storytelling lessons from big finish

I first discovered Big Finish Productions because I found out that they did audio dramas based on Dark Shadows, starring members of the original cast (at this point I think almost all of the surviving major cast members have done at least a few) .

One time, when a new Dark Shadows CD arrived in the mail, some marketing genius at Big Finish threw in the first disk of a Sapphire & Steel audio. I’d never heard of the Sapphire & Steel TV show (I don’t think it was ever shown in the U.S.), but I played the CD and I was hooked. A supernatural mystery, set on a train, obviously based on Murder on the Orient Express but you have to pay attention because the references are never explicit? Starring the wonderful voices of David Warner and Susannah Harker? I’m there.

(I’ve realized that audio drama is really my favorite storytelling medium, and it’s nice to find contemporary ones. No matter how good Yours Truly Johnny Dollar was — and it was really good, especially when it was on five days a week — the last one was made in 1962 and there won’t be any more.)

So, Dark Shadows led me to Sapphire & Steel, which led me to Professor Bernice Summerfield (because actress Lisa Bowerman was so good in Sapphire & Steel in a recurring role), and so on.

So, two lessons:

1. If you’ve got a long series of stories, you don’t have write a new story after the end of the last one — you can insert new stories anywhere in the sequence.

I’ve written about the Tony and Cassandra mysteries before, and it seems they were popular enough that more were demanded, even though their shared career had a pretty definite ending. So, a new series came out, with more mysteries set before that ending, in the middle of their time together solving supernatural mysteries. Because why not?

I’ve felt a bit constrained recently, in writing about Jan Sleet and Marshall solving mysteries, because then I have to explain where they live and their daughter and so on — which is a lot of backstory to fit into a mystery short story. In a novel it’s not a problem, but it throws a short story out of balance.

So, now I’m writing a new story, set before A Sane Woman — before U-town, before marriage, before their daughter. Back when the great detective and her loyal assistant traveled the world, reporting on wars and solving mysteries and slowly getting the hang of working together.

It’s going pretty well so far.

2. Flip the genders — at least as a test.

A new series that Big Finish is doing is Jenny — The Doctor’s Daughter. Jenny is the “daughter” (a clone, really) of the Doctor.

In the long history of the Doctor, he has been male (well, until now 🙂 ), his companions have mostly been female, and his villains have been mostly male. So, for Jenny’s stories, the people producing the show took the scripts and experimented with flipping the characters from male to female to see what it did. Some worked and some didn’t, but now the series has a female Time Lord (Jenny), who has a male companion, and mostly female villains. I really like three out of the four stories, and I’m hoping there will be more.

If done mechanically, of course, this type of thing can be a disaster, but it can also get you out of a rut in your storytelling. Try it — you can always flip them back if it doesn’t work.

I tried a similar experiment when writing a Stevie One — not to try making the characters women (most of them were women anyway), but to make them explicitly Black (I say explicitly because often I don’t specify race). It was an interesting process.

For more in the Storytelling Lessons series, go here.

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