The X-Files defined dramatic science fiction in the 90s. It inspired fans to write spooky stories of their own. Rumor has it, the show is returning for a limited run. Mulder and Scully will wave their flashlights across our TV screens one last time.
I wanted to share what the show taught me about plot structure, characterization, and planting scares in an audience’s imagination.
How Mulder and Scully Taught Me to Write My Own Scary Stories
Modern TV shows are tailored for binge watching. They have serial story lines to keep us streaming all weekend. They tease mysteries, love triangles, and thematic shifts that will carry into future seasons. Shows no longer use the ‘TO BE CONTINUED’ caption because it would be redundant.
Before J.J. Abrams gave the Ted Talk where he said, “Mystery is the catalyst for the imagination,” The X-Files was answering questions with questions. Would Mulder discover who abducted his sister? Would Scully recover from her cancer? Would the pair ever realize they were perfect for each other?
The X-Files didn’t invent the serial storytelling format, but it helped popularize it. Too bad the network only allowed for eight mythology episodes a year. The rest of the season focused on the monster of the week.
This was an era where dramatic character changes only happened in movies. People on television only learned lessons. The agents’ circumstances reset after each case was done. This made it easier for the network to broadcast reruns out of sequence.
Since The X-Files spent most of its run as formula television its predictable nature makes it ideal for studying plot structure. An hour of television has five commercial breaks. The show needed five cliffhangers to keep the audience coming back for more.
The formula for The X-Files procedural episodes went like this:
Horror movies call this ‘The Opening Stinger.’ This is where the setting, tone, and creepy catalyst are established. Its a short film starring the episode’s victim.
The teaser serves three purposes, it justifies Mulder and Scully’s involvement in the case, it forecast future scares, and poses a question that takes the entire episode to answer.
The paranormal prologue buys the opening scenes time to set up the story. Its a good tool for horror writers who want to develop character, atmosphere, and lore without front loading the rest of the first act with gore.
Act 1: The Argument
Mulder and Scully arrive in a small town that looks suspiciously like Vancouver, Canada. The sheriff justifies calling them through a single line of dialogue. Mulder has a hunch about the killer rooted in obscure folklore. Scully challenges the superstitious belief his theory is founded on.
Every scene needs conflict. Here it’s built right into the formula. The agents pursue their leads with their biases on their sleeves. They both want justice, but they disagree on how to pursue it. Their drive is the same, but their goals are different.
Act 2: The Split
This is where Mulder and Scully split into their areas of expertise. Mulder examines occult symbology while Scully performs autopsies. Mulder develops a forensic profile of a demon, while Scully samples the evidence. Mulder consults his hacker friends, while Scully catches a hoaxer in action.
When the pair regroup, their findings are in stark contrast with one another’s suspicions. Their egos clash. With the agents divided, the killer seizes the opportunity to strike again.
The rigid structure of Mulder and Scully’s investigations keeps the plot in motion.
Crime scene, court room, and medical dramas follow procedures with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. There’s no room for these stories to meander. Their writers are less likely to get blocked.
Even when you’re writing without an outline, it helps to have some idea where the plot is going.
Act 3: The Truth
The X-Files uses two types of red herrings: suspects that appear to be the obvious culprit (usually proven innocent by their death) and Mulder’s original hunch.
With a new crime scene to investigate, Mulder and Scully refine their suspicions.
Turns out, Mulder is half right:
- The woman he thought had telekinetic powers is really being stalked by the ghost of a coworker.
- The vampires the agents are dealing with wear false teeth and are immune to stakes.
- The town isn’t overrun with Satanists. It’s on a “cosmic G-spot” that makes everyone go crazy when the stars are in alignment.
Armed with this new information, the agents set out to prevent dark forces from claiming another victim. This is where The X-Files subverted the audience’s expectations. Mulder’s original hunch was always a few degrees off by design. This kept the audience from guessing the ending earlier on.
Act 4: The Chase
The last act puts someone in peril. It’s where Mulder uses Scully’s findings to save her, or Scully acts on Mulder’s suspicions to save him, or they come around to each other’s point of view to save a guest star. Either way, one of them learns a lesson that gets someone out of harm.
Contrary to popular opinion, Mulder and Scully’s arrest record is well above the bureau standard. The agents put handcuffs on humans, while supernatural entities always evade prosecution. They can’t bring conclusive proof of the paranormal to the Bureau without breaking the reality of the show.
As series creator Chris Carter puts it, “You can’t arrest the devil.”
Ambiguous endings give the audience’s imagination something to do when the story is done. If writers explain their mysteries down to the molecular level, the audience is quick to forget them. Leave your audience’s imaginations with somewhere to go.
Why The X-Files Still Matters
There have been many imitators since The X-Files went off the air. Most of them rip off the wrong elements. They cram the paranormal into police procedurals with bland stoic stock characters. They’re more concerned with putting CGI on screen than monsters in the viewers’ dreams.
Unlike shows that dress the same stuntmen as a rogues gallery of urban legends, The X-Files kept its creatures in the shadows. The cinematographer never gave the audience a good look at an alien. The camera showed a silhouette off in the distance and left the viewer to fill it in.
The imitators should have ripped off the interplay between Mulder and Scully: the hard believer and the staunch skeptic, burying their affection behind a strong work ethic.
