Tuesday, November 04, 2014

What Serial Has to Teach Writers of Fiction

The This American Life Spin Off, Serial, has hooked a lot of listeners, and I think it can remind all writers of an important point.

Its longform focus on a 1999 Baltimore-area murder case and the teen convicted of the crime has fans watching the clock on Wednesday nights as they anticipate each new Thursday download.

A sub-Redditt devoted to analyzing the evidence and exploring ancillary articles has become an expansive resource for discussion and second-guessing. Slate has launched a special Spoiler Special series to discuss the storyline and the journalistic decisions of each episode.

Did Adnan Syed kill his girlfriend Hae Min Lee in a Best Buy parking lot midday in January 1999, or is someone else responsible? Who do you believe?

Once I discovered the show, I binge-listened, and I was struck by how the podcast illustrates well something all writers know in theory. Character is important. Every character textbook states it. We need characters we care about.

Serial is like a refresher course on that front, a reminder or a near perfect example of that point. Since it's real, there are no stick figures. Everyone's almost painfully quirky and unique.

Sure, whodunit is important in a crime story. I think the audience engages heavily in a did-he-do-it? game with Adnan, who Serial's reporter and narrator Sarah Koenig puts on stage through recorded phone interviews.

But mingling with the minutiae of timelines, cell tower pings and alibis are details about Syed and Lee's worlds in 1999, about the lives of friends, witnesses, cops and even minor players.

First of all Syed and Lee are from immigrant families. Syed's from a strict Muslim family, while Lee's Korean. They're sort of star crossed at the outset and drawn to each other in part from their understanding of family cultures and the need to slip around them. Getting caught together at a homecoming dance is a cause for turmoil and upheaval.

Adnan and Hae aren't the only ones who are fully realized as individuals as the story unfolds, Friends, witnesses, bit players all emerge and are revealed.

The guy who finds Lee's body buried in Baltimore's notorious Leakin Park has a complex history of his own. I won't spoil the way Serial doles out the secrets of Mister S, but suffice it to say he's more than a walk on.

Then there's Adnan's original attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, a powerhouse litigator plagued by health problems. Eventually they shattered her career.

The finger is pointed at Adnan by Jay. He calls himself the "criminal element" of the kids' high school, and he may have helped bury Lee's body. But there are nagging little variations in his re-telling of things.

There's a girl who's almost an alibi,  Hae's friends, Adnan's pals, and you get to know almost all of them as individuals.

The true life tale is like a road map for the kind of characters that need to populate fiction as well as non-fiction stories.

While it's a tragic story that deserves reverence, it's a picture of the same landscape fiction must explore in its attempts to replicate and contemplate the world.

In fiction, why have a guy with no back story wander through your tale if he can have a history that makes him suspect too, at least for a while.

Why not shade the motives of peripheral characters and build in quirky contradictions as the complexity of the heart is probed?

Give Serial a listen, and learn.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds pretty cool. I'll have to try to scare up some time.

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