Drawing the Line Between Skill and Trickery in Writing

Some of you know I’m a big NCIS fan — as if the weekly NCIS Day McMayhem warning on Twitter wasn’t enough of a clue. I’m a fan in part because for all the attention cable dramas get, NCIS does some damn good storytelling, and has been doing it fairly consistently for almost nine years now. One of my favorite parts of the week is looking at the writing of the episode the next day with my friend Sandy. This morning, I decided to share my thoughts a little more widely because I think last night’s episode demonstrated the fine line between telling an authentically good story and using writerly sleight-of-hand to make you think it was a good story.

If you don’t want spoilers for NCIS 09.12, Housekeeping, stop here. Otherwise…

On the good NCIS episodes — and that’s the vast majority of most episodes most seasons — I find myself liking it more as I think about it after watching or as I rewatch. One hallmark of the show has always been laying in information that might show up months or years later. Just ask longtime fans about last season’s Vance and Eli-centric Enemies Domestic, which tied up elements from various episodes over four seasons into a package so neatly I was speechless for a good five minutes after the episode ended. Last season’s Baltimore was also a good example as we flashed back to when Tony and Gibbs first met when Tony was a Baltimore cop.

Steve Binder, who wrote Baltimore, talked to TV Guide about his process of taking the characters back 10 years in time, to see them two years before the show’s beginning. He started with an idea that everything we thought we knew about the character was wrong — he hadn’t always been the way we’ve seen him on the show — and then went on to write an episode where we see Baltimore Tony and NCIS Tony and exactly what happened to create the shift that turned one into the other. It was masterfully done because it was consistent with what we had seen of the character over eight years, it cast several things we had assumed in a different light and it added greater depth and dimension — and thus growth — to a character who had been in 180+ episodes at that point.

Again this season, we saw that with Penelope Papers by Nicole Mirante-Matthews. That was a McGee-centric episode where we learned that a common assumption — he was the only one on the team who didn’t have issues with his father — was completely wrong. Again, it was consistent with the McGee we had seen for eight seasons and it cast a lot of earlier interactions between him and others, especially Gibbs, in a different light. Depth, dimension and growth.

Enemies Foreign and Enemies Domestic, the Jesse Stern two-parter last season, did the same thing with two characters — Vance and Eli. More information, consistent with what we knew, changed the way we interpreted certain things. It’s one of the benefits of writing in a series — you have the ability to use everything in the past to help evolve characters into the future.

But the common element to all of those episodes, all masterfully written, is that they used what was already in canon — already out there — and worked with that to create the evolution. The events, the reactions of the characters and the change in the characters and our perceptions of them grew from those characters. You could step away, mull things over and end up appreciating the writing and the episode that much more because all the pieces fit together. As a writer, I could see the way the effects were created and could appreciate the skill it took to pull them off.

I was reminded of that after watching Housekeeping because to me, it had the opposite effect. The more I thought, the more I picked apart the pieces, the less I liked it. The phone call at the end felt like an artificial trick to keep tension going between Tony and Ziva. The sequence of events with Gibbs giving SecNav fake information, his buddy passing the fake information on to Stratton, Stratton using that to walk into a trap and then Gibbs getting Stratton in interrogation only to have him throw Mexico in Gibbs’ face all felt like it was a little too orchestrated — especially since Vance was nowhere to be found. The length of time at the beginning before EJ was identified and the cutting between the lab and the scene felt too spun out. All of those pieces can work well in the hands of a good writer. But this time, they didn’t. At least not for me.

After Swan Song last season, I asked Jesse Stern when he chose the Hamlet’s ghost approach for Mike Franks rather than the more traditional take of leaving his death a surprise until the end. He said a surprise didn’t feel like the character and it felt manipulative. Now, it’s no secret Jesse’s one of my favorite writers. But that statement is part of why I think so highly as him as a writer. That episode could have been ugly. By all rights, should have been ugly. It took genuine skill to make the Hamlet’s Ghost approach work, and it did. Keeping who died a secret until the end? He’s right — that would have felt manipulative. And that’s how I feel after watching Housekeeping. Like a writer used a lot of smoke and mirrors to spin a web that enthralled me — until the credits started rolling and I started thinking about it. The more I think, the more holes I see in the story. Actions and reactions that worked in the story didn’t seem consistent with the characters as a whole.

