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Conflict-Driven Storytelling in Discovery of Witches
Discovery of Witches is a TV series based on some novels about witches, vampires, and demons coming into conflict with one another in the 21st century. The action centres around the relationship between a witch and a vampire, and the story is told mostly from the witch’s perspective.
What I found interesting about the show was how bluntly it used a few storytelling tools, and how, even though I felt like I was being hit over the head by them in the least subtle ways possible, they still worked on me.
I found season one rather engaging. Rotten Tomatoes gives season one of the show 94% or something, it’s one of the highest rated tv shows I’ve stumbled on.
What was going on?
(Note: this analysis based on season one.)
Conflict and Dramatic Tension
First, the story sets up some characters and factions with distinct goals that they care about very much. The goals of these characters and factions conflict with one another, both in an inner-conflict way, and an external-conflict way. This creates the promise of actual conflict, and creates a ton of difficult decisions for characters to make. These (potential) conflicts are shown to the audience constantly and bluntly.
In parallel, the story works hard to make you care about the characters.
The result is dramatic tension, where a character wants X, but it’s impossible because of Y, unless maybe they do Z, but do they really want that?
There’s one more ingredient that really makes it work: the characters are not hell-bent on fighting each other. They mostly would prefer not to fight. But they care so much about their goals, or are so worried about bad things happening, that they might step on a few toes anyway. The characters might not be aware of how inevitable the conflicts may be, but the audience is—after all, they are in the middle of a work of dramatic fiction. The audience knows that life is about to get very complicated for everybody. This helps tremendously with suspension of disbelief when it comes to plot events: the reader knows things will get hairy, but the characters refuse to believe it, which leads the reader to want to yell at the characters DON’T YOU SEE WHAT IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN? DON’T YOU KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON?
The show utterly lacks subtlety in how it does this, but still, these technique work wonders.
Interestingly, the character motives are often simple or even stereotypical, but each is plot-relevant and shows why each is involved in the story. These external conflicts drive the story forward in a character-driven way that reminds me of a Stephen King novel (and I suspect the story was written by a “pantser,” but maybe not).
By the way, these motives are frequently blatantly paired up with some sort of opposite characteristic or motive to create internal conflict. These are stereotypical too. Yet, no matter how obvious or bluntly this technique is wielded, it works.
All this builds up to critical moments used to emphasize the dramatic inner tension even further by following some character as they make a difficult decision: I want to do this, but that is in the way, and I don’t want this other thing to happen, but I also care about that, and I don’t know what to do…
Those moments are the key to the experience.
Again, there is no subtlety to this, but it comes together extremely well.
Suspension of Disbelief / Magical Realism
The story handles suspension of disbelief the same way most modern fiction does: it takes the weirdness for granted and makes the setting into a fantasy setting from page 1. By this I mean, you’re not in our world—you are in a world of magic and wonder. There is no in-world reason to disbelieve in what is going on because what is going on is, fundamentally, normal. The story still makes use of heavy dramatic irony to sell other things, but not to convey that The Weird is real.
I think I’ve heard this described as magical realism in the past.
Contrast this with grounded supernatural horror stories: these stories are one part horror, one part magic, and that feeling that something magical is happening comes from the contrast between the mundane and a sliver of The Weird. By convention, The Weird is the source of horror, but it doesn’t have to be—and maybe it shouldn’t be as often…
Here’s a tangent: in the past, fear of the unknown was recognized and celebrated in horror. Today, fear of the unknown is seen as a problem that leads to a mess of societal horrors. So, we see a trend towards The Other being something that is actually friendly, once you get to know it, and The Bad Thing isn’t one of the strange creatures, but rather our society. To see an example of this dynamic, see: Discovery of Witches (but also, Twilight, and a dozen fantasy settings off the top of my head).
The show flows forward pretty smoothly, which implies a suitable approach to pacing and rhythm. This isn’t easy to achieve, but I suspect the story uses the standard method of spreading new information out and giving characters (and the audience) a chance to process it before adding more to the mix.
Later in the season, the dramatic tension I describe above disappears, and the story suffers for a few episodes. Everyone’s situation was simplified, and instead of having tough choices to make, they each simply became set on their course—and that was boring. I assume the author restores this tension in season two. The lack of believable inner conflict really hurts.
Have you seen the show or read the books? Do you have anything you would like to add? Let me know in the comments!
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