We completely missed the TV series 24 first time round but when I spotted it on the charity shop bargain DVD shelf I thought it might while away the dark evenings (that’s dark as in a wet August rather than ‘deep and dark December’) And so for the last couple of weeks we’ve been reliving Jack Baur’s Difficult Day as I think of it - which has also provided some food for thought on the matter of plotting. (No apologies for plot spoilers – I assume you all saw it yonks ago!)
First of all, there’s the conflict at work in every situation: Jack’s job is to save the presidential candidate but his heart is telling him to find his daughter – tension right from the start. Then when his wife and daughter are kidnapped and the only way he can save them is to shoot his closest colleague and ex-lover – how’s that for raising the stakes! Okay this is a thriller, but even in mainstream fiction we have to give our characters not only choices but difficult choices, preferably impossible choices, matters of life and death or whatever the equivalent might be in another genre – that’s what will get our readers turning the pages.
And it’s not just Jack who’s in a spot of bother. The candidate Palmer finds his selection is about to be compromised by family secrets. Again, what matters most, career or family? But this isn’t the only sub-plot. All of the main characters (Baur’s daughter, the candidate’s wife, most of the people who work in Jack’s intelligence unit and even some of the conspirators) have decisions and dilemmas of his or her own. For a while I was reminded (in a way!) of Love Actually – who can get bored with so many people to keep tabs on? And these sub-plots are orchestrated to provide cliff-hangers at the end of each episode which by the use of split screens are shown simultaneously.
The writer is also a master of surprise, the kind of twist that makes you say ‘I didn’t see that coming’ while realising the clues have been there all along. The best of these (so far) is when the obviously (!) dependable father of Kim Baur’s friend is suddenly revealed as part of the evil hit-squad. As someone once explained, a twist involves leading the reader one way then changing direction. Some baddies exude evil from page 1, but how much better if you’ve been thinking all along that they’re on the side of the righteous?
Half-way through the series I am suspecting everyone but also a bit disconcerted to find we seem to be having a plot pause (is this really two stories stuck together, or does Jack just need some shut-eye?) But generally it has been impressive.
Conflict, sub-plots, cliff-hangers and plot-twists. I know that none of this is new. But seeing something work on the screen sometimes brings home what needs to happen on the page.