Watching as a writer

A few weeks ago, I watched an episode of Bones, a TV show I follow. The writers started with some great concepts related to both plot and character development. Unfortunately, the resulting episode fell flat for multiple reasons.

The episode I’m talking about was called “The Shot in the Dark,” and aired on February 11th, and my thoughts on the episode appear below. These thoughts contain spoilers, so here’s some empty space for you in case you haven’t watched yet but plan to.

The episode begins with an argument between Bones and Booth, the two main characters. (For those who don’t watch the show, she’s a forensic anthropologist who studies bones, and he’s an FBI agent who solves murders. They work together, and they also live together along with their baby daughter.) Bones gets upset, and leaves the house to go back to the lab and get some work done. Soon after that, she’s shot in the abdomen by a mystery gunman. Booth goes to apologize, and finds her lying on the floor.

Over the rest of the episode, we alternate between Bones’s out of body experiences, and her team’s efforts to figure out what happened, and why there’s no bullet inside her. (Turns out the bullet was made of frozen blood.)

An episode like this had the potential to be amazing, filled with tension and edge-of-your-seat moments. Though Bones is the title character, and therefore can’t die, the viewer should have been sitting there, thinking that maybe, just maybe, she might. We should have watched her lover’s pain and hurt right along with him. We should have felt the desperation as the team struggled to figure out what was going on.

But the writers messed it up, and I couldn’t help but try to figure out why.

Recently, I’ve gotten into the habit of reading as a writer. This means becoming more aware of my reactions to the books I’m reading, asking not, “Do I like this?” but “Why do I like this? What did the author do right?” Or, when I’m disappointed in a book, “What did the author do wrong?”

Usually, the second question is easy to answer, but this time, it seems the writers did so many things wrong that I had trouble figuring them all out.

Mistake #1: If you’re going to shoot a character, you’d better make it a Big Deal. Either it has to be done by the biggest bad guy ever, the one they won’t catch by the end of the episode, or it has to come at the absolute worst possible moment, like when that perfect moment is five seconds away from happening. This latter option could be called torturing your characters, and people like Joss Whedon are incredibly good at it. Generally, it also involves torturing your viewers, which is why people sometimes want to throw things at people like Joss Whedon.

Basically, if they were going to shoot Bones, it needed to either be connected in with Hacker Guy (the current major bad guy whose name escapes me at the moment), or it should have come at exactly the sort of moment that would have made me throw things at the screen.

The writers were going for the latter option, having Bones shot right after a fight, and using the shooting as a way to develop her character through the visions she had every time she nearly died, but they didn’t even come close to nailing it.

Why not? Because:

Mistake #2: If you’re going to shoot a main character, you have to build up to the moment. If you’re going to do it in the first five minutes of the episode, it raises the bar pretty high for how tense and dramatic the rest of the episode needs to be. For that matter, if it’s supposed to come on the heels of a fight so that there are feelings of guilt and regret, it had better be more than a five minute fight.

For that matter, it’s not only the fight that needed to be big.

Mistake #3: Part of the reason I couldn’t get caught up in the episode was that nothing really seemed as high stakes as it could have. The characters should have been panicking that Bones’ life depended on them solving the mystery. For that matter, Bones should have been feeling super upset that she didn’t see the killer’s face, and that she was going to have to rely on others to solve the case for her. Her frustration at not seeing the killer’s face should have carried beyond the one scene where it was mentioned, and there should have been an added layer of frustration over possibly not remembering a discovery she made just before she was shot.

Not only that, but shooting a character is a big deal. It needs not only a big build-up, but also some major consequences. Which brings us to…

Mistake #4: Bones was in the hospital at the end of this episode, but by the next episode, she’s back at work, and the shooting is never mentioned. It was basically like they plugged Bones into their story arc where they ordinarily would have used a victim of the week, just to show off their creative murder technique. If you’re going to shoot a main character, you can’t just shoot them one week, and forget about it the next week.

There are so many ways they could have set this up so much better. If I were writing it, I would have split it across two episodes, and here’s what I might have done:

Episode A:
1) introduce mystery by having a nameless murder victim with no exit wound and a missing bullet
2) set up tension between Bones and Booth about whatever-they’re-fighting-over and have it gradually build over the course of the episode
3) Have the team go through their usual steps to catch the bad guy. Maybe have one or two other token victims murdered.
4) Have the fight that was at the start of this episode placed near the end of the episode before. Bones storms off to the lab, where she’s making a crucial discovery…
5) And she gets shot in the last minutes of the episode. Maybe show other stuff going on at that moment, other characters going about their business, completely unaware, as she lies on the floor, bleeding. Stretch out that last shot. Emphasize how it’s a big deal.

Then, the viewer has to wait an entire week before Episode B, which would run similarly to this week’s episode, only Bones has already been shot, and also:
1) emphasize how they need to figure out what happened in order to save her life
2) emphasize how she made a discovery that will crack the case, if only they could figure it out

And then, of course, we have Episode C: In the following episode, Bones is at home, recovering, while also trying to get involved in (and probably solving) the Case of the Week, and she and Booth are trying to mend things, and recover emotionally as well.

The episode had the potential to be amazing, but the writers really missed the mark, and that’s my theory as to why.

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