Writing Lessons from Orphan Black

First off, let me say how excited I am to be one of the new Bad Girlz. Thanks to all the Bad Girlz for inviting me to join all the fun. I’ll endeavor to be interesting and not a sure cure for insomnia. So we’re going to start off with one of my favorite topics and pastimes — TV! Some people call it an idiot box, but I disagree. Sure, there are shows that are total brain rot, usually of the “reality” variety, but we’re also experiencing what has been called the second golden age of television. There are a lot of really well-written, well-acted shows out there. And as a writer, I draw inspiration from well-written TV and from how actors bring characters to life. The latest addition to my TV viewing is Orphan Black. I’ve just mainlined the first season and am part of the way through the second season, all in preparation for its return on BBC America for season 3 this spring. Not only is it a pleasure to watch as a viewer, but there are several lessons to be learned for writers.

Some background — The show stars Tatiana Maslany as not one but several different clones. The main character, Sarah, never knew she was a clone until she sees someone who looks exactly like her step in front of a train to commit suicide. That’s the inciting incident, and one that really draws in the audience. They want so many questions answered. Why do these two women look alike? Why did the one kill herself? What will be the repercussions of Sarah assuming Beth’s identity? FYI, turns out Beth was a cop, and she was aware there were other clones and that they were being watched by whoever created them in the first place.

6f5e03c0-dc7a-11e3-be0e-7bffb4ed2011_orphan-black-hair-makeupCharacterization — Maslany is amazing. Even though you know it is the same actress playing all these different parts, part of you believes they are different actresses. Each character has a different background, different mannerisms, speech patterns, likes/dislikes, different lives. Watching all the differences Maslany puts into these women who are genetically identical is a great lesson in how to shape our own characters. And as the seasons progress, we can see how Sarah changes and grows. She goes from being a con artist to wanting to change, to be a part of her daughter’s life. And then she changes from caring only about her daughter and foster brother Felix to feeling, in a way, responsible for the various clones who come into her life. They band together for their common good, even though they don’t always agree.

Even the secondary characters are interesting, particularly Felix. He often provides comic relief in a show that can be dark. But he isn’t just a two-dimensional funny guy. He’s supportive, loving, often the only person in her life that Sarah can really trust.

AA_orphanblack_thumbnail_s2_02_webExternal Conflict — Someone is killing off clones, so not only does Sarah and her “twins” have to try to figure out who, but also why and how to avoid getting offed. Is it the big, secretive corporation? Or the crazy religious nuts? Or someone else entirely? They also have to identify their monitors, the people put into their lives to watch them, without letting those monitors know they’ve figured it out. Sometimes finding out who these people are is very jarring and bleeds into internal conflict. How can you trust anyone if the person you’re closest to is just an employee of some organization that is watching you like a lab rat? It leads to a lot of paranoia, especially in Alison, the suburban soccer mom clone.

Internal Conflict — One of the things that makes us human is our individuality. But what if we’re not unique and there are other people just like us? Okay, so that isn’t really likely in real life (unless, perhaps, you’re writing about twins), but we do all struggle with or at least think about what makes us unique. What do we have to contribute to the world? Do we matter? Our characters can experience some version of this.

Plotting — This is a show that has lots of action, lots of tension, but there is the occasional quiet, emotional scene too, like when Sarah spends time with her daughter, Kira. But I’m never bored. Nothing drags, which we all know is the death knell in a book. If a reader gets bored, she puts down the book and may never pick it up again.

There’s a lot more to learn from this show, but I’m still in the midst of watching and processing. Are you a fan of Orphan Black? Have you learned any writing tips from it? If you’re not a watcher, are there any TV shows that have been particularly enlightening to you as a writer? And for the pure fans of Orphan Black, who is your favorite clone? I like all of them in different ways, but I’ve got to say Alison cracks me up in all her uptightness (yes, I just made that a word). And though he’s not a clone, I love Felix. Also, even though I haven’t figured out quite what I think of her yet, I’m glad to see Maria Doyle Kennedy back on TV. I really liked her as Catherine of Aragon in The Tudors.

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