Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Telenovela Writing Tips - La Tempestad

I haven't watched a telenovela in decades. I watched them as a child, but gave them up in college when I discovered Northern Exposure and Gilmore Girls.

However, I became curious about the genre after I read Blake Snyder's Save The Cat. Telenovelas are the ultimate page turners. They have to make the viewer tune in tomorrow so every episode needs to end with a hook. How to they do it? Do they use Blake Snyder's principles? Do they have their own tricks?

I wanted to find out so I tuned in to watch Univisión's new production, La Tempestad, yesterday. William Levy and Ximena Navarrette (a former Ms. Universe) are the stars and it's had a ton of publicity. It's William Levy's first novela in years. That means a lot of people tuned it for the premiere. Can the writers hold on to that audience? That's a good question.

The premiere started strong with a rape plotline, a huge save-the-cat moment for the heroine, a tumor, and a forced adoption sub-plot. In ten minutes, the heroine (a fabulous Ximena Navarrete who comes across a cross between Kate Middleton and Wonder Woman) is unemployed, disgraced, and trying to save her mother's life.

Unfortunately, the novela stalls. A fairy godmother arrives (the fabulous Daniela Romo) and the heroine is given the opportunity to start anew in a small coastal town. She's given ownership of a tuna canning enterprise (this is the first tuna canning mogul heroine I've ever seen) and the sea air will be good for her mother's health (ah, telenovela medicine).

See the problem? Passive, passive, passive. The heroine has no agency and the viewer's interest flags.

William Levy's character arc is even worse. His character does a lot of cool stuff. He fights pirates, he saves a crew member. He is seduced by a village girls. He gets into a bar fight.

Action, action, action.

Boring, boring, boring.

His character has a lot of conflict, but no goal or motivation. What does he want? To be left alone. What is he trying to do? Fish. A good writer could get something done with that. Heck, Ernest Hemingway managed to write The Old Man and the Sea.

The La Tempestad writers aren't Ernest Hemingway.

I'm not sure about the character arcs either. Novelas usually have two established arcs for the hero and heroine. These are pretty standard. They're why people tune in. The audience wants to see the underdog heroine triumph. They want to see the arrogant hero get his comeuppance. They want to see traditional values (faith, family, community) save the day.

That's why the heroine's arc is usually pretty simple. She must learn self-esteem and must look within herself for find the strength and skills to overcome adversity. Usually, she carries some stigma (ugliness, scandalous family background, false accusations, poverty) and she must embrace the stigma to overcome the obstacles in her path.

The hero is usually a successful businessman (sometimes he's an artist), but this success has come with a price. He's become cold and cynical and he's lost the ability to build relationships. He scoffs at the heroine's optimism and her loyalty to friends and family. However, he's attracted to the very qualities he despises and falling in love with the heroine teaches him to value the things that really matter in life.

La Tempestad doesn't follow these rules.

Navarrete's character is already a successful businesswoman when the novela starts. After the first ten minutes, she owns her own company. She doesn't seem to have any stigma. I like the actress, but I'm honestly not sure where they're going with this character. She's going to find out a lot of family secrets and the villain is going to pursue her, but I'm not sure how she's going to change and develop. She's already perfect.

Ximena Navarrete is a heroine who desperately needs an internal plot.

Levy's character is even worse. He's a fisherman and independent to a fault. He has William Levy's abs. That's pretty much all there is to the character.

William Levy is the hero