ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit words in or out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other stories the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.
Writing Diagnostic #6: let’s explore how expanding details put in place by a previous episode’s writer adds depth and canon to a television series.
Women are always in search of strong women characters. This is quite odd to me; I find most women deserve the hashtag #strong. Whatever our current circumstances, all women have had to be strong throughout some sort of tough times. Of course, then we have to argue about the true definition of tough times. This conversation could easily turn into a long running argument about how we feel, what we perceive, is reality and not what the other person perceives.
So it’s long fascinated me that television shows in America tend to be written by different screenwriters. How can there be any consistency in a story if different people pop in and out dragging along their personal perceptions and their baggage?
One answer is the actors. With their knowledge of the character, they take the new circumstances and interpret the plot in a way that works with their character’s point of view. In other words, an actor can take a mess of a screenplay and make it consistent and sensical through their interpretation of it. The right answer to the question, though, is the executive producer. One of their major jobs is to keep the themes within the story consistent. In this way the stories found in each episode should work to highlight the personality and struggles of the central characters.
In Plain Sight was an American television show on USA Network that ran from 2008 to 2012. The show follows a small WITSEC office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as Deputy US Marshals settle and protect people in their area for the Witness Protection Program. The show ran for five seasons in spite of the production being riddled with problems to do with their producers. Realistically, the show made it so long due to the core cast. Mary McCormack, Fred Weller, Paul Ben-Victor, Lesley Ann Warren, and Nichole Hiltz were all excellent from day one and their recurring guests Rachel Boston, Cristián de la Fuente, and Joshua Malina supported them well.
Personally, I adored Mary McCormack as Marshal Mary Shannon. She’s that expected strong woman with a twist. Due to her father’s abandonment she is the head of her dysfunctional family and has major trust issues, something all women can identify with. Her struggle to overcome her issues with baseball boyfriend, Raph, were compelling, especially when he got caught up in her sister, Brandi’s problems. When Raph and Mary got engaged I was over the moon for her.
Two details changed my whole perspective of Mary and Raph’s love life. The first was when Marshal Marshall Mann, Mary’s partner became angry that she revealed to Raph her job (and his by association) as a WITSEC Marshal. Why was he so angry and almost…hurt? Was there a deeper issue at work here? Mary doesn’t even understand why he’s so mad. The second was in a later episode when Marshall becomes verbally impotent, Mary’s words not mine, at the news she’s broken her engagement with Raph. Why is he speechless for the first time…ever? Is that a subtle glimpse of hope in his expression? These two details were layered into the story by separate screenwriters in different episodes but they clearly have a connection.
A third detail, developed further than the other two, forms a pattern that we can begin to make sense of. In the last episode of season three, the story line formed by these three details play themselves out. Marshall’s feelings for Mary are revealed in a lovely scene of jealousy that evolves into a moment of revelation. He’s reacting to a bit of flirting between Mary and an agent he doesn’t like. A man very different from himself.
He tries to explain how she really needs a man like him. A man who would challenge her, call her on her bull, get in her face, make her think. He even gathers all of his courage to tell her he loves her before he’s interrupted by their boss, Stan. And to be honest Mary seems relieved. We can see from these details that each screenwriter took a moment that another screenwriter built up to and put their own spin on how the characters would react.
It speaks to Fred Weller’s skill as an actor that he made it a believable part of his laid back character for him to have been hiding a love for Mary. Through all the time they’ve worked together and even through her engagement. The season two finale where Mary’s life is threatened certainly provided Marshall a wake up call to his feelings for his partner. Looking back we can easily insert this moment into the Marshall loves Mary story line as it makes a nice plot support for his growing feelings. We can better believe that those two initial details developed into full-blown love and jealousy. These factors certainly played into the success of Marshall loving Mary, but it’s the way each screenwriter developed those details into special moments that made it possible for them to be expanded into the full story line.
Laid into the story by different screenwriters, developed through each one’s perceptions then supported by the plot and actors these details became the central dilemma for the series finale. Would Mary Shannon return Marshall Mann’s feelings and break up his engagement to Abigail? This question became a rabid point for fans of In Plain Sight. Mary McCormack even came out with her own opinion as to what the outcome should be for Mary Shannon. Whether you agree with the conclusion that Mary and Marshall are professional soul mates, not meant to have a personal relationship is for you to decide.
The point is these details were added to make a single moment in an episode shine with truth and depth and ended up making a series shine with depth and canon. Yes, expanding details are essential to a television show. They are the points along a story line that other screenwriters reference and then develop during the course of their own episode. In Plain Sight had some excellent screenwriters. I know it because it’s a show riddled with excellent details. Many of these details might not have been expanded into a story line like the Marshall loves Mary story line but they all made excellent moments. Ones of pure potential. With better producers the show could have been a well-developed piece of rope with story lines expanded into many more seasons.
Many shows have excellent premises and production teams paired with stellar characters and actors to portray them. What shows need now are equally excellent details and stellar screenwriters and producers who develop those details and build those story lines. The results would be depth and canon and fans that rave about your story.