Storytelling Tips Learned from The Leftovers

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I’ve watched a lot of TV shows in my life, and every once in a while one of them comes along and makes everything else look like trash. One such show was season 2 of The Leftovers, which managed to be better than its first season in every conceivable way.

A quick summary: The Leftovers is a show that’s about dealing with ambiguous loss. On October 14th, 2011, 2% of the world’s population — with no correlation whatsoever between them — just vanished into thin air at the same time. No one knows why it happened, who is responsible, or what even happened to the people that vanished. Where did they go? Are they ever coming back? Will this happen again? The writers have no intention of answering these questions and personally I hope they never do.

This may not seem like your type of show, but if you’ve ever dealt with the loss of a family member, a friend, anyone you cared about. If you’ve ever dealt with depression, or if you’ve ever just been sad about something at all at any point in your life, you will connect with this show on some level.

In my case, I connected a little too deeply, and I was pretty much an emotional wreck after every episode. It changed the way I thought about my own writing, and it also redefined my perspective on life itself. 

(To be fair, my perspective on life changes about once every week .)

For this post I’m just gonna be focusing on the writing portion, as I bequeath to you some of tips I took from this show:

TV-Cap: ASH VS EVIL DEAD at Comic-Con, THE LEFTOVERS Season 2 Trailer, & More

Don’t be afraid to shake things up.

The show’s first season took place in a small town in upstate New York. It was a stand-in for the rest of the world. “Anytown, USA,” it might as well have been called. We followed the characters there for eight or nine months, getting to know and understand them as they got into various hijinks and tomfoolery.

And then the first episode of season 2 comes along and the focus of the show moves thousands of miles away to the town of Jarden, Texas. The opening episode focuses on a set of characters we’ve never met before. You don’t see a single familiar face until you’re forty-five minutes in. Jarring as all hell, but it worked.

But it wasn’t just the setting that changed: the tone changed, the lighting changed, even the opening credits changed drastically in a way that I can’t remember seeing before. Here’s the opening to the first season: 

And now here’s the second one:

Changing so much about the show was a pretty ballsy move, I think we can all agree, and yet it paid off better than anyone could’ve expected, with a show currently being praised by critics and viewers alike as one of the best on TV.

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Not everything has to be explained.

In one episode we watch a character have a friendly conversation with her new neighbor, one that ends with no apparent conflict between them. The very next scene we watch as she casually walks up to the neighbor’s house, picks up a rock, and throws it straight through the neighbor’s window.

The show never outright explains why she decided to suddenly vandalize her neighbors’ house, but the audience is left to figure it out for themselves, even though there’s more than one possible conclusion for the audience to draw. The show trusts the viewers to figure shit out on their own and allows them to interpret things in different ways, and so should you.

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Some things probably should be explained.

The guy who wrote The Leftovers is Damon Lindelof, who also wrote the show Lost. As a result, he has a bit of a reputation for setting up mysteries without actually resolving them in a satisfactory way. So when he decided to write another show centering around a mystery that he has admitted from the beginning would never be explained, he got an understandable amount of flak from pissed off Lost fans.

And yet, the second season of the show introduced several mysteries at once, including one really juicy one. A mystery so juicy it might as well have been a porterhouse steak. For weeks and weeks I scrolled through dozens (hundreds?) of different theories regarding it, and not only were a: none of them were right, but b: the mystery was handled in such a jaw-dropping, game-changing way that I couldn’t even sleep afterwards. And I love to sleep.

The lesson here is that you can keep things ambiguous if you want, but you need to have a good grasp on what should be answered and what doesn’t have to be. The Leftovers is a show that’s very premise is an unanswered question, but it remains satisfying because when it comes to big reveals, it never drops the ball. 

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Tell a joke for once.

While I can fanboy about this show for ages, and could probably write a novel-length essay analyzing it scene to scene, I must admit that at one point, I was thinking about quitting the show.

Around halfway through the first season, I was getting wary. The show was so dark. All the characters seemed to be digging themselves deeper and deeper into their own misery. The show at that point was utterly humorless. Humorless and hopeless, it seemed; the two worst things a story could be. 

