing?!) but I’ll check it out. I appreciate the comments and the recommendation.

  2. Great advice, Joe! I recently began binge reading scripts to study how techniques for writing for the camera might shed light on ways to get into a story. (And along the way I decided that MIB is one of the best screenplays ever). I have Netflix and know what I’ll be doing today–watching Kacek from the beginning!

    And you’re right about how hard it was to keep up with the timelines and characters of Westworld. The show spawned an entire subculture on Reddit, where everyone traded theories about timelines, characters, and motivations. And I’m still bummed about a couple of threads they left hanging–maybe they’ll get resolved next season!

  3. Thank you, Kathryn…I hope you enjoy Kacak (I misspelled it a couple of times in my post…those Turks are so tricky!) as much as I do. I will have to check out a couple of those Reddit discussions about Westworld. There’s much to love there, but it’s certainly a puzzle. I don’t know if it’s something people want to watch before they go to sleep, given the philosophical subject matter.

    I think that the ending to it arose in part as a result of the uncertainty over whether there would be a second season (the first cost over ten million dollars to make…you could make a lot of trips to Sonic for that). The bummer is that you and I will have to wait until 2018 — at least — to see what is resolved, if anything. Thanks and enjoy!

  4. Wow, there are so many great movies out there that could be –should be– read in their screenplay form to inspire novelists. Screenplays can teach you about finding the dramatic germ of every scene, economy of description, point of view and of course dialogue. Some movies that I have watched over and over and learned from:

    As Good As It Gets: great character development and dialogue.
    Moonstruck: Ditto above.
    Pulp Fiction. The structure alone is worth analyzing! But also great dialogue.
    The Piano. I love how this story unfolds…slow but full of suspense.
    Apollo 13: One of best thrillers out there even though we know the ending!
    When Harry Met Sally.
    Spartacus (the original!)
    The Usual Suspects. Talk about Russian nesting dolls.
    Sideways (for Miles’ speech on why he loves Pinots alone!)
    American Beauty. Great use of a somewhat unreliable narrator.

    And your Lego analogy is great!

    • Thank you, Kris, for a wonderful and extensive list. Ee: PULP FICTION…there is a version floating around (I’ve only seen it on a bootleg DVD) where it is edited to present the story in chronological sequence. Just right for us oldsters who tend to get confused about such things.

    • I LOVE The Usual Suspects. Masterfully done.

      There was a show (on AMC?) a few years ago called Rubicon (starring James Badge Dale). The pace was a little slow for a spy thriller, but it worked to build suspense. The characters were rich and nuanced, and the plot was actually intricate and intelligent. I think it’s a shame it ended when it did, because it had incredible promise.

      While I don’t watch anything to jumpstart the creative juices, I can admire the process involved in storytelling, and that one is a winner.

      • Staci, I fondly remember Rubicon as well. Thanks for the reminder. I wish that everyone involved had given it a bit more time to gestate. AMC usually gives its series a couple of seasons to find their audiences. My main recollection from Rubicon was the scene where a commuter train crash was used to assassinate a figure. It was very sudden…the target was seen in close up, reading a newspaper, and in the background you could see another train quickly approaching and…BAM! I confess to jumping out of my chair. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I loved True Detective, Season One. It’s plotting was beautifully done. Season Two wasn’t bad either, but it didn’t have the same punch as the first season. I’ll have to check out Kacak. Thanks, Joe!

    • Sue, you’re welcome, and thank you for your comments. I watch TRUE DETECTIVE Season One about once a month. It still holds up. I’m with you on Season Two. If that had been the first season I don’t think it would have been judged so harshly and, in my opinion, unfairly. There are rumors that there are plans afoot to bring the Season One cast back together for another go-round. I hope so. The bayou holds many, many more stories. Hope you enjoy KACAK!

  6. Like Kris said, there are so many. I like “Columbo,” a classic example of an underrated detective,and “Crime Story,” plus the true crime stories in “Forensic Files.”

    • Elaine, thanks for mentioning “Columbo,” which was deceptively simple and very nuanced. I think that my favorite episode was the one featuring Johnny Cash, in which he played a popular gospel singer who engineered the murder of his wife. Terrific viewing.

  7. I like NCIS for the slow unfolding and growth of the characters over thirteen seasons. Each episode builds a richer relationship within the team (and with the audience). Mark Harmon’s performance is a master class in revealing a character in subtle brush strokes. There’s not a single token character. Even the bad guys have unexpected depths. And the showrunners aren’t afraid to kill off beloved characters if that’s what it takes to move the story in the right direction.

  8. Suzanne, you just gave us a master list of elements for a commercially and artistically successful drama. Kudos to Harmon for sticking with the part and not feeling too big or good for series television. Thanks so much!

  9. This may be too obvious, but I love Breaking Bad. I think the strength of the series is how carefully put together the character arcs are and how they interact with each other. The core strength of the story is that it is completely believable. Once you believe a chemistry teacher can become Heisenberg, and the bad guy runs a fast food stand named Los Pollos Hermanos, the rest is like surfing on chocolate icing.

