Where True Blood Went Wrong: A Cautionary Tale for Writers

TrueBlood-PosterI am a strong believer in the power of stories.  Because of that, I look up to storytellers.  So much so, that I’m doing something very painful right now.  I’m writing about something I no longer care about… True Blood.

Why am I doing this?

I’ve taken on the job of helping writers by showing them a fan’s perspective… particularly a fan who is not an active writer.  I’m writing about True Blood because I believe that it’s the best example of how a promising series can go downhill.

There are many articles about how disappointing True Blood became, and subsequently how that manifested itself in the season finale.  Yannick LeJacq wrote a great article about this.  Based on the detail he went into, it’s clear he cared more and longer about the series than I did.  I recommend reading his article as well.  Mine, however, is specifically targeted at authors.

This is actually the first time I’ve talked about a series twice.  That’s interesting, given how I feel about it (or don’t feel about it, depending on your perspective).  In my original article about it (True Blood: Is It More Than Erotic Vampires?) we were at season 4.  My article argued that the show should not be overlooked just because it features erotic vampires.  I discuss the show as being both thought experiment and social commentary.  I still don’t take this away from it.  I think that it tried to be those things until the very end.  However, I think it became less successful at it.

So, what happened?

True Blood’s Biggest Sin

When the final season started, I Facebooked that if you are still watching True Blood then it’s because you…

  1. Are a vampire fetishist.
  2. Feel you devoted too much time to it not to see how it ends.
  3. Happen to be in the same room as someone who is one of the first two while it’s on.

It wasn’t because you thought it had a great story.

After some thought, I’ve identified what I believe to be True Blood’s biggest sin… lack of focus and direction in the storytelling.

When consuming a story, people have a finite bag of give-a-crap for the author to fill with subplots.  And, when that bag gets too full, the seams start to tear and things start to fall out of it.  These things are then either perceived as annoying diversions or are forgotten about altogether.

There are tricks, though.  If you begin to show how certain subplots are associated with one another, then they become one subplot.  Also, by doing this, the consumer will start to think about how the other subplots could also be associated.  This creates engagement.  So, not only do you lesson the number of subplots in the bag, you increase the size of the bag by increasing the consumer’s interest and engagement.

For True Blood, this wasn’t done well in the later seasons.  It felt like the series was throwing in as many subplots as possible, and many didn’t have obvious connections with each other.  Also, many of the non-associated ones weren’t interesting enough to be kept on their own.  They sort of left you with the feeling of, “Why are they telling me about this?”  Because of this, it didn’t always feel like there was a cohesive centralized storyline.  This seems to have happened around seasons 5 or 6, which is when the showrunner changed.  So, that may be why.  Also, season 6 was the first season not to be loosely based on a specific book.  Instead, things were pulled from multiple books.  This can kill focus and direction pretty quickly if not handled well.

Decisions That Don’t Make Sense

When I consume a story, it isn’t very hard for me to care about the characters.  If the author fails with this for me, then they must not be trying very hard.  For True Blood, I went from caring about many of the characters to hoping that the finale would kill them all.

A character can be good, evil, weak, strong, fascinating, or annoying, and they will be successful as long as they are realistic.  What’s not realistic is having characters make decisions that don’t make sense for them, so that the writers can move the plot where they want it to go.  Doing this too often will literally pull the life out of the characters, and will make them look like puppets and not actual living characters.  The more recent, and largest example of this involves the story around Bill and Sookie.  Matt Fowler writes about it in his article TRUE BLOOD: “THANK YOU” REVIEW:  DEAD BY DAWN.  Meredith Woerner also does a good job of identifying several of these issues in her recap of the series finale.

Abandoned Mythology

Mythology is often the most interesting aspect of fantasy and science fiction for me, and I really cared about it at first with True Blood.  However, it didn’t get much attention later in the series.  Abandoning it may have been the biggest reason why I lost interest in the series.

With the mythology downplayed, True Blood started to feel like a soap opera with mythical creatures, and the mythical creatures were used mostly as excuses for weird sexual situations.  For instance, if you drink the blood of a vampire, then you have erotic dreams about them (no matter what gender).  A male character was tied down and forced to “mate” with were-panthers.  I’m not sure I even remember why.  And, there was that delightful vampire sex scene where the one vampire twisted the head of the other vampire around 360 degrees.  I don’t have a problem with sex scenes, but I have a problem with using fantasy elements as excuses for weird sex scenes.  It’s a cheap trick.

The Flawed LGBT Metaphor

In my original article on True Blood, I expressed my opinion that some of the metaphors fell short.  The metaphor I called out was the one concerning the use of vampires as a metaphor for the LGBT community.  This metaphor breaks down because those who maligned members of the LGBT community were unjustified in their criticisms.  Nothing about a person’s membership in the LGBT community makes them want to hurt or kill people in order to feed on them.  The vampires of True Blood, on the other hand, are murderous by nature.  Some of the criticisms leveled against them are valid.