But luckily the writers seemed to figure this out, because they started to inject some much-needed humor into the characters. And then they gave the characters hope within all the sadness, and it was raw and beautiful and cathartic and no I am not crying right now, I just have something in my eye, so shut up.

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Make every moment count.

You could tell a story’s well-done if you can’t think of a single thing you’d cut. This wasn’t case for the first four or five episodes, (which is why it’s the weakest part of the show), but re-watching the season 2 premiere, it’s amazing to see just how important every single moment turned out to be. Every odd detail, every facial expression. They even managed to turn a stupid knock knock joke into hardcore foreshadowing. (Yes. Hardcore.)

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Not all dystopian stories have to involve an evil government that needs to be overthrown.

I remember seeing a review for The Leftovers describing the series as a dystopia, and I remember thinking, “Hm, I guess it is kind of dystopian.” After all, it was about an alternate version of the world, where mysterious cults are rising up all over the U.S., and the government has no problem with killing them off if need be. 

When I usually think of Dystopian stories, I think of V for Vendetta, or The Hunger Games: where the world is terrible, but at least the readers know who’s to blame. But in The Leftovers, the world can’t be fixed by blowing up buildings, or shooting people with an arrow. The world’s broken because each and every person in it is broken. It’s a dark premise, but I think it’s much more compelling than most of the dystopian books and movies I’m so used to seeing.

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I’m going to be honest, guys. This was less about writing tips, and more about how much I love this show. Watch it. It’s lit.

Ten Things I’ve Done This Holiday Season

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1.) I bought a reindeer. It looks cute.

2) I watched The Leftovers Season 2, and I’m starting to wonder if that show was written with me specifically in mind. Because it was perfect. It was everything I love about TV and storytelling in general wrapped up in ten hour-long episodes, although episodes seems like the wrong word to describe them. They’re more like mini-movies, except with better acting, writing, and production values than the majority of movies out there.

3) I applied to several colleges. Haven’t heard back from any of them yet, which probably means they’ve decided that, “An acceptance letter isn’t enough for this kid, we need to drive over to his house and tell him the good news ourselves.”

Yes, that must be it.

4) I got in a surprisingly violent fist fight. It had a happy ending to it though, so all is well.

5) I’ve also decided that I’d make a pretty beastly action hero, because during said fight my arm had apparently been clawed at with tiger-like nails. I have quite-possibly-permanent scars on my arm now, and yet I didn’t even notice the injury until a good half-hour afterward.

Hold on a second. Am I Jessica Jones?

Nope. No I’m not.

6) I saw Mockingjay: Part 2, and loved all of it, except maybe the final scene. It seemed a bit too happy and simple, considering the tone of the rest of the movie. This didn’t stop me from getting all defensive however, when one of my peers called it the worst movie he’d ever seen. (Refer back to #4.)

(Just kidding, guys. I didn’t actually get in a fistfight over a movie. It was actually caused by spilled water.)

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7) I sold my old laptop and bought a new one instead. What type of laptop, you ask? Well, it’s obviously an Asus Chromebook Flip C100PA. Duh. Not to brag or anything, but it’s pretty much the greatest laptop in the world, and that includes all laptops from the past, present, future and any/all undiscovered dimensions/parallel universes. The best part is that the Chromebook cost half as much as my old laptop, and yet it’s so much better in every way. 

And yes: Google is, in fact, paying me to say all this. 

 

8) There’s a Secret Santa sort of thing going on my job, and I have to give a gift to this girl I don’t actually know very well. So I bought her a wooden reindeer sculpture (see above) and some Christmas-themed cookies, because if she’s anything like me, she likes reindeer and she also needs food to live.

9) I’ve found a group of friends to play Poker with every week, which is one of my life goals, so yeah, I’d consider this a win.

10) I’ve found another quality anti-joke. I apologize in advance for the profanity within, but it’s definitely worth it:

A man walks into a control room. There is a big red button labeled “Nuclear Launch Button.” He walks up and presses it.