    • Great example, Brian. What Breaking Bad did was MADE you believe in both Walter White and Gus Fring. White was presented initially as kind of an everyman who was beset by problems and saw a way out…but he ultimately gave free reign to his dark side. Fring hid in plain sight (as did White) but surrendered his soul long along. They weren’t so much two side of the same coin as the same coin, period.

      Defense attorneys, btw, LOVED this show because of Saul Goodman. Every medium to large sized city in the country has at least one Saul Goodman.

      Thanks for reminding us about BREAKING BAD!

      • I loved Better Call Saul as well. We have a local personal injury attorney who advertises ‘Better Call Ted’. Funny.

  10. Joe, I think you’re a wonderful teacher! Thanks for this post and the discussion of Kacak. I’ll check it out. As someone who watches almost no TV, except for the news, I don’t have a any series to mention or recommend.

    Switching genres, I am taking some of the most successful series within that genre and studying how the authors have erected the Legos to build stories that connected with their readers. (Thanks for some of your suggestions in that genre.) It is amazing how in some cases the authors have followed the rules of plot and structure (a la James Scott and Larry Brooks), but in other areas have flouted current teaching.

    I look forward to your posts in 2017.

    Have a great New Year!

  11. Steve, thank you, you’re uncommonly easy to please. Bless You. And Happy New Year to you as well.

    Re: flouting current or conventional teaching, I have no problem with doing so as long as it serves to communicate the story to the reader or viewer in the most direct way. Unfortunately, all too often it does not. Part of the charm of CASAK for me hearkens back to the television shows I was raised on in the early 1950s, such as HIGHWAY PATROL, M SQUAD, THE CISCO KID, and DRAGNET. they had a half-hour — twenty-four minutes, really, to get in and get out. They did it, too, and very well. The episodes did not build on what happened before, either, so they kind of had to re-invent the wheel every week. They did, however, with straightforward storytelling that didn’t go too wide but went deep.

    Good luck with that genre switch and please let us know how it goes!

  12. True Detective, Season One, is indeed pristine. Wonderful script, terrific acting, hypnotic setting.

    But then….

    It just crashes and burns on the finale, so miserably, so resoundingly, so irrevocably, in a disastrous foul-tasting episode which to this day I can’t stomach or come to terms with. Setting up a tragedy but instead pulling a redemption plot out of nowhere – to me – seems a cheap trick in service of potential second season further down the line featuring the two. And indeed Nic Pizzolatto holds the rights to the thing.

    I guess you get two master classes for the price of one: 1) How to write a immaculate series up to the finale and 2) How not to write a finale.

    • NR, I assume you are referencing the fifteen to twenty minute discussion (or was it two or three days?) between Rust and Marty outside of Lafayette Memorial Hospital. I still don’t quite get it — and usually end my revisit to the series at that point — but it wasn’t enough to spoil the seven and one-half hours that passed before. Who knows. Maybe when one gets within an inch of death’s whisper and manages to walk (or crawl) away thoughts turn philosophical, but I was willing to give the thing the benefit of that final few minutes. Sorry you didn’t feel that way, but thanks for visiting and contributing.

  13. I’m currently on holidays from the day job and have been watching The West Wing for the first time since it originally aired, which means I haven’t accomplished much else. If ever there was a show to learn about writing from, it is The West Wing. The characters alone are worth the time investment. CJ is a wonderful character – strong, intelligent without being hard. But it’s all about the dialogue. The incredibly fast, articulate dialogue.

    Also, Castle is an underrated gem (the early years before they separated the two main characters which were the beating heart of the show).

    I like to be in the best mental state I can be when I write. If I’m in a bad mood for whatever reason I turn to Community. If you’ve never heard of it, which many haven’t, it’s a sitcom set in a community college with a diverse group of friends formed from a study group. It is quite geeky with a lot of pop culture references and several homages to film and tv like Die Hard, Law & Order, Dinner with Andre, Pulp fiction, The Godfather, the History Channel type documentaries and so on. It can be quite silly sometimes, but also very smart and hilarious. It is, however, inconsistent, but I would put its worst episodes up against the mediocrity of ‘family sitcoms’ out there. It does help if you are a geek or misfit of some type, it is our siren’s song.

  14. I remember Community quite well, Mara — same folks that produced The Office and Parks and Recreation, right? — and was somewhat surprised that it didn’t meet with the success of its siblings. I’m glad you’re still enjoying it. Thanks for sharing it and your other examples!

  15. Oh, these sound fascinating, Joe. Good television can be so motivating! I confess to being into narcotic mysteries that I watch over and over: Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Lewis. I internalize the pacing again and again. For more challenging watching, I’ve been getting a kick out of Northern European noir shows. Chilling and stark.

    • Thank you, Laura. Your list once again demonstrates your discriminating and very classy taste in all things. Sometime you’ll have to favor us with a list or some examples of those northern European noir shows you mentioned. Happy 2017!

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