3 Things “24” Can Teach us About Action Stories

When dealing with rejection as writer, remember: it’s a numbers game. You have to go through ‘no’s to get to ‘yes’. Play the game!  -Cheryl Tardif

by Al Kalar

Do you remember the old 24 series?

Some of the best writing on television went into the production of 24, the high-tension fast-moving thriller staring Kiefer Sutherland as agent Jack Bauer.

What makes the show so riveting? What can novelists learn from the show?

A huge appeal of the show is the almost non-stop action. There is always something happening. For twenty-four hours (over 24 episodes), the characters are constantly challenged by the “bad guys”. No rest, no ruminations, no time to sit down and just chat.

And forget about sleeping.

Every episode is filled to the brim with tension. Not something you want to view just before going to bed.  But their formula brings you back every week to see what happens next; especially if you’re an action junkie like me.

If we want to write books that are similar to 24, here are some of the lessons we can learn from the show:

1. The Hero

    • Just about everything revolves around a Point Of View character, preferably the protagonist. Yes the POV character often changes, but the protagonist is the focal point of most of the action in 24.

 

  • Jack is often misunderstood. During the first episode of a later season, Jack is hauled before a Senate hearing board to answer criminal charges.  During several subsequent episodes, the FBI hunts Jack because he’s been framed in the death of a potential source of information on the current crop of bad guys.
  • Jack’s conclusions and “hunches” are usually ignored or opposed by other authorities, including people superior to him in the “food chain” of government.
  • However, Jack is usually right.  And even when he’s wrong, his detractors are further off base.
  • Jack is selfless to the point of self-sacrifice. His job is to protect the citizens of the country and he’ll do whatever it takes to do that, even to the dubious point of endangering innocent individuals for the purpose of saving thousands.
  • Jack inspires loyalty from a small cadre of supporters who have been with him for several years (TV seasons). These are the people he depends upon when he’s up to his neck in troubles.
  • He trusts his closest associates, but is sometimes betrayed by one of them. This is a great lesson. The betrayal by the “longtime supporter” isn’t often used in fiction, so you can get away with it easily and it makes a great surprise moment.
  • Jack as a character has the usual weak points that the average “two-fisted” hero is given: lousy family life (Jack’s has been gradually stripped away to the point that he is basically alone in the world), low empathy, etc. If this were a western, he’d not even love his horse except as a reliable means of transportation (Jack wrecks cars and SUV’s on a regular basis).
  • It’s hard for the viewer to empathize with Jack because he doesn’t have the usual human weaknesses.  One of the best things you can do with your protagonist in a novel is to give him personal problems and weaknesses that he has to overcome and hopefully “grow” out of.  Jack as a novel character would be rather two-dimensional.  But as a TV character, he’s great because the actor, Kiefer Sutherland, can inject a lot of personality into the roll that just can’t be done in a book. Also, TV and movie audiences demand less characterization than a book reader expects.

2. The Bad Guys

  • In 24, the bad guys were usually terrorists or associated with the terrorists. But for your book, they can be involved in other nefarious occupations. Bad guys are “bad guys”, no matter what they’re up to.
  • The bad guys are run by someone who is fairly intelligent. A super-hero needs super-villains; the writers of Superman knew that.  If Jack could outsmart them right away, the season would end after the first episode. Individual bad guys may not be able to outsmart Jack, but the “boss” or “bosses” are almost his equal.
  • The bad guys often come in layers. When Jack has overcome “the main bad guy” he often discovers that there is another bad guy.  This other bad guy may be on the same level or a heretofore unknown “higher up”.
  • Bad guys on TV are often two-dimensional and, like the good guys, require good acting to bring them to life (think of Alan Rickman, one of the greatest of the current crop of “bad guy” actors).  A bad guy in your novel needs more development than a TV villain.
  • Remember: a villain is rarely a “villain” in his own eyes. So, give him/her believable motivations for misbehaving. Granted, a rare “bad guy” chooses to be a villain, but most have “wants” that aren’t balanced by an intelligent conscience. Some may even believe they are “doing good” (like Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition).

3. The Plot Line

  • Action, action, action.
  • Problems got piled onto Jack’s shoulders in bunches. He never had just one problem, he’s presented with the bad guys, incompetence in law enforcement, traitors within, political opposition, personal emotional problems, and the usual episodes of torture and eminent personal demise.Remember Ben Bova’s advice: “… Create excruciating problems for your protagonist. And never solve one problem until you have raised at least two more – until the story’s conclusion.” The writers of 24 have taken this to heart.
  • Major “good guy” characters are not invulnerable. Sometimes they have to die.Don’t get so attached to supporting characters that you won’t kill them off when necessary.

Summary

Think about a good book you’ve seen made into a movie. Only about 1/3 of the book makes it onto the screen and none of the “internal moments” of any of the characters. Frank Herbert’s Hugo and Nebula Awards-winning Dune has been made into a movie twice and neither show measured up to the book, especially in character development. It’s not the fault of the movie’s writers, but rather the medium itself. You just can’t create a movie that contains all of the things you can write into a book. Of course, a book can’t show an explosion that is as colorful or exiting as the ones Hollywood can create, nor a car chase.

24 was a great action television show. It provides us with numerous examples we can use when writing similar stories. Not everything in television translates well onto paper. It’s our job to help the reader visualize the action using words, rather than talented actors, special effects, and camera work.  In doing so, we can adapt some of the techniques used to create the series and reject those that don’t translate well.  In addition, we need to use words to create fully formed characters rather than turning the job over to actors and directors.

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