Monday, October 10, 2011

What Kolchak The Night Stalker Taught Me About Story Telling

I had the opportunity to dust off my Kolchak: The Night Stalker DVDs this weekend. What a marvelous bit of macabre TV history.

A storyteller (e.g., writer) can learn much from Kolchak. For example:

  1. Suspense is your friend. Make the audience wait. Kolchak slowly uncovers the truth, piecing the story together with the audience. Brilliant.
  2. Don't show your hand too soon, or hide the monster's face for the first half of the story.
  3. Build a story around a character and setting which works. Kolchak (the series) is set in Chicago--a big enough place for plenty of people to be murdered, and Kolchak (the character) is a freelance news reporter (which gives him latitude to investigate those murders). 
  4. Tension between characters drives the plot.Was there any police captain in Chicago Kolchak didn't lead to a heart attack with his intrepid (if not annoying) questioning?
  5. Take a trip to the underworld: The final 5-10 minutes of each episode usually involved Kolchak going to the monster's lair and looking for him/it/her. Some of the spookiest sh*t on TV.
  6. Give your protagonist some quirks. Kolchak was never known as a snappy dresser... (What's with the hat?) 
  7. Most importantly, don't be a one trick pony. Kolchak is a great show, but only survived one season. I'm guessing it was cancelled because, quite frankly, every episode was the same. Watch them in a row and you'll get the pattern.
What have you learned about storytelling (or writing) from your favorite television programs?


Anthony Rapino said...

Kolchak! Love that show. I'm actually fairly new to it, having discovered it a couple Halloweens ago when they had a marathon. But yeah, one trick pony for sure.

My favorite is the huge camera hanging around his neck 80% of the time.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute -- wasn't he the dad in A Christmas Story?

Aaron Polson said...

Tony - Not to mention the dude owns one suit (and it doesn't fit).

Milo - Why yes, yes he was. Now you know why he was so nervous... Monsters were out to get him.

Barry Napier said...

Great show! Had no idea it was on DVD.

As you may or may not know, Chris Carter used Kolchak as inspiration and a basic building block for The X-Files. Realizing the very formulaic nature of the episodes caused Carter to throw the now-famous X-Files mythology into the mix.

E. Arroyo said...

This is a great list. Never watched the show, though.

Chris Samson said...

The Wire--Every single character not only has a motivation, not only has something to say, but can be used to enhance your story.

Life on Mars (UK)--You don't have to drag the climax out indefinitely. Build to it. Use it. Move on.

Deadwood--Authenticity is basically superior to straight-up accuracy.

The Shield--Keeping in mind LoM's lesson? You can build to a fantastic climax while still keeping a quick pace. By the end of its run ONE episode would have more happen in it than three or four episodes of some network shows.

Rome--Good characters can keep the audience interested even if the setting is completely different from what they normally relate to.

Buffy--Don't be afraid to include elements from other genres in a story that may seem very grounded in one specific genre.

Aaron Polson said...

Barry - I knew X-Files owed a bit of its life to Kolchak, but I didn't know how closely.

E. - It's good for a spooky thrill (and the camp factor).

Chris - All great lessons. I need to track down Deadwood (and it sounds like a lesson I learned from The Things They Carried).

Tim McGregor said...

As a monster-obsessed kid, watching Kolchak was the best! I haven't revisited it on DVD but I clearly remember being scared shitless when Kolchak was stitching salt into the lips of the zombie. Where the hell did that zombie cure come from?

What I learned from that show was the importance of set-up. Kolchak was a writer for a tabloid like the Weekly World News that ran cover stories about Bigfoot and UFO's. That set-up solved two problems at once: it explained his investigation of the occult and also gave the reason why his expose of the supernatural was never taken seriously by the outside world. It's outrageous tabloid schlock.

One other aspect of the set-up was that the hero was the character least prepared to take on the challenge of the premise. Kolchak wasn't a cop or a PI. He didn't even carry a gun. He was a nebbish reporter in a straw boater armed with a tape recorder. Yet, he was the lone guy forced to confront the monsters. The weaker or more unprepared your hero is to take on the plot, the greater the dramatic arc you get watching the hero rise to the challenge.

Darren McGavin was perfect casting.

Aaron Polson said...

Tim - Voodoo zombies are the best--that scene in the junkyard is one of my favorite in all of Kolchak.

Tim McGregor said...

That's it. I HAVE to go find the DVD set and watch it. Thanks for bringing back the Kolchak, Aaron!

Katey said...

I finally saw Kolchak for the first time about a year ago, maybe a little more, with the vampire movie. It was brilliant! (And yeah, weird that he's the Christmas Story dad.) Great list of points :D

Also, the tabloid thing just made me think of Peter Parker. But then, what doesn't?

Lately, I am learning from Boardwalk Empire. Learning how to make the horrible, horrible things characters do completely believable. You know. Like in real life.

K.C. Shaw said...

I'm awful, I'd never even heard of Kolchak. It sounds like a fun show to watch around Halloween, though! I'll see if I can find it.

Have you seen Writer Beware's update about that horror plagiarist from last year? Looks like he's still at it. I thought you might be interested, since you were one of his victims, weren't you? (And I'm sorry this comment sounds exactly like spam and I hope your filter doesn't zap it!)

Aaron Polson said...

Katey - People do some horrible things... Yikes. You should really check out The Night Strangler if you liked the first Kolchak movie. I've been viewing it in segments on YouTube. (the DVD is OOP and goes for a mint)

KC - The HWA has a bounty out for this same plagiarist. Thanks for the head's up--not spammy at all. I think you'll love Kolchak. ;)

Cate Gardner said...

Never heard of the fellow, but as I'm a Brit that's hardly surprising. TV can be masterful at times and I've spent a fair bit of time studying Buffy - now that's storytelling.