How True Blood Creates a Story People Can’t Put Down

One of the major struggles with serial narrative is the battle between endings and scene changes, and the need for unity. With every scene change and every end of an episode there is a risk of losing your audience. I agree with J. Hillis Miller that endings are malleable, especially in a serial narrative, but they are still fracture points that have to be intentionally bridged by the writer to make the audience’s experience coherent.

True Blood is an interesting show to watch because of the cliffhangers they use at the end of each episode and season. There are long and short moments of tension and when and episode ends, it always happens in the midst of a plot thread. Tension like this can be held indefinitely. It is like watching someone breathe in, and waiting for them to exhale, but the exhale never comes. It suspends our expectations.

The two major plot threads that follow the Godric and Maryann mysteries are knotted together by a their religious theme and parallel structure. They both begin during the daylight and reach their conclusions during the night. The refrain, “I used to be like you,” is repeated between someone within the fold—whichever fold that may be—to someone they are wishing to convert. Sarah Newlin says it to Jason in “Scratches” and Daphne says it to Sam in “Release Me.” The phrase is used to convey pity toward the person who has not yet been “saved.”

Orson Scott Card talks about something called the MICE quotent, which stands for Mileu, Idea, Character, and Event and he supposes that, while each are important components of a story, there is usually one main point the story is built around. Mileau stories are usually journey stories that begin when a character arrives at a place and ends when the character leaves—think Gulliver’s Travels. Idea stories can be rephrased as “What if” stories, or mysteries. The True Blood story concept is based on the idea model: What if Vampires “came out of the closet” and asked for regular rights as citizens? Who murdered the women? Who is the body in the car? Who took Goderic? Who took Bill? “A problem or question is posed at the beginning of the story, and at the end of the tale the answer is revealed” (51). The question must remain unanswered so that it maintains tension throughout the season, but no sooner is the question resolved, but a new question must be posed. The story of that began season 2 of True Blood was “who killed the woman in Andy’s car?” and the story is not finished until the answer is revealed, when Eggs confesses and brings the murder weapon to Andy Bellefleur. The very next scene is when Bill disappears…thus setting up the question for the next season. This is part of how True Blood maintains tension between episodes and seasons.

Some of the other tools that are used to create unity is to think about the various plot lines as threads in a braid that occasionally need to be intersected, or bound together to create unity (Dibell 65). Some of the major fractures that happen is when Jason leaves Bon Temps an goes to Texas to the camp. The way they keep the tension and make it seems like Jason hasn’t fallen out of the story is by repeating and mirroring scenes, dialog, and content. For example, in “Scratches” there is a scene that ends with Sookie screaming, and then Jason wakes up screaming, as if the two siblings are connected by psychic connection. Another way the plot threads are knotted together is that Jason talks about Sookie when she is not present. Or there are mirroring in events: like dinner at Maryann’s house, followed by Jason having dinner at the Newlins’. There are numerous repetitions: repetitions of phrases, music, images and sounds. The effect on this is a knitting together between each of the plot threads. Lots of cross-over.

One of the techniques is to have repeated locations, but with variations on a theme. For example, the scenes at the swimming hole between Sam and Daphne are repeated first in a sexy way in “Scratches”, and then in a menacing way when Daphne explains that the Maryann is a maenad in “Release Me,” and finally in a deadly way when Maryann greets Daphne by caressing her cheek like a lover while Eggs stabs her in the heart.

Repeated refrains are also used, as in the phrase, “What are you?” which is asked by Sam to Daphne, Tara to Maryann, Eric to Sookie, and Maryann to Sookie.

I also noticed that during each episode during the first two-thirds of the season there were alternating scenes that affirmed the information you already knew, and scenes with new information. During the last third of the season the story was basically about answering questions raised during the first two thirds. I don’t know if this is a special formula, but it seems to have something to do with the pacing.

  • Card, Orson Scott. Elements of Fiction: Character & Viewpoint. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest books, 1988.
  • Dibell, Ansen. Elements of Fiction: Plot. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest books, 1988.
  • “Release Me.” Dir. Michael Ruscio. Writ. Raelle Tucker. Perf. Anna Paquin, Christopher Gartin, Ryan Kwanten, and Ashley Jones. True Blood. Season 2. 2009.
  • “Scratches.” Dir. Scott Winant. Writ. Raelle Tucker. Perf. Sam Trammel and Anna Camp. True Blood. Season 2. 2009.
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About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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