Media Monday: Doctor Who and Planning Ahead

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I must admit that I am a pretty vocal Whovian and the season eight premier of “Doctor Who,” which is set for this Saturday, is constantly on my mind this week. This constant thought about the show has led me to some realizations about the way the BBC writers help the show function. While fans can argue about the value of the series’ “silliness” or the necessity of the increasing complications, one thing the “Doctor Who” writer unarguably have is the ability to plan ahead.

This is an essential tool to writers working on longer works (and to some extent can be applied to shorter pieces of fiction as well). Everyone plans differently, but for lengthy pieces, some amount of forethought is necessary to making sure that a book doesn’t fall apart ten, fifteen, or twenty chapters in. The great saga that spanned series five and six of “Doctor Who,” and even, to some extent, the final episodes of series seven, unfolded little by little as we learned the identity of River Song, the crucial role of the Pond family in the Doctor’s life, and the reason for the creation of the militant Silence. All these pieces fit together, if in a confusing way, to create a tight story line, one that you cannot imagine unfolding in any other way.

Writers of novels and other longer works must also learn to weave a tight, yet interesting and surprising story line. One way to do this, and keep your readers on your toes, is to drop hints throughout the story, which are subtle and provide only a grain of information. Success comes when a reader is held in suspense throughout the entire story, guessing, wondering, until the moment of revelation, at which point the reader looks back and cannot imagine how they didn’t fit the pieces together.

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“Doctor Who” uses several devices to achieve this effect. The metal sliding plate seen at random times by Amy, her sudden bouts of fatigue, and River’s unexplainable knowledge of the Doctor all make obvious reference to big truth, but for first time viewers, these clues are puzzling and intriguing. The “plant and payoff” technique so often taught in creative classrooms is one that should be remembered. By expanding upon this concept, without going too over the top, writers have a great tool to keep their readers engaged.

The show also succeeds in its ability to hold onto information. The “big reveal” may work for certain genres, such as mystery, but in real life, we usually don’t figure out all the information at once. We learn something, think we know the whole story, then discover something else that makes us rethink everything. We didn’t learn about the origin of the Silence, the identity of River Song, and the location of the “real” Amy all at once. Spacing out revelations keeps the pacing interesting and maintains forces readers to constantly be on the edge of their toes.

What many writers must be careful about is overdoing the hints and payoffs. Think about realizations you’ve had in your own life, whether it be a career goal of a family member, the year abroad your mom never told you she spent, or the secret desire of a close friend, and think about the clues leading up to them. Usually, they aren’t super obvious, though you can see in hindsight how they all add up. One thing always leads to another and if you learn to follow the steps backwards, writers can add the realism and excitement of a great puzzle to their stories.

Watch the Doctor Who series 8 trailer to get as excited as I am.

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