I boycotted the TV show NCIS for years because it originated as a spin-off of my old favorite, JAG, and I wasn’t ready to accept the transition. What a fool! Well, I’ve come to my senses now and seen the light. Not only do I love the show, but I’ve also quickly come to admire its writers.
Why? Unlike a lot of other TV shows these days, the writers at NCIS know the value of not wrapping things up in one episode.
We can apply this lesson to our own writing. It’s tempting to tie things up into neat little bows between chapters or at certain strategic points to let your characters (and readers) catch their breath. Sure, the tension’s high in the middle, but by the end of the section, everything’s been resolved and we’re all back to normal. That’s not always a bad thing, but it often means you miss opportunities to heighten conflict or allow your characters to truly change.
Sometimes we hesitate to put our characters through challenging, irreversible change, because that type of change stays with them (and with us as writers) forever. We have to carry it through the rest of our novel. It’s tricky and complicated, so we tend to shy away from it.
Let’s learn from an example of how they make this work on the show (Don't worry - it's from past seasons, so doesn't contain any timely spoilers).
One of the main characters, Ziva, who is originally from Israel, decides to become a U.S. citizen. That in and of itself is a big move for this character, since she has strong family ties to Israel. Several episodes of the show feature secondary plots involving her citizenship process—it’s not over and done with in only a few minutes. The writers take time to examine the real-life challenges and excitement associated with becoming a citizen.
Then, we come to the finale where Ziva will finally stand up and take the oath as a U.S. citizen. It’s clearly an important moment for her, and she invites the rest of the team to support her and witness her oath. Here’s where NCIS really differentiates itself. Most shows would do just what we expect—the entire team would be present, smiling and cheering on Ziva from the audience.
Instead, the NCIS writers make two of her closest team-members noticeably absent from the ceremony. Her boss, the infamous Leroy Jethro Gibbs, is balancing an investigation about his decades-old murder of the drug lord who killed his family with threats from that same drug ord’s revenge-crazed daughter. Ziva’s partner, Tony, is in Mexico tracking the cartel.
Although they both have excellent reasons to miss Ziva’s ceremony, the viewer feels their absence. We know they wouldn’t miss it lightly, and yet…they’re not there. What does this mean? How badly must they be feeling, knowing they want to be there for her, but can’t? How much does Ziva know about where they are and why they’re not there? What is she wondering as she scans the crowd and doesn't see their faces?
These are the type of emotional questions that will also keep your readers urning pages. To get there, steer clear of easy, predictable solutions and throw some lasting curveballs at your characters.