Dark Shadows. Have you ever watched this show? It’s had quite an insidious effect on my life so far and I’m only on episode 360. Just 900 more to go…
For those living in blissful ignorance, Dark Shadows is an American soap opera that started in 1966 and was broadcast daily for four years. It eshews typical soap operas storylines (affairs, scandal, dodgy deals, punch ups) in favour of the surreal. I’m not talking Days of Our Lives surreal, sure that show has had bizarre mysteries and sort-of ghosts at times, but they never had a vampire or a whole family of ghosts.
I’m watching Dark Shadows with my girlfriend, Dominique on Amazon Prime (though it is available on You Tube) and we’re up to episode 360 or thereabouts. For the mathematicians among you, that means we’re just about on the 1 year mark and so far we’ve had a kidnapping, two ghosts, two murders, a disappearance, a vampire and four instances where a (non-lead) character has been suddenly replaced by a different actor. This is not sophisticated stuff. But it is really, really addictive and it’s quite fascinating studying the storylines.
Sometimes, things creep into the story that aren’t followed up on, which is a good example of what not to do but often the stories seem well thought-out. It’s given me the opportunity to think very carefully about story telling techniques.
One of the reasons why this show is compelling is because we, as the audience, know lots of things that the characters do not. So much time is spent hoping, wishing and shouting at the TV in the hope characters who repeatedly get so close to learning the truth of matters, will actually get there. For these reasons characters fluctuate between being incredibly dim in some episodes and making massive intuitive leaps of logic in others, depending on what the plot requires (you could argue that’s a fairly average occurrence in most soap operas. Often Dom turns to me in utter despair “oh surely she can work it out! Why can’t she work it out?” Because she’s in a soap opera, I tell her. If you were in a soap opera too, you’d probably behave the same way!). But this is what I call “Columbo style” stories. In Columbo the audience is shown the murder and the killer in the first five minutes. We know who did what, why and how – the entertainment is watching the Columbo discover all that we, the audience, already know. It’s a pretty standard technique but when done well, when teased out to the Nth degree, it’s damn near masterful.
One story early in Dark Shadows involves a young woman who’s been kidnapped and kept in a scary old house which belongs to the resident vampire of Collinwood, Barnabas Collins. We know where she is, where she’s been and what Barnabas is trying to do but over the course of 20 episodes every character visits the house (some more than once) and get perilously close to finding her. The writers tease and tease and tease. Oohh maybe trespassing David will find her? No. Her dad’s in the hall, all she has to do is call out! No. Vicki’s smart, can’t she guess her missing friend’s just upstairs? No, no, no. It’s all part of the tease. Dominique is completely absorbed in the story but me, as an aspiring writer, find these little teases, these tricks quite amusing, and just a little bit masterful because it can’t always be pulled off.
I remember watching a film of Sherlock Holmes – The Sign of Four starring Ian Richardson as Holmes. If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll know Holmes is required to find out who committed a murder. In the film, the director decides to show us the murderous pygmy that clambers out of a suitcase and commits the crime in the very first scene. The next 90 minutes is spent in a “Columbo-style” story where the detective is trying to learn the truth and comes close and then misses his chance as we the audience, wince each time the great detective misses the next clue. The director is playing fast and loose here. Not only is this a deviation from Conan’s Doyle’s original story, it takes the joys of discovering the truth via Holmes away from the audience. We’re forever one step ahead of the world’s finest consulting detective, which may be fine for your average detective story – but this Holmes – and nobody, the audience included, should ever be ahead of him. Dark Shadows, plays the game much more skillfully.
Another art of the scriptwriters is a question I posed to my girlfriend as we sat digesting the events of a mammoth five-episode marathon one Sunday afternoon. As I mentioned earlier, Barnabas is a vampire. That’s never actually made explicit until about episode 200, it’s just implied – and it works – but for 100 episodes now, that one mystery has remained at the very core of the show. How long can Barnabas keep his secret? I wanted to imagine I was writing Dark Shadows, and if I were, how long could I keep it going, teasing the audience, without the characters learning the truth. To do this, we asked ourselves, how many ways are there to keep a secret?
- Murder. Someone finds out your secret, you kill them.
- Blackmail. Someone finds out the secret, you blackmail them.
- Bribery. Someone finds out, you pay them off
- Fear. You make the person who found out the secret too scared to reveal anything
- Kidnap. Imprison the person who knows the truth.
- Persuasion. They’ve learnt the secret but they like you, so you’ve persuaded them to keep quiet for your sake.
- Manipulation. You don’t need to blackmail or persuade a weak-minded person, you just manipulate them.
- Madness. You drive the discoverer of the secret into mania.
- Discredit. Someone knows the truth so you go to great effort to make them look like a liar
- Violence. You’ve killed once to protect your secret, whoever discovers it next will know this and the threat will keep them in line.
- Disappearance. Manipulate events so the person who knows the secret is transferred overseas, or out of harm’s way.
- Emotional blackmail. “You can’t tell my secret, it’ll destroy the family”
- Bargaining. Someone’s found out your secret but you know one of theirs so a mutually beneficial agreement can be made, without having to resort to blackmail.
- False accusation. Convincingly blame somebody else.
- Illness. Deliberately infect somebody to the point where they’re hospitalized, ideally in a coma.
- Infatuation. The person who knows the truth is in love with the one who has the secret.
There might be more ways to keep a secret than the 16 I’ve listed above but what you actually have there is 16 ways to keep the story going. 16 ways to keep teasing out the question – How long before everybody learns the truth? By episode 360 I think we’ve had well over half of the above ways of keeping a secret played out. It’ll be interesting to see what tricks the writers use next.
I’ll keep you updated.
Copyright Martin Gregory