The last two seasons of the series decided to extend this metaphor by adding “Hep V”, an illness that slowly kills vampires and is an obvious AIDS metaphor.  In order to be invested in this season, I had to care about that.  I didn’t.  The series presents vampires as mostly dangerous, with a handful of them transcending their bad tendencies enough to be “okay”.  In fact, when it came to the vampires, you had a lot of face/heel switches like in professional wrestling.  They would be bad sometimes and good other times, depending on the situation.  So, why should I care that a disease wipes out a bunch of dangerous, undead assholes?  I don’t.

What do you think?  In your opinion, did True Blood go downhill?  If so, why did it go downhill for you?  If not, what am I missing?

Nathan Lauffer

14 thoughts on “Where True Blood Went Wrong: A Cautionary Tale for Writers”

  1. Point #1 (too many subplots that were unrelated) was the most irritating thing about Dexter as the show progressed, and was what made the final season largely unbearable (and the final episodes a big mess that had to wrap up too quickly).

    Nobody who watched that show cared about characters who weren’t Dexter and Debra, yet all those characters got story arcs anyways.

  2. I remember when I first became hooked on True Blood — it was that episode in which Sookie’s grandmother invited Bill to speak at the “Descendants of the Glorious Dead” meeting at the church in Bon Temps. Bill was standing in front of a packed audience, and as people raised their hands to ask him questions, everyone realized that this vampire had been a friend, relative and acquaintance to their own distant relatives almost 200 years past in Bon Temps.

    Then the mayor of Bon Temps stood up, said he’d found a photo in the town’s archives, and passed it to Bill — it was a photograph of the human Bill Compton with his wife and two children, and it caused Bill to cry his bloody vampire tears, right there in front of the entire audience.

    And that right there was the essence of the wonderful first season — that this was not just a vampire, but a man with feelings, who once had a life in Bon Temps with the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.

    That first season had a fantastic murder-mystery plot, but it also introduced us to True Blood’s vampire mythology and slowly, very slowly, began to show us this alternate world of the supernatural.

    But as the series progressed, the writers kept pulling back the curtains and showing the audience too much — first we learned of “sheriffs,” then the powerful Inquisitor, then we meet the “Queen” vampire of Louisiana, followed by the “King” of Mississippi. And through it all, the mysterious and powerful “Vampire Authority” lurked out of sight, but that curtain was pulled back as well — and it turned out the mysterious authority was just a group of argumentative, child-like vampires led by Christopher Meloni.

    And finally, when every bit of mystery and intrigue had been stripped from vampires and their society, we met the vampire goddess herself, Judith.

    Along the way, vampires went from rare and mysterious, powerful creatures, to just another type of person. Suddenly everyone was a vampire. Turning a human became trivial. There was no mystery, no more questions, because every curtain had been peeled back and every question answered.

    Writers beware: It’s often better to leave things to the imagination than take the plunge to explain them. That’s why the Matrix is ALWAYS better if we pretend the story ended at the end of the first movie, and why Ridley Scott’s Alien was such a masterpiece for keeping the titular alien primarily off-camera for almost the entire movie.

    And Nathan, you make some good points about side plots — no one cared about Terry’s Ifrit, and it was difficult to care about Andy’s faerie dalliances or Sam’s “love” for the wretched Nicole. Way too many sideplots, dangling threads, and characters having adventures irrelevant to the show’s main plot.

  3. I never watched True Blood, so I’ll just pop in my two cents on the bigger picture.

    Firstly, I don’t mind throwing in fillers because I suspect I’m guilty of doing this. However, I always make it a mission of sorts that whatever filler chapter/scenario I decided to pull off, it must satisfy two criteria.

    1. The relevant parties cannot go out of character.

    2. If possible (and I tend to obsess myself with this at times), the readers should have a chance to know the characters better this way.

    The technique of sub-plot can be really tricky. What I’m seeing in the article if we’re thinking “True Blood” is most likely a case of executive meddling where businessmen decided to become writers without prior training. The problem is never about sub plots, this I’ll agree with. To be brutally frank, I learnt the whole sub-plot technique from Japanese manga and we all know this has to be one of worse source of positive lessons gleaned (this not to say all Japanese manga series are like that since exceptions are known to exist). Yet, I also understand via personal experience that every sub-plot must create a feedback effect. In short, we can call this circular story telling where every single path will ultimately lead back to the main plot. Which now comes the biggest question: How do you define the main plot?