It’s a difficult challenge we face as writers. We all have the same tools in our toolbox. We’ve read a lot of the same advice books, learned from many of the same writers, dissecting how they made stories work. We steal from others, hopefully well. But in the end, the stories we tell have to be authentic. Otherwise, it’s all just a bag of tricks.

9 Comments on “Drawing the Line Between Skill and Trickery in Writing”

  1. This is very thought provoking. As I mentioned on twitter, I’m conflicted about the episode. But I do know that when Mexico came up, this feeling of frustration came over me. Not *again*. The Mexico arc was played out, at least in my mind, and it feels repetitive to reach back to it again and again. Shannon and Kelly and Mexico do not need to be the theme of the show. It turns Gibbs from a heroic leader to a sad and lonely and mildly pathetic man.

    It is the same thing with the father issues. I get very frustrated that everyone on the team seems to either have major parental issues or dead parents (in Abby’s case). It just seems like we get beat over the head with Daddy issues.

    Now, McGee, that made sense, and I can appreciate the Jackson issues (the Faith arc between father and son was *amazing*), and Tony and Senior’s issues. Eli and Ziva I hope is done. A lot of fans seem to paint him as a cartoonish villain, which cheapens that relationship and the nuances of it for me.

    Anyway…very thought provoking. I wanted this to be a favorite episode to me, but right now I can’t imagine looking at it that way.

    1. Thanks, BJ! After I posted this, something that clicked was that the case just ended up being anticlimactic. The best episodes balance character development and cases, and lately the big arcs have been great on character development, but the cases are ending anticlimactically and that’s bugging me.

  2. As to the “Mexico” bit, I didn’t mind that they mentioned it. What bothered me was that no one refuted him that it was an ‘innocent man’ that died. The part with the SecNav oddly enough was a little helpful to me. He was trying to fix a mess in the way he knew how, even if that included passing faulty info on to set up a trap. I did miss Vance, though.

    The last five minutes seemed like prep for an op (hence my tag) instead of real. It felt like he was following a script (as a character, not just the actor). All in all, I liked the episode, but there were parts of it that made me tilt my head and go, ‘huh?’

    Good critique on the writing styles. 🙂

    1. Thanks. 🙂 I suspect SecNav wasn’t actually helpful. Gibbs was setting him up – he suspects SecNav might have been more in league with the bad guys than not. But I also could see that whole series of events play out as soon as Gibbs mentioned the location of the safe house to SecNav, and that predictability shows how weak a case it was plot-wise.

  3. I’m a fan of the show but not in the fan community. I didn’t mind the episode. I thought the thread with giving the secnav bogus info was very realistic. I think Gibbs knows this secnav is a weak link, and he exploited it. I agree the Mexico arc should not be re-hashed, and the end of that scene made me go WTF? If you didn’t see the previews for next week, then the Roy phone call does seems contrived, but if you saw the previews, it was a moderately good set up. Also the actor playing Stratton, I just didn’t buy as a former special ops soldier–too small, too boyish. He looked almost cartoonish firing the RPG. And I think it would be really difficult as a fairly new writer to come into a show that has so much canon; you’d almost be limited as to what you could do to be original, so you grasp a little.

    1. I did finally see the preview and that bit made me cringe. Agreed on Stratton/Cole – not believable. I think my issue with the SecNav plot thread was that as soon as Gibbs told him the location of the safe house, I knew how that was going to unravel. The plot lacked the twistiness of the good episodes.
      It is tough coming in as a new writer, but I think the answer is you give them standalone stories, not key arc pieces, until they’re up to speed.

  4. Excellent post. I agree with some of your points, not with others, but that’s what makes horse racing. 😉

    When a story (regardless of medium) can keep me engaged from start to finish, I call that a well-told story and move on. I rarely worry too much about the holes that come to me after the fact. Though, those post-consumption holes will often determine if I read or watch it again. I greatly prefer things I can enjoy multiple times.

