What Writers Can Learn From Tru Calling–A Rant

 

                 

Some of you may remember the FOX sci-fi TV show, Tru Calling and if you don’t…I’m not surprised. Tru Calling was a unique show with a lot of promise and potential, however they made some key mistakes and the show was ultimately cancelled.

For those of you who never found this hidden gem, Tru Davies (Eliza Dushku) was a med-student who wound up working at a morgue. When she arrived there, she found she had a unique talent–the dead ask her for help, her day restarts and she has a chance to help stop that person from dying. Unique premise, right? I was hooked. For most of the first season, she worked on cases and helped people but the show really turned interesting when a mysterious man showed up and displayed the same power to “relive days”. Jason Priestley’s character, Jack, wasn’t like Tru, though. In fact, he was her opposite and when the day restarted it was his job to make sure the person who asked for help stayed dead. Tough job, but someone has to uphold fate’s design, right? After all, there are ripples in fate and tragic, long-stretching consequences for cheating the design (or so we’re told repeatedly, but we never actually saw these consequences Jack was always warning us about.)

The second season of Tru Calling was EPIC. This dynamic duo were evenly matched, evenly resourceful and very dedicated to their jobs. To watch them compete against each other was like the ultimate cat and mouse game. The second season (all 6 episodes) were packed with action and twists and turns and an eery sense of looming danger and consequences to come. In many ways, this show did a lot of things RIGHT. They had a  heroine you could relate to and root for, quirky and fun supporting characters and two intimidating villains. Plus, they took an antihero like Jack (who was called ‘Death’ many times) and made us root for him. They made us understand why he wanted these people to stay dead; which isn’t a very understandable or likable goal for a character to have.  So why was Tru Calling cancelled within the first half of the second season?

I’ve spent many hours debating this with my TV buff sister and we’ve come up with a list of where the show went wrong, and what you can do to ensure you don’t lose your readers the way Tru lost her viewers.

The BIGGEST mistake the writers made was forgetting or choosing not to answer the crucial questions–

Who, what, where, when, how and why?

So Tru can relive days. That’s cool and everything, but how can she do that? And why do the dead bodies choose to ask her? As viewers, we can suspend our disbelief for only so long before we start to get aggravated. What bothers me the most is that the writers HAD answers to these questions. I managed to find an article explaining the mythology of the show and where it was going. The writers claimed they “didn’t have time” to divulge the show’s mythology. (Wait, they didn’t have time? They had a season and a half! That’s plenty of time, but they didn’t use it wisely. For most of the first season, we watched Tru go through ‘hero-building’ moments. You know the drill; she wins some, she loses some; she can’t save everybody, blah blah blah. We know all of that already and are prepared to invest the time to see it, but all of that means nothing if we’re hung up wondering about the technical details.

Mistake #1–No Answered Questions. By the end of season 1, we still had no idea WHY Tru had the power she did and why Jack was determined to stop her. Viewers never got a chance to know this, but this show had AWESOME mythology. Centuries ago, a branch of Fate decided, ‘hey, we think we want to make our own decisions and screw the grand design’. Enter Tru on Team Free Will. Fate, ever trying to keep their design intact, chose to elect someone to stop ‘team free will’ from screwing everything up. That’s where Jack comes in. Tru and Jack are essentially personifications of Fate and Free Will. (Love it!!) And speaking of Jack…

Mistake #2–No Villain. They waited WAY too long to bring Jack in. I have the feeling he was part of their plan from the beginning, but they waited until episode 1×16 to bring him in and even then, he was just  this mysterious guy for most of the first season. We didn’t find out who he was until nearly the end season 1 and we didn’t find how badass and almost unstoppable he was until season 2. This wastes precious time.

Mistake #3–Trading Luke for Jensen. Tru was put to the ultimate test when her new flame Jensen died and DIDN’T ask for help. What does Tru do? Naturally, she drives all over town until someone finally does ask for help and the day restarts, giving her a chance to save her friend. According to the writers, this move had dire consequences. Jensen was returned to life, but without his soul. Pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, viewers never got the chance to see this because the show was cancelled. They waited too long to play this card. Instead of doing this for boyfriend #1 who died, they spent five episodes creating a new character and making us invested in him, only to take him here. Why do that when she had a boyfriend who died in season 1 and they could’ve easily played that storyline much sooner? We cared about Luke much more than Jensen and we watched her try so hard just to connect with him in spite of everything they went through (and they went through a lot!) It would’ve been a great end-season twist. Tru saves someone who wasn’t meant to be saved, and over the first few episodes of season 2, we would’ve begun to see the consequences of that action. Wasting precious time.

Mistake #4– Backstory hinted at, but not explained. If you’ve watched the show, then you know that Tru’s mother had the same gift and her father worked for the Fates, like Jack. And apparently, Tru’s dad thought he could stop her mom by killing her, but the power only passed to her daughter instead. This, like everything else in the show, had awesome potential. But, there were questions that were never answered. How far into the relationship did they find out they were each other’s opposites? After they were married, after they had children together? How did such a secret come between the couple? It sounds like the start of a great love story, so what went wrong and how did it result in her mother’s murder? Instead of giving us answers, the writers strung us along with these questions and never answered them.

Questions are great. They’re the reason we keep tuning in next week, or keep flipping the pages in our books. But do you know why we stop? When those questions aren’t answered. I realize they were probably concerned with revealing things too soon, but instead they didn’t reveal the answers soon enough and they lost people. There’s only so much saving people and time travelling we can handle until we’re finally like…eh, we don’t really need to tune in, they’re not going to tell us anything new anyway.

Probably their biggest mistake  was that they spent far too much time on ‘case of the week’ episodes and hero-building moments for Tru, when they could’ve used that time delving into Tru’s history and the Fates mythology.

Therefore, when viewers look back on Tru Calling, we don’t remember a unique mythological premise or personificated battles between fate and free will. We remember a girl who relived a lot of days and saved a lot of lives, a girl who made herself look downright rude for the sake of saving a life and a ‘bad guy’ who talked a good game and made a lot of sense. But mostly we remember the frustration of never having those big questions answered.

So it doesn’t matter how unique and exciting your premise is. It doesn’t matter if you have the next best thing since The Hunger Games, or if you can write as good as Stephen King. You will lose readers if you don’t answer their questions, or wait too long to answer them. I feel like the writers of Tru Calling thought they were safe–but writers are never safe. There’s always a more compelling story out there and it’s your job to keep your reader thinking about you and your story, so they’re invested in it and don’t develop ‘wandering eyes’. It’s all about pacing. Now, I haven’t developed a general ‘rule’ about how soon important information should be divulged. But I would say that about half-way through your novel, you should be revealing the big answers and twists. Don’t save this information just so you can have a cliffhanger ending with hopes of coaxing your reader into picking up the next book in your series. That might not work, and if it doesn’t, you’ve lost valuable readers. BUT, if you give your reader a book that’s packed with action and info, and they’re not strung along the entire thing desperately searching for clues, they are more likely to pick up your next book because they know you will explain everything. And you should explain everything. Remember: who, what, where, when, how and why? But MOST IMPORTANTLY–WHY?

In life, it’s the most important question and we hardly get an answer to  ‘why’. We get lame answers like “that’s just the way life works’. In literature, it’s important to deliver those answers.

Any thoughts, questions or comments? I’d love to discuss this further.

 

Did you like this post? You might also want to look at 10 Ways to Create 3-D characters and Tips From the Editing Desk #2. Also check out my street team.

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