    For me, there has to be a certain end to the whole story. Every character should have an agenda, even the insane ones like the main character of my current work. After getting this area right, the writer will need to find ways and means to converge everything into one focal point. This can be the fate of one individual or the world at large, it can also be merely one character’s goal preceding everything else (although granted this particular route can be extremely difficult to do right).

    Interestingly enough, I do find the whole LGBT finger pointing quite stupid. I mean I am a Christian and I don’t have an issue with creating homosexual characters standing on the correct side (something which I really plan to do more in the future). So personally speaking, linking murderous vampires with the LGBT community just because of that feeling I’d call self-importance is quite idiotic (albeit one of the major antagonists written thus far by yours truly is a homosexual).

    Oh, and one last thing before I go sleep soon. If you want to create a work based on the supernatural or the like, make sure you don’t lose that work’s identity. Every fantasy/supernatural world is special because of its own unique lore. Once you make that lore into somewhat of an extra factor rather than the focus, you can be very your work won’t be remembered three years down the road.

    • This is some great detailed feedback, Minghui! I completely agree. What manga would you recommend to illustrate your points above concerning subplot?

  4. Thanks for this article. I haven’t actually watched this series, but I had a similar experience with Beauty and the Beast. I’ve got patience. I was willing to wait for the writers to get to the love story in that series. But a perfect opportunity presented itself for a medium-weight intimate interlude occurred and instead of connecting the characters, the writers strung us along for like 8 more episodes. I was okay with waiting to see what happened, but when the love scene finally did occur, it was over the top in a completely unrealistic way and the whole series went downhill for me there. I realized what I was watching was not the version of romance I write (awkward, difficult, and maybe a touch dangerous), it was cheap romance-novelly (“I’ll do anything not to lose you/ let’s be together like this forever), soap opera-ish, and not at all my taste level.

    Bad writing is one fast way to lose viewers and I think I’ve seen more bad writing the last few years than good.

    • This is definitely not the first time I’ve been accused of over thinking about something. 😉 I would like to hear why you think that they killed True Blood. I will say that I don’t like how they were handled. They were brought in any time they needed them as a plot device and then they were forgot about. They were never really explored in depth.

  5. I thought that the writers became too attached to the characters and should’ve killed more of them off, earlier, rather than later. Tara’s character had run her course two seasons ago. If they had killed a major character earlier-I think it would’ve increased tension on the show.

    • That’s an excellent point. George R.R. Martin would be proud. 🙂 I agree about Tara. Also, when they did kill her off it was very unceremonious. I don’t believe they even showed it, right? Then they spent a bunch of time with her mom obsessing over a message she had to give her from beyond about her father and a gun buried in the ground that I’m pretty sure the viewers didn’t care about. It didn’t play any role with the central plot either. It was a distraction.

  6. Agree with most everything you said… but I will admit, I think the final series of True Blood was my favourite, because it returned to being a character-based show, rather than all the convoluted plots of series 2-5…

    I even enjoyed the final episode, wedding and all! 🙂

    • I will give you that they did concentrate on the characters more in the final episode. One of the ways they did this was to put them in a perilous situation where they have to become closer with one another. I felt it was a bit forced, including the wedding, mostly because of viewing it within the context of the rest of the series it felt like the writers need to get to that Brady Bunch ending no matter what, so they forced a lot of things to work out to that effect. For instance, Jason needed someone to end up with so Hoyt happened to bring back a girlfriend from Alaska to abandon when he fell back in love with Jessica. There you go, Jason. You’re welcome! 😉

      • I got what they were trying to do have vampires work as an gay metaphor on the basis of them being outcasts and people being scared of them. However it didn’t work becuse even the zealot church cult actually had reasons for wanting the wipe out the vampires Sarah Newlin even told Jason they ate her sister. The other reason was the vampires were often very oppressive of groups like the witches. They came off as entitled and dismissive of human life and Bill and Jessica were self centered abusive scumbags. Seriously how did the moral vampires come across as more disgusting then Eric and Pam?

        Personally i stopped watching the show after reading an interview about how Jason’s rape was meant as revenge for his sleeping around. Which ignored the fact Jason was never dishonest about his intentions toward any women. Also a lot of them were up for fun sexy time with no attachments. Sarah and His own teacher even seduced him and it was dubious conscent at best. The fact that the director saw gang rape as just desserts for sex was sickening! also i realized Tara, Sam, jason and Lafett were going to continue shafted/hurt for the sake of Sookie who didn’t give a dam about anything other then her precious vampire crusade/lovers. I agree with Sam’s shady half brother Sookie’s ass should of been fired from her job long ago, Arleen has two kids was a single mom and still showed up on time! speaking of Arleen the only realtionship on true blood i went crazy for was Arleen x Terri

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