Wednesday, January 7, 2009

PSYCH: This Time It's Not Personal

(Cross-posted from William Rabkin's blog)

Someone asked me on another forum what the hardest thing was about writing my first Psych novel, A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Read. I figure I might as well answer here, too.

The really tough part of the first Psych book was coming up with a story. And that was strange for me, because I’ve done zillions of mystery stories over the years. I’ve got a graveyard of fictional corpses that fills entire city blocks. But Psych made me rethink everything I know about crafting a story.

Usually when I’m trying to come up with a new episode for a series, I start with the show’s central character. Almost every good detective hero I’ve written about is driven by some kind of obsession. Dr. Mark Sloan is compelled to solve murders because he sees crime the same way he sees illness and he’s sworn to the Hippocratic Oath. Monk desperately has to put the world back into order or he’ll go mad. Nero Wolfe needs to prove he’s smarter than everyone else around. So when I’m thinking about a new episode, I ask myself what kind of crime and what kind of criminal will compel my hero to act. What kind of plot can I use to explore the inner life of the detective.

But Shawn Spencer isn’t driven to solve crimes. He isn’t pursued by psychological demons. He does it because… it’s fun.

There’s just not a lot to explore there…

So I first went to the bag of tricks all TV writers reach into when we can’t figure out how to give our stories some emotional weight. Shawn’s dad is kidnapped. He discovers he’s got a long-lost brother who’s accused of murder. His buddy from ‘Nam is in trouble.

These are what we big-time TV writing professionals call “crap.”

Then I realized I needed to stop thinking about the way I go about developing stories and start figuring out what would work for Psych. One of the show’s great charms is that Shawn doesn’t have any great emotional need to solve these crimes. He’s not driven. He just kind of ambles through the stories.

That word was my breakthrough. Ambles. Because when I think of ambling, I think of Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty ambling through their parody of Hope and Crosby’s Road pictures in an old SCTV sketch. And that led me to the real Hope and Crosby and the real Road pictures, and the way their characters would be inside the story and at the same time outside commenting on it.

That became my starting point for Shawn. Yes, he’d be investigating the crimes, but at the same time he’d be watching the investigation like a jaded viewer. It wouldn’t be enough for him to find the solution to the crime — he would need to find an entertaining solution. He would build theories based not on logic or evidence, but on maximum narrative pleasure. And he’d be right.

Once I had that, everything else fell into place.

Well, maybe not everything, but that’s another post…

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