Monday, November 25, 2013

Great Storytelling Lessons from Dr Who

by Barbara Early 

Well, this past weekend marked the big 50th anniversary celebration of Doctor Who, and a day of fish fingers and custard (you’ll get it if you’re  a Doctor Who fan) led me to consider the cause of the frenzy. What quality or qualities make for a series that elicits such fanaticism, even after fifty years? And can you bottle it?

Rich, evolving characters. One of the special treasures of Dr. Who is a title character who is constantly changing, although never out of character. We don’t necessarily meet a different person after each regeneration, but we see the same one from a different angle, a different point of view, and at a different stage in his life.

The changing companions also provide unique windows into the Doctor’s personality. Will we see the playful side? The romantic side? The serious side? But not only windows, since the Doctor’s trusted friends also have the propensity to change him. Rose, for example, turns him from the jaded, warring hero into something more balanced but more complex. The youthful Amelia brings out his playful side.

There’s a richness in characters that don’t remain completely static. Real people don’t. They work toward their dreams, make and lose friends, and are changed by love, hate, rebirth, death, and the whole extremes of human experiences. When fictional characters do this, too, they become more real to us, and more compelling.

Unanswered Questions. One of the biggest mistakes beginning novelists make is to try to tell the reader too much of a character’s backstory at the beginning. We don’t want to know someone’s life story if we don’t know them--like the stranger next to you on the airplane who won’t shut up. We only want to know more about a person’s history once we come to love them--or at least are intrigued by them. And then when clues are doled out as in a grand mystery, we can’t get enough.

But backstory isn’t the only opportunity to pique the reader with a question. Foreshadowing is another tool, peeks into the future (admittedly much easier when your character is a time traveler). What will happen? How will the decisions made today affect the future? But never too much information. Spoilers!

And don’t forget the cliffhangers, those “endings” that force you to read “just one more chapter” and make you plan your calendar around that next episode. Leaving the audience with those unanswered questions makes them think, wonder, imagine, theorize, and hope.

Crossing Genres. As the plot develops, there can be elements of mystery, history, adventure, and romance. And even noir, Westerns, and space operas. You never know what you’re going to end up with. There’s a freshness in breaking out of the formula, sometimes, and taking the plot--and the person enjoying it--on an unpredictable adventure. That’s why there can be a body in a romance and a romance in a mystery. And a touch of the other-worldly almost anywhere. There are times to conform to genre expectations and times to transcend them.

Boost of Emotion. One cannot be a master storyteller without the ability to make the audience laugh and cry. And the greatest masters can make you do both almost simultaneously. There’s a poignancy in humor, and a glimmer of hope in grief. And a twinkle in the more irascible of old men. The deeper emotional response can only be elicited when we are drawn into the characters. We can laugh at any old fool, but we will only cry for those we truly care about.

Ageless message. The interesting thing about science fiction, is that while the story proceeds, it’s often about something entirely different--an underlying message we might not even consciously be aware of, but if we’re paying attention, it will nag at us as we consider the deeper meanings. Isn’t that true with all great fiction? It engages thought.

If you’re super-attentive and a Dr Who fan, you might have noticed something in the outline of this post: Rich, evolving characters, Unanswered questions, Crossing genres, Boost of emotions, Ageless message. If you want a mnemonic, how about “Run U Clever Boy And...Remember” (Sorry for the chat-speak!)

Remember. The final mark--at least for this post--of great storytelling is that it is memorable. Like fairy tales read to us in bed and those shows and cartoons we grew up with, we don’t forget great stories. They linger in our minds and imaginations. And inhabit our dreams.

Question: What stories have ignited your dreams?

Barbara Early grew up buried in the snowy suburbs of Buffalo, NY, where she developed a love for all things sedentary: reading, writing, classic movies, and Scrabble. She holds a degree in Electrical Engineering, but her penchant for the creative caused her to run away screaming from the pocket-protector set. Barbara cooks up cozy mysteries with a healthy dose of comedy and sometimes a splash of romance. Her holiday novella, Gold, Frankincense, and Murder was released in e-book and audio format from White Rose Publishing. Barbara also writes as Beverly Allen, and her debut cozy mystery novel, Bloom and Doom, is coming in April 2014 from Berkley. You can learn more about her writing at


  1. I never could get into Dr. Who back in the 70s when it was a very low budget black and white. And I never tried it again. I'm rather sorry about that.

    I can relate your post to two 'stories' - one is Downton Abbey and how much I've enjoyed seeing the characters change (most of them), though I suppose it's just as entertaining to see some of them not change as it adds to the drama.

