Monday, March 24, 2014

8 Writing Lessons from Supernatural (Part 1 of 2)

by Misha Crews

I was first introduced to Supernatural by my friend Michelle Carlbert, who I met at Comicon in 2010. If you're not familiar with it, the show is about two ridiculously handsome brothers cruising around in a vintage car slaying demons. (I write this with tongue firmly planted in cheek: that's pretty much the premise of the show, but it transcends that shallow description.) The brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, are played with heartfelt authenticity by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. Although the concept seemed fun, I kind of doubted that there would be much artistic merit in the show itself. I was wrong about that (first time for everything) and I've made up for that error by talking about Supernatural at pretty much every available opportunity to anybody who will hold still long enough to listen.

After reading Nicole Christoff's post Muppets and More, and  Evie Owen's post on the movie It's Complicated, I started pondering the ways in which popular television and movies have influenced my writing. And since I'm going to my very first Supernatural convention in May, this seemed like the perfect time to dive into the lessons I've learned from a show which has become an unexpected source of inspiration.

1. The core is in the classics. In the case of Supernatural, this means urban legends and religious mythology. And in modern popular fiction, we've seen a huge resurgence in mythologies over the past few years: vampires, super heroes, werewolves. We've also seen the classics being resurrected over and over again: especially with books like Rebecca, Pride and Prejudice, and A Christmas Carol. And of course, how many times have we read modern versions of Shakespeare? Not just Romeo and Juliet, but Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, and too many others to mention? Incorporating the classics allows an artist to touch a nerve that resonates on many different levels with her audience, whether that means viewers or readers.

In this clip from the show, Sam and Dean slay a dragon. It doesn't get much more classic and mythic than that!

2. Don't be afraid to go deep. Over the nine years that Supernatural has been on the air, Sam and Dean have been to both Heaven and Hell – literally. And they've saved the world on at least three occasions (probably more – apologies to the superfans out there for not knowing the exact number!) In a show where the protagonists have battled every type of entity, from angels to demons and back again, you'd think that their interior highs and lows might not be that important for the writers. Not so. One thing that this show definitely demonstrates is how the plot's external ups and downs are mirrors of the characters internal ups and downs (and vice versa).

3. Conflict, conflict everywhere. Writers are always taught that conflict is the fuel on the fire of any great story, and Supernatural knows how to work conflict into their plots. Personalities clash at the least convenient times, and old hurts are woven seamlessly into new plot twists. In this clip from Season 1, Sam and Dean have an argument that encapsulates their entire history up to this point. As a result of the argument, the brothers split up for the remainder of the episode, and that period of separation has ramifications which we're still feeling today, nine seasons later.


4. Family is not just the heart of the story, it's also the bones. The heart of this show is the relationship between Sam and Dean. The family bond is is both their greatest strength and their most dangerous weakness.

And in addition to influencing the characters, the individual episodes and season-wide story arcs are also built around family. The brothers are together, then apart. They're at odds, then in accord. In fact, the entire first season was structured around the two of them reuniting after a long rift and looking for their father. So family is not just the heart, it's also the bones: it's the structure around which the framework is constructed.

Here's a video that emphasizes the importance of family in this show. And it's interesting to note that the family isn't just restricted to blood relations. As Bobby Singer (the wonderful Jim Beaver) so eloquently says, "Family don't end with blood."

On Monday, April 7, we'll be back with lessons five through eight. In the meantime: are you a Supernatural fan? In what way do you think the show has influenced your writing?


  1. Hi, Misha,

    I, too, love Sam and Dean Winchester and their travels!

    I also love and agree with your point that the classics can be great foundations for the stories we write today. When it came to studying up on subjects that would help my writing, I chose a Liberal Studies program for that very reason. The roots of old stories get us fired up today, whether we recognize them or not!

    I also whole-heartedly agree with your views on conflict, conflict, conflict. Sometimes, when books or shows are discussed, I hear people say, "I didn't like it when he dated the wrong woman..." But that's conflict and it kept us all reading! Sam and Dean prove that again and again as women, their father, their legacy, their pasts, and the kitchen sink cause conflict.

    Good stuff! Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Oh! 9 seasons??? How can it have been on the air that long?? And I've missed every episode.

    How can that be??

    As for re-imagining the classics, my WIP is a Christmas Carol/It's a Wonderful Life mash-up with a werewolf. I'm all for the classics, lol!

    This round of revisions, I'm upping the "deep" and the "conflict" - my heroine has her own conflict now! She's not relegated to "plus 1" status anymore, hooray!

    But number 4 is the one that really speaks to me - while I have one blood tie relationship, the whole story is, in a sense, about creating new family. My hero ends the story with a life-partner, his best friend restored, and in the midst of a dynamic werewolf pack - a far cry from how he starts out.

    Can't wait to see lessons 5-8, Misha!!

  4. Nichole - So tickled to know you're also a Supernatural fan! Yes, the boys know how to bring the conflict, that's for sure! Glad you enjoyed the post! :-)

  5. Keely - Yep, nine seasons! The first eight are available on Netflix if you want to check it out. :-)

    Love that you're giving your heroine her own conflict! Keep going with that story, lady! :-)

  6. Misha ~ I love your analysis of Supernatural. I've seen a few episodes, but not many, however, I love the way you've taken a popular television series and used it to inspire and instruct your own storytelling. Honestly, that's the mark of a great storyteller ... learning story from others.

    I agree, wholeheartedly, when you say, that the external plot can be (and often is) used as a mirror of the internal journey the characters are on.

    And I do love tapping into the classics. Using those universal stories helps us connect with readers in ways they might never understand--since they've internalized the mythic structure of those epic battles over the years.

  7. Mackenzie - "Using those universal stories helps us connect with readers in ways they might never understand--since they've internalized the mythic structure of those epic battles over the years." That is so well said! You really put your finger on it. Thanks for that! :-D

    Glad you enjoyed the post!