    My biggest problem with Housekeeping was that it didn’t keep me engaged *during* the episode. I was so excited about the premise. This was an arc I was looking forward to seeing the resolution of. Then I found myself distracted by a character’s hair rather than listening to two characters’ dialog simply because the dialog had no impact on the story. And for me to get distracted by a hair style is, um, well, it takes a lot.

    When I see episodes like this (regardless of series), I have to wonder if they just didn’t have enough A-story to go around (criminal, given the strong potential for this arc) or if Someone From On High, and out of the creative chain of command, decreed that the B-story needed to happen. The end result is usually a mess, as this was.

    The only tension or excitement I felt in the entire episode was during that one scene between Tony and EJ. Michael Weatherly and Sarah Jane Morris are *so* good together. Even though I wanted more in terms of information from it, the emotion was excellent – it was the kind of scene MW never gets enough of. What kills me is that he seems to get them mostly in these uneven episodes. It’s almost as if they know they have a weak story, so they’re going to use his incredible strength as an actor to try and pull the story’s fat out of the fire. While I’m sure that’s gratifying to a point, it’s *got* to be aggravating over time. His skills are so under-utilized.

    The climax was, anti-climactic. I never felt any threat at all. I suppose that could have been the direction rather than the writing, but I suspect not. Anyone can have an off episode, but Terrence O’Hara’s track record is better than that.

    B-story killed the story’s pacing (heard Video Killed the Radio Star yesterday – sue me LOL).

    Mostly, I spent the episode wishing for a red pen.

    “Why is this conversation in here? It has nothing to do with the story.”

    “This is not how this character would respond in this situation.”

    “This character would never do this.”

    “It was obvious that [spoiler] was going to happen from the moment the scene opened. Fix it.”

    And so on, and so forth. If a friend had given me a manuscript with these kinds of problems, I would have marked it up and sent it back for major revisions. The biggest problem with Housekeeping is there wasn’t enough story on the page… and there should have been. Instead we got filler – Mexico (please, please, no more, we beg you), relationships, non-relationships, weird conversations from and to nowhere. Where was the killer stalking his prey? Where was the danger? Where was the suspense?

    This season as been SO well done, it was just a real shame to see such excellent performances wasted on such a weak script.

    1. Yes, as soon as Gibbs mentioned the safe house location, I knew how things were going to unfold. You’re right, this one didn’t quite keep me as interested during it as some others, but it wasn’t until I was thinking about it after that the extent of the holes started popping up. (And yes on the hair – seems like lots of us were noticing that in that scene.)

      One suggestion I saw was that they were trying to put too many threads in season arcs into one episode and the new guy just couldn’t pull it off. I think to do that, you have to be one of the good, longtime writers – that’s the type of assignment Binder probably would have rocked.

      The more I thought about it yesterday, the more I’m noticing a trend of character development – good character development – at the expense of solid cases. Good build up that falls flat at the resolution. That’s a worrying trend, and one I hope they get fixed soon. NCIS is different than the other procedurals because of the characters and their development (look at Baby McGee compared to him these days), but the genre requires solid plot or it’s not going to work.

  5. I’m not a member of the fan community, but I am a huge fan. I did find the most recent episode too similar to previous episodes – rehashing old story lines. The end was terribly anti-climactic. Yes, the characters are almost always engaging – their chemistry is probably the main reason I watch, however, as one poster said, Gibbs as the perennially lonely man is getting old. If you recall, he dated quite a bit in the early episodes.
    Gibbs as every character’s father figure is also a little tiring. I would like Gibbs to have a life. A meaningful conversation with a woman would be welcome. Or even Tony for that matter. I’d love to see a scene with his god-daughter.
    Also, McGee’s character has been diminished, which affects the entire show and impacts the interaction between characters. I have no idea what’s up, but I do have some concerns about the actor.
    Aside from that, plotting is not as strong this season. Just my opinion.

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