    The other story would be the Outlander series. hard to beat for genre-bending, incredible characters and out of this world you have to be crazy plot threads and twists. (NOTE: this is definitely a secular book and not suitable for all audiences --and once it becomes a big cable show like Game of Thrones, you'll be hearing a lot about it)

    But back to the WHO. well, I find it fascinating to watch 'the audience'! and enjoyed this weekend's celebrations. I wish I had BBC America for a number of reasons. I would loved to have watched the specials.

    thanks Barb (Barb also shared numerous foody treats on her FB page this weekend to celebrate 50 years of Dr. Who.)

    1. Deb, I can relate. I remember seeing an old black and white episode years ago, and it just didn't grab me. (I was a Trekker, instead.)

      I checked out a single episode of Dr Who on Amazon Prime a couple of years ago and was instantly hooked. If you have a little time to kill, I'd recommend checking out the first episode of the reboot: "Rose." It does a great job of establishing the series for new viewers. But I've already warned you how addictive it can be!

  2. I, on the other hand, fell in love with Doctor Who in the early 70s - the Tom Baker years. Never saw the 5th, 6th and 7th Doctors until my son became hooked a few years ago. I actually like the older series better, but each one has its own strengths (and weaknesses). Something that is amazing about Doctor Who is how it appeals to such a broad range of age groups. I agree, it is addictive!!

    1. Hey, Tammy--I've since watched at least one episode of each doctor and all the documentaries. I felt the pace was a bit slow on the older ones and the plot lines a tad too linear for me--if that makes sense. The eighth Doctor movie was pretty good, I felt, and really seemed a decent transition from the old series into the new. I wasn't fond of the first Doctor, but loved the docudrama BBC did on the making of it.

  3. i watched Dr Who in the seventies. was a grade-schooler then and the cheesy props/special effects fascinated me, as well as the storyline. the Dr was the one with the long knit scarf and long curly hair. don't remember which number he was. i did see a few episodes with the blond Dr Who later and didn't know why he was the Dr. until later. Guess I never caught the regen thing the first time around.

    It's been forever since I've watch Dr Who. I'd probably still enjoy it since I usually enjoy BBC programming. I really enjoyed Red Dwarf for awhile - the off beat humor cracked me up. I guess I've never been an avid fan of any show to do up celebratory foods - or watch an all day extravaganza. The closest I've come was watching MacGyver during my college days...

    I do have to admit, the BBC stuff whet my imagination for sci-fi books and probably colored a lot of my junior high/high school notebook stories. Thanks for the post. Pretty nifty.

    1. Deb, the scarf was Tom Baker (4), and the blond most likely Peter Davison (5).

      The food was a lot of fun. I probably wouldn't have done any of it if we didn't have a little party here to watch the show. It was a good reason for a get-together.

      BBC is doing a great job. The cinematography of the reboot is light years ahead of what it used to be, and the storytelling amazing.

  4. I watched one episode, but it didn't really suck me in. Maybe I should give it another try. The one I watched was the first one on Netflix and looked really old.

    1. Yeah, I wouldn't go any earlier than 2005 if you want to check it out. The episodes with David Tennant are particularly awesome. What an amazing actor.

  5. Oh, Barb, agreed! LOVED the show this weekend - laugh and cry? I did both. This...changes...everything! It will be exciting to see where the new Doctor takes us. LOVED the interaction between the Doctors.

    And I too was a Trekker, from the first episode in '66, and didn't watch Doctor Who until the reboot, when my son got us started.

    And agree wholeheartedly with Deb about Outlander. Another fantastic story, told by a master. Can't wait for it!

    1. Oh and Barb, I bought your Gold, Frankincense, and Murder and thoroughly enjoyed it!

    2. Looks like I will have to check out Outlander. And Maquis, I'm so glad you liked GF&M! :)

    3. Oh, and I meant to say, yes, the episode was a clear game changer. It will be interesting to see the ramification of that. One thing I did notice: they never showed the face that Hurt's doctor (8 1/2?) changed into. I would assume it was Eccleston's, but they would have had stock footage to use. Any possibility that there's another unknown Doctor in there? I think they left it open for the possibility. Maybe Capaldi will end up being "before" Eccleston, too?

    4. Oh, and Barb, Ronald Moore is heading the production of Outlander - you may know the name from ST as well as Battlestar Galactica, if you watched that. Ira Behr is involved too, another name from ST.


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