Monday, April 7, 2014

8 Writing Lessons from Supernatural (Part 2 of 2)

by Misha Crews

Hi, and welcome back! Two weeks ago, we started talking about four writing lessons that we can learn from Supernatural. I hope you enjoyed that post. So without further ado, let's jump right back into it!

5) Know the rules of your universe, and don't break them. In the Supernatural-verse, some of the well-known rules are things like this: ghosts can be "killed" with salt or iron; otherworldly creatures can't cross lines of goofer dust, and if angels get sassy, they can be restrained with circles of fire fueled by holy oil.

If you write paranormal or sci-fi, rules are very important. They anchor your story in reality, and establish agreements with your reader.

And even in more conventional writing, rules are very important, especially when it comes to characterization. Let's say your heroine, Judy, hates the color green. If at any point in your story, Judy throws a green shawl around her shoulders, your readers are going to call shenanigans on your writing, unless there's a compelling reason for her to do it. Which brings us to the next lesson:

6) There's an exception for every rule, but there's always a good reason for the exception. Oh-ho! Just when we think we've got things figured out, Supernatural throws us a curve ball. For example, it turns out that celestial beings can be "killed" by holy oil... except for Michael. Holy oil can still harm him, and banish him, but it won't get rid of him altogether, because he's an Archangel and as such is very powerful.

So in our example from 5 above, Judy can rock that green shawl with all her might, as long as we realize that she's doing it to honor the memory of her grandmother, or to show her ex-boyfriend that she's a new woman, or for some other reason that makes sense to your character.

7) Find humor in the darkness. The thing that has impressed me time and time again about Supernatural is how balances humor with tragedy. It's a good lesson to those of us who seek to tell stories: Throw in all the conflict your characters can handle (and more, of course), but for goodness sake, give them some levity, too. The light moments will make the darkness seem all the more poignant.

Some truly hilarious moments from Supernatural are captured in this video:

8) Sometimes we have to say goodbye. What's quickest way to break faith with your readers? Kill off someone they love. What's the greatest accomplishment a writer can achieve? Kill off a beloved character... and still have your audience love your story.

With Supernatural, the writers have put us through the emotional wringer over and over again: In Season 2, Sam and Dean lost their dad. In Season 6, we bid farewell to two of the most awesome chicks you will ever meet: Jo Harvelle and her mom, Ellen. And in Season 7, *sniff sniff* Bobby Singer, the gruff but extremely lovable father figure, died. (I'm seriously not over that.) They've also killed off both Sam and Dean more than once, although the boys always come back: this is one of the advantages to writing paranormal fiction!

In the following scene, Jo has been mortally wounded by a hellhound. She convinces Sam and Dean to let her sacrifice herself by setting off a bomb to distract the hounds while the boys get away to hunt the biggest of the Big Bads: Lucifer, himself. Rather than leave her daughter to face death alone, Ellen stays behind with Jo. No fan can watch this without tearing up, at least a little:

So how can the writers do this to us, and still keep us coming back? It's because the deaths always mean something.They symbolize and reinforce the danger that our heroes are in. They also catalyze our anger as viewers for whatever enemy is currently being faced. And for Sam and Dean, the deaths are part of their maturing process: with every person they lose, they grow a little older and a little wiser, if a lot sadder.

Even if the stakes of your story aren't physical life-and-death, we can still kill off elements of our characters that they thought they could never do without. From our running example: Judy never thought she'd like the color green, because it reminded her of her grandmother's death. But through the trials she experiences during the course of the story, she realizes that it's not the color itself which she hates, but the memory of the loss. So she lets go of her bias and dons her green shawl in defiance of all those negative emotions which had been running her life.

(This is kind of a silly example, but it could actually be pretty poignant if Judy were a painter, and was finally able to paint the green field where she'd played as a child.)

So, there we have it: eight lessons that we can learn from this long-running and widely-loved television show. (Or as I like to think of it: eight reasons to watch Supernatural when I could be doing something else.) Do any of these lessons ring true for you? And do you have any writing lessons you've learned from your favorite TV show? We'd love to hear about it!


  1. Great post! I love Supernatural though I don't always get to watch it.

    The first show I ever noticed structure in was Seinfeld. Seinfeld often had three stories running at the same time, whose threads would come together at the end. That taught me to cut anything that is not going to be important to the story.

  2. Awesome post, Misha. I thought I'd commented this morning, sorry. Post-retreat brain. Sigh. I've caught Supernatural a few times and I loved your point about Dark Humor. You're so right about the importance of balancing humor and tragedy in a story. If at all possible, we need to keep the pacing interesting. Humor can help with that, as well as working in the dark or sad sides. Good analysis. Love it! Well done. ;0)