What I Learned About Plot by Watching Orphan Black

by Christina Lay

This post is a direct rip-off of Liz Engstrom’s post about the characters in Downton Abbey. But it’s also true I’ve been having this conversation with myself for a while now, an internal discussion inspired by my love/hate relationship with this near future SF TV series. I watched the first three seasons over the course of a few months and a couple times when I turned off my Kindle, I thought I wouldn’t be going back, but I couldn’t resist. Naturally as a writer when I experience both exasperation and fascination, I have to question what’s going on and how the writers have managed to piss me off and hook me in at the same time.

If you haven’t watched the show, this is a British series about clones. Yes, clones. The big secret revealed in the first episode is that the main character, Sarah Manning, is a clone. She meets several of her “sisters”, along the way, all with wildly different personalities, all played by the absolutely amazing Tatiana Maslany.

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Sarah, stuck between a hard place and another hard place, as usual.

We have Sarah, the street-tough Brit with a heart of gold, Beth the cop who’s identity she steals in the first show, Alison the suburban soccer mom, Cosima the nerdy scientist, Helena the psychopathic Ukrainian nut job, Rachel the evil director of an evil corporation, and so on. The best character in the series, in my opinion, is Sarah’s brother Felix, the smart-alec gay artist who is Sarah’s rock, although she constantly ignores his sensible warnings.

All great fodder for a wild SF thriller. So how did this series hook me?

  • Great acting. For a writer, this can translate into great character development and dialogue. In other words, how convincingly we portray our characters on the page.
  • The characters are working toward a solution, finding answers, taking the bull by the horns, etc. They aren’t sitting back waiting to be victimized. Being clones is out of their control, but they never stop fighting back against the Evil Corp that would destroy them.
  • Constant, exciting forward motion of the plot. This can easily be overdone but Orphan Black manages it well, alternating the life-or-death situations with down time for deepening relationships between the characters— just a breather right before they get shoved off the next cliff.
  • Good guys win more of the battles. This is a big one for me. I have a low tolerance for grim, unrelenting BADNESS just for the sake of being grim and bad. While the “war” continues to expand, with more bigger and badder bad guys always crawling out of the woodwork, the immediate LOD situations Sarah finds herself in are usually resolved in a satisfying, aren’t we all relieved she survived/escaped/rescued the kitten etc. sort of way.
  • Plenty of humor and a sense that the writers are aware there is a ridiculous side to this story.
  • Not overdoing the Next Worst Thing. There’s a rule in writing that states in order to keep the conflict and tension building, you should ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to your character and then make it so. Again, easily overdone. I for one get tired of brutality and misery pretty darn quick. Orphan Black definitely has a dark edge and bad things happen, but the hook for me is that although the ‘worst thing’ often looms as a threat, it usually doesn’t happen. This is a big relief to me as a viewer.

So how did this series piss me off?

  • Relentless stupid character syndrome. Making bad decisions over and over. True, these decisions are often what forwards the plot, but I really wanted Sarah to get smarter. There is only so often you can throw yourself against Evil Corp with no plan other than to wave a gun around, get caught, get saved and then do it all over again.
  • Overuse of the Big Coincidence. To the point of eye-rolling and mockery. And it wasn’t even new coincidences, but the same old one used in nearly every episode; no matter how far Sarah runs or how well the characters hide themselves, the bad guys show up like five minutes later with absolutely no explanation of how they ended up there. And don’t even get me started on the pencil to the eyeball moment.
  • Well-meaning bystanders as sacrificial victims. I mentioned above that one of the things I liked about the series was that our heroines tend not to die. Orphan Black gets around this pesky issue and retains its hard edge by pretty much murdering any minor character who decides to help Sarah. This irritates me. I think this is a matter of tone. On one hand, OB is a fun, humorous, somewhat ridiculous thriller, but on the other, it goes for the brutal dystopian view of an Evil Corp run world where bad guys can indiscriminately blow away cops and bartenders with no fear of reprisal. Maybe as writers we can have it both ways, but we have to be much more sparing with our use of senseless violence if we want to keep the viewer/reader who is attracted by a lighter touch.
  • Overuse of theme music. Helena, the psycho sister, comes with her own sound track. Whenever she’s about to do something wacked, the music becomes what I can only describe as techno noise-to-hack-and slash-to. Perhaps it’s off the Serial Killers’ playlist. As a writer, this would take the form of waaaay overdone foreshadowing. In OB, it actually worked the first few times, but then it became comical. You don’t want to rob your wildly flawed villain/heroine of her impact by making her cartoonish. Again it almost seemed as if the writers weren’t sure if they wanted to be funny or scary.
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Cue theme music

Conclusions:

  • Plot is ultimately character-driven. Anything can happen that’s out of the characters’ control: flood, famine, cloning. How the characters respond is what really matters. You can get away with almost anything if you create characters who are interesting, engaging, and yes, likable. I firmly believe you need at least one character to root for in order to keep the readers interest up past the initial “isn’t this interesting” phase of a book or series.
  • Allow your characters to Learn From Their Mistakes and to behave differently. While Sarah gets a little bit softer, she keeps doing the same exact dumb things and endangering everyone around her. There are plenty of new dumb mistakes for characters to make, so why keep rehashing the same old ones?
  • If you’re going to bring in characters simply to give the bad guys someone expendable to kill, do so sparingly. Overuse reduces impact and pisses me off.
  • If you’re writing a thriller, keep it thrilling. Not a lot of introspection going on in OB, but it works because exciting stuff keeps happening, the characters respond in new and inventive ways (unless they’re Sarah), and there is very little time to worry about all the glaring errors in logic.

Ultimately, I stopped watching. To be honest, it was the abuse of the innocents that finally killed it for me. I’m sure some day I’ll get over it and watch Season 4 and whatever comes next, but for the moment, the errors overwhelmed the genius. Perhaps the main lesson to learn is don’t become so enthralled with your inventiveness that you forget to mind the basics.

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2 thoughts on “What I Learned About Plot by Watching Orphan Black

  1. I find Maslany fun to watch in all her incarnations — I think that’s what keeps me going back. I suspend belief in a huge way while watching this show. 🙂

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