A display screen next to the button reads “Input password.” There is a number panel below the screen. He searches around the room, and finds a locked desk. He jimmies it open, and rummages around through it. Inside there is a sheet of paper which says, “Nuclear launch password: 7831662”

He returns to the number panel, and punches in 7831662. The display screen says “Code confirmed. Press again to launch.” He presses the button again. “Launching nuclear arsenal.”

He stares at the screen in shock. “Aw shit…. I fucked up.”

So, what have you done in the past month or so? More importantly, what do tigers dream of when they take a little tiger snooze? I would very much like to know. 

In Which I Return From my Absense in a Blaze of Glory

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I’ve been on random hiatuses so many times now that I’m pretty sure you could call me a pro at it. In fact, whenever a blogger spontaneously disappears, I think it would be fair game to say that they are “pulling a Matt.”

I’m really hoping I just coined a phrase right there.

But thanks to all my other various hiatuses in the past, I know exactly what to expect on my return. For one thing, I know that my first post back isn’t going to get a whole lot of views or comments, and it’s only after the second or third one that the stats page stops looking so sad and hideous.

My stats will likely remain lower than normal anyway, if only because, based on my past three(!) years of blogging, my stats are always lower during the holiday season. Apparently you people consider spending time with your family more important than reading my blog.

*scoffs* You all sicken me.

It’s always a bit hard to deal with, but the good news about this is that I could pretty much wing it for this post and they’ll be little to no consequences. So sit back and enjoy as I basically just list a bunch of things I’ve done in the past few weeks or so. Feel free to not even bother reading this post, I wouldn’t blame you.

—I’ve become a hardcore fanboy of this show called, “The Leftovers,” which was pretty much the greatest show on television right now. Of course, I haven’t actually watched every single show currently on TV, but I still consider myself qualified to make that sort of statement.

—I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone reading this should, after clicking that like button, immediately subscribe to HBO and watch all the available episodes of The Leftovers, right now.

“But what about Jessica Jones!?” you ask.

Okay, first you can watch Jessica Jones, but then you have to go straight to The Leftovers once you finish. The first season of the show was a wee bit divisive, and even I’ll admit it was a bit slow and melodramatic in the beginning, but after that glorious sixth episode I knew I would be a fan of this show for as long as it was on. Every single episode since then has a been an hour long masterpiece.

And while Jessica Jones has received lots of media attention and is pretty much guaranteed to be renewed for another season, The Leftovers is not so lucky. Its ratings are terrible, and if they don’t go up soon I might not get to see a third season, and I don’t think I could handle that. Because honestly, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this excited over a TV show.

*checks diary*

I believe the last time was Lost, season 5. And before that, there was nothing. 

In other news:

— I discovered that jazz music is the perfect music to write to, because it just sort of blends into the background. You don’t even notice it. And when you do notice it, you don’t even mind because you’re too busy thinking, “Daaaamn, that saxophone is fire!”

— This site keeps popping up on my phone saying: “Warning: Your phone has been infected by a deadly virus! Download this app to get rid of it!” And I can’t help but suspect that the app itself is a virus. What do I do?

— I’ve been very busy with school, work, college applications, and surprise dentist appointments lately. I also find it increasingly hard to get out of the bed in the morning, solely because it’s too goddamn cold.

— Did I mention that I’m working 10 AM to 2 PM on Thanksgiving? (Speaking of which, is McDonald’s busy on Thanksgiving mornings? I feel like it is.)

—I’ll be watching Mockingjay: Part 2 on Saturday, so keep your eyes on the horizon for a review.

—There probably won’t be a review, but still. Keep your hopes up anyway.

—You know that story about the ice cream truck killer I was writing? Well it turns out to be a bit longer than I expected, and I’m not sure how I’d be able to divide it into a series of posts, unless you guys are open to reading three to four thousands words at a time. Let me know, bro.

— To end this horrific excuse for a post, here’s the opening scene of The Leftovers, just to intrigue you all further.

Just watch the show already.