I read somewhere a long time ago that writing was a lot like juggling. When a ball is thrown into the air, it’s an idea. That idea could be an introduction to a new character or a new plot line. It’s what we do when we write – we cast our ideas out which is vital for a narrative to drive. We introduce the brave but troubled protagonist or the bomb which will blow up the universe in 24 days.
However, it’s equally important for the ball to be caught. That idea cast into the air has to land back into the writer’s hands. If you catch that ball, it’s development done correctly, it’s that original idea following through to a conclusion. If that ball doesn’t get caught, it either stays in the air or it crashes. In other words, the idea never gets returned to or it fails, falls and smashes on the ground (presuming these aren’t bouncy balls.)
When you start writing, these balls thrown are usually one by one. However, the numbers of balls increases as the story goes on; ultimately, the balls have to keep being thrown and caught, the narrative has to go somewhere and as it progresses, you, as a writer, are juggling. Throwing and catching, throwing and catching.
In television, it’s easy to see where this works and where it doesn’t.
(I’m afraid I can’t find the original author of this analogy but it’s brilliant.)
Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) was very well crafted. In juggling terms, it only had six or seven balls representing individual characters and several major plot lines but each ball was elegantly thrown and caught with perfection. When a ball was thrown, it was with huge interest and when it was caught, it inflicted colossal influence.
Game of Thrones (2011 – ) was, and still is, well crafted also. The GoT universe is much larger than that of Gilligan’s show (and most TV shows) and therefore a lot more balls are being thrown and a lot more are being caught. In addition, because the show has a huge universe, the time between the balls being thrown and caught can be much longer. The writers have done very well.
I understand fans will know some GoT balls weren’t caught. For example, Gendry, the Lord of Light, the Greyjoy’s and Brann & Co fizzled out.
Picture credit to Reddit user /u/BaronOlio.
But, remember, Game of Thrones will continue hopefully for another few books/seasons and we know, we’re sure to see more of them!
Lost (2004 – 2010) was a little bit different. The pilot episode was brilliant, absolutely amazing and in juggling terms, it was the writers throwing hundreds of balls into the air, hundreds of ideas and possibilities to be caught and continued, holding the audience hungry for more.
But it seems like after the balls were thrown, the jugglers just ran away. Nothing was really caught and while it was still fun in some respects to watch things nearly get finalised to a tidy package, it wasn’t juggling. It was throwing a ball to a batter who knocked it out of the park, never to be seen again.
It’s important for plot and characters to be developed. Change and progression are the nature of storytelling and it’s vital they’re executed routinely. Whether you’re juggling 5, 10 or 400 balls, the reader will always pick up on when things go missing, when characters vanish without explanation or why the bomb didn’t go off despite nobody defusing it.
The throwing and catching, as I’ve said before, has to happen. However, every writer will know it’s not always easy to throw a ball knowing it’ll be caught. But that’s okay. It’s important to remember that is you must throw the ball. A lot of writing is planning and structure and sticking to your notes and textbooks. In addition, a lot of writing in spontaneous. As you progress, in most cases it starts to become clear when and how the ball will be caught. Of course, this can only happen when an idea is cast into the air, outside the mind and onto paper or computer.
Don’t hold it in – it needs air, it needs to breathe and it needs perspective.