Lesson #2: World Building
Television as a writing medium intrigues me. I love the potential to delve into a character’s life and explore in detail different themes and situations on an episode by episode basis. In order to teach myself about writing for television I completed a project during the 2011-2012 television season to further those efforts. I tried all of the pilots of any show that I could possibly be interested in. Let me tell you, it was a lot of television. There were eight of these shows that made my cut but didn’t score with the networks. In this series I’ll explore why I felt they had potential yet explain the pitfall that caused the show to stumble and die.
I love ABC Family and always try out their shows even though I hate the two most popular (Pretty Little Liars and The Life of the American Teenager). Based on a book trilogy by Liz Braswell, The Nine Lives of Chloe King has a really cute premise with a quasi-new race of cat people called the Mai who are in a silent war with humans. I really enjoyed her fighting and running around the city acting like a cat. I loved that she can kill a male human with a kiss and so must settle on a Mai mate.
I was worried and intrigued in the pilot when Chloe was killed only to return to life. Sure, the writer wanted to intrigue the audience and convince Chloe of her special-ness but to use one of nine lives in such a havey cavey fashion felt rash. And that’s the problem with the show, a problem that plagues many new shows: a reliance on shock value rather than world building.
A single episode of setup is all the audience gets and suddenly it’s assumed we understand the way the Mai world works. A new show with a ‘world within the world’ at it’s core, especially, needs a solid foundation. As each episode teaches the audience about the new world it relies on the previous one to supply a new starting point. Instead, the writers relied on assumptions that bypassed the power of a story with a ‘world within the world.’ The random inclusion of facts about the Mai with no concern about our shallow knowledge makes the audience feel like we understand while nothing much has really been told to us.
It’s a much better start to use her murdering the male human by accident (instead of dying herself). This ups the ante when someone tries to kill her, there’s more tension and a perfectly valid motivation. Then over the course of the season we can see it’s not the real reason. Then at the right moment during the season we can use one of Chloe’s lives as a climatic event in learning about the Mai world. It puts her on her head after learning all her new powers, it makes the danger feel real to her, plus it shocks the audience after they’ve spent enough time with Chloe to care about her death.
This problem occurs frequently with fantasy and paranormal driven stories because the world building is so essential to the show working as a whole. The writer must be expert at using reoccurring elements each week that build one upon the next in an orderly but fresh fashion. Many times they get a fresh story, like with Chloe King being a Mai uniter and savior, but it’s formless or they get an orderly story (like The River) but it lacks creativity.
Top this random plot with a clichéd love triangle where the boy she wants (Grey) is out of reach and the boy who wants her (Alek, right) is available but clearly a second choice. If more had been done with developing the Mai premise perhaps The Nine Lives of Chloe King might have made it to a second season. As it is I’m just glad I won’t have to watch her two best friends act like middle schoolers.