Learning from the Masters: House MD

So…. one of the best things about being a writer of any description, from journalism through to fantasy fiction, is I am always learning. I’m always picking up new skills, new techniques and improving within myself. This series of posts is dedicated to the some of those tips. Taken from some of the most popular TV/movie or book series, I am going to delve into what made these particular shows so popular and what we as writers can learn from it.

This week, I’m looking at House MD.

I would still stand that House is one of the best TV shows ever written, produced and acted. It’s crazy because if you’d told me that I would become addicted to a show that is 50% medical babble I’ll never understand while watching  a team of doctors solve impossible, and often unpleasant, cases – I’m not sure I’d have been all that excited. And yet it worked. A hospital drama that didn’t turn into a pathetic (no offence Grey’s Anatomy lovers) soppy soap in which so many of the staff have slept with each other they are risking incest.

There are a lot of things that made House great. Below are just a few of the elements that I think contributed to its massive success and moreover, are things us as writers can work into our own projects.

1. Be uncompromising

To me this is the number one reason why House succeeded where many others failed. Back in series one, they could have bowed down to pressure, they could have (with fair ease) turned it into the House/Cuddy and Cameron/Chase show with just a bit of medicine thrown in on the side. They never did. They stuck to their vision. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the production meeting when the character of House was first pitched. I would wager faces paled and coffee spilt. In the perfect world of TV, House is a risk. A drug addicted, brutally sarcastic, pessimistic to the point of extreme doctor who has no sense of empathy for his patients (at least most of the time)… And we’ll never know how much he evolved before we got to the version that graced our screens. But at the end of the day, what made House great was that it was so controversial. It was different and refreshing. It was uncompromising.

Being uncompromising as a starting-out writer can be a little like shooting ones self in the foot. While occasionally there are people whose first draft of their first novels are exceptional and will go on to be best-sellers, most of our first drafts are going to suck. I know mine did. I just couldn’t see it at the time. And so it took me a while to accept that the critique I was getting was valid and I needed to make changes. Change doesn’t have to be compromise. You can write a completely different book without compromising the vision. Trust me, I’ve done it. But just a little factoid for you, if JK Rowling hadn’t fought her corner, the Harry Potter world would be entirely metric and it is likely Hogwarts would not have been a boarding school as her publishers were concerned no one would be interested in ‘another boarding school story’. Hurrah for Ms Rowling!

2. Don’t fear change

House was always unpredictable. I won’t put in specifics here to protect those of you who haven’t watched/ are halfway through the series from spoilers but it was the kind of show that you knew every week would manage to surprise you. Now, in theory unpredictability is easy. I found House of Night exceedingly unpredictable. However, I got the impression (and again, this is merely my opinion, no offence intended – and I might be wrong) it was being written as they went along and so when they got stuck, they just pushed it in a new crazier direction. It did calm down towards the end of the series when they had their new arc in place but for a while it became like whiplash as plot twists came without warning or sign. House specialised in plausibly unpredictability. Watching it back, you can see how the writers slowly, subtly ready the ground for the next big twist. It never actually comes out of the blue. It’s never out of character or storyline – it’s just well submerged within the rich tapestry of on-going plot arcs that you didn’t see it until it happened.

There are a lot of shows out there that may as well not bother with season finales with big explosions and ‘oh my god is he going to die’ cliff-hangers because, trust me guys, all your audiences is thinking is ‘well of course you aren’t going to kill him off’ and that kinda kills the suspense somewhat. (Star Trek Voyager was a classic for it). If you ask me, NCIS made this mistake with the end of season 9. *Spoilers* Someone should have died. It made the whole threat less viable. Rather unfamiliar territory for the show, but they seemed to fear changing their cast. (A problem they have since seemed to rectify a little). House you never knew. I think every one of those characters came near death at least once at some point and some made it, some didn’t. And that’s what made it good. When someone contracted black plague, you weren’t thinking ‘don’t worry pal they’ll invent a miracle cure. they have to, you are in the main credits’, you caught your breath and started praying they weren’t about to kill off your favourite character. Characters left, characters returned, characters died, characters got shuffled around – they never stopped changing those elements of the show and that kept the audience on its toes and begging for more.

The message for writers here is simple. Killing off characters sucks. Least I think so. I get attached to mine. Hell, after writing 600 odd pages about anyone I think we are entitled to feel mildly fond of them. Killing them off erroneously just for effect with no plot link is bad news. But I’ve found it’s important to remember that just like in real life, nothing is perfect and most people don’t have happy endings. People live and people die.

3. Know Your Characters

House never changes. He develops. We see him soften sometimes, even cheer up for a while, but at the end of the day, he’s still the same miserable git we meet in episode one. I’ve always been a character campaigner. You can’t tell a story without the people. And for me, I need to know those characters. I know, without hesitation, that thrown any situation, I could take any of my current class of characters and tell you how they’d react. I suspect the writers of House could too. Never, in eight series, did I sit up and go ‘huh?’ as a character did something clearly only necessary for the plot but so far out of their personality it makes you blink in triplicate. Castle towards the end of season 5 sees Rick do this (making for me the resulting finale predictable and a little dull – which is a shame because I loved the series as a whole). But shows do it all the time. Ignore personality for plot. It’s one of my pet peevs. Even the patients stayed true to the personalities they were given. And for me, that kept the show real.

4. Nobody’s perfect

Another character point. When I first started out writing, I was looking for inspiration for characters and so I took a sheet of paper and drew threw columns. In the first I wrote the names of people I knew, in the second, I  wrote all the good things in their lives (e.g. stable jobs, good car, nice kids, intelligent etc…) and in the third, all the bad things, (e.g. parent died of cancer, unbearably selfish, job they hate…). My conclusion was simple. No one is perfect. House had no perfect characters. Everyone did stupid things. Everyone made mistakes. And everyone then lived with them. Two things House did that all writers should learn from. Firstly, develop characters into flawed people. I never liked Foreman. I thought he was jumped up and rude. But that to me just made the show richer. We don’t like everyone we meet. Again, it kept the show real. Even Wilson, the supposed white knight, was hopelessly flawed. Secondly, they actually watched their own show. Again, (sorry Castle) but season 5 was a perfect example. Something happened in the double episode, something pretty dramatic for character development and then it was basically ignored for the rest of the series. I think it’s referred to once. That kind of thing really annoys me. House would refer to things in season eight that happened four, five, six, seasons ago. For me, it kept the character development rounded and consistent.

Just a little footnote on characters: Gregory House was based on Sherlock Holmes. The flawed genius. No one would accuse them of stealing Conan-Doyle’s story or character but once told the likenesses are obvious. Lesson learnt: everyone learns from the masters no matter who they are.

5. Know when to quit

The most important lesson of all. We all know the old adage ‘quit while you are ahead’. Sadly most TV shows don’t. Take Chuck as an example. Sequels are good. People want more. But don’t try and flog a dead donkey. The best, most loved shows/books/series are those that had a finite end. Harry Potter, House, Merlin. They ended while the going was good. If you can feel the story slipping away. Don’t try to hold on, let it finish. Move on. There are a million more stories out there to be told.