It’s a lesson that’s lost on many horror writers: the stakes only matter if we care about the characters. If the leads aren’t compelling we won’t mind if the monsters feed on them. We measure the value of our heroes by the strength of their opposition. The inverse is just as true. We measure our monsters based on the strength of those who oppose them. It was Mulder and Scully that made the monsters scary.
Fanboys love to talk about what makes Star Wars so memorable. Is it the light sabers, the imperial walkers, or the Millennium Falcon? The truth is without compelling characters none of these things are worth remembering. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace had more fantastical elements than A New Hope, but it lacked the film’s most crucial ingredient: characters that made us give a damn.
Three dimensional characters add substance to fantastical universes.
Mulder believed in alien abduction, psychic phenomena, past lives, time travel, cryptozoology, and parapsychology, but he was an atheist when it came to organized religion. Scully was a woman of science, advocating vaccinations and stem cell research, yet she was a devout Catholic.
The pair had private peculiarities. Mulder littered his ceiling with pencils. He slept on his couch because he’d stockpiled porn in his bedroom. He was obsessed with Elvis and Ed Wood. He had an oral fixation that left a trail of sunflower seeds in his wake.
Scully was a physics major who went into medicine only to be recruited into the FBI later on. Her addiction to academia had her flaunting her knowledge in casual conversation. As a girl, she was obsessed with Moby Dick. She called her father “Ahab” and named her dog “Queequeg.”
No matter what dark place the agents ventured into, we always learned something new about them. When the show runners weren’t expanding the mythology they were revealing character elements. The series bible was thick with back stories.
Too many legal procedurals make it seem like their heroes were bred for law enforcement, like their ties never come off, like they clock in the moment their eyes are open. Their recreational activities are limited to poker nights, and pitchers at the local tavern. They’re not humans so much as badge wielding automatons.
It’s easier to care about a character’s profession when they have a life outside of it. It’s easier to care about a character’s future when they have a colorful past. It’s easier to be scared for a character’s life when they have a personality worth saving.
The best X-Files episodes used the series mythology to advance the characters’ relationships. The forthcoming mini series promises to resolve the alien invasion plot line. When I imagine what that will look like it isn’t flying saucers I see on screen. It’s the characters I’ve been missing. Here’s looking forward to season 10.
7 thoughts on “What The X-Files Taught Me About Writing Scary Stories”
That is a very, very good point, one I never really thought about. I was a rabid X-Files fan the first few years but even when I re-watched it relatively recently, I found that I loved it. (And therefore, it wasn’t just a junior high/high school TV crush.) And now I know why.
And, more importantly, it’s going to make me a better writer. Sure, I spend time in character development but now I see how the little details matter. Not too many, but some. Very insightful. Thank you for this blog article.
Reblogged this on Burlesque Press and commented:
I like this approach – more coming soon here at Burlesque Press about suspense and story telling!
Great analysis, Drew. And it’s true: Mulder and Scully were such rich, complex characters — so much so that the audience more or less stopped caring once Duchovny left the series. When you break Mulder down to his elementals, you see at-a-glance just how multifaceted he is:
1. He’s a devout believer in/authority on/investigator of the paranormal
2. He employs unorthodox methodologies
3. He boasts a macabre/perverse sense of humor
4. He’s heartbroken/grief-stricken over the abduction of his sister (this trait operates “beneath the surface,” but is very much crucial to his psychological constitution)
5. And he copes with that grief through his obsessive pursuit of “the Truth”
(The sunflower seeds and porn habit are idiosyncrasies that help further round him out.)
When an aspiring writer understands that every X-files investigation Mulder initiated, whether of the mytharc or monster-of-the-week variety, was all about feeding his own emotionally unhealthy coping mechanism, only then can one begin to understand why the stories had such profound emotional resonance week after week. “The truth is out there,” Mulder liked to say, but what he couldn’t face was that the truth was WITHIN — the monsters he hunted were merely a distraction from the beast he couldn’t face: the soul-crushing grief that had haunted him since he was twelve years old. So, the very concept of the series — weekly investigations of the paranormal — was an outgrowth of the protagonist’s obsessive preoccupations, themselves an unconscious manifestation of his own repressed psychic wounds stemming from his traumatic backstory. THAT’S how you create a character audiences care about season after season, even long after he’s left the airwaves (I published a similar analysis on my blog of Jack Bauer this past summer for the “24” revival). I personally can’t wait to catch up with Mulder — and Scully — again; here’s hoping that proposed limited series comes to pass.
Reblogged this on The Incompetent Writer and commented:
I liked this post a lot — he breaks down the typical X Files episodes into acts, describing the events that almost certainly will happen each time. I had waves of happy nostalgia as I read through. However, the later comments left me hanging (a bit). I agree that “If the leads aren’t compelling we won’t mind if the monsters feed on them.” But how to create such characters? That seems to be the rub, and I’m not sure that merely supplying character details (religion, views on stem cell research) is the answer. Maybe there is a version of the act based progression, but for character rather than plot, something that also develops over the course of each episode…
(via Burlesque Press)
A very entertaining post. It made me want to watch the X-files, which I am totally going to do right now. I still like to watch it even thought it’s pretty much the same story over and over again as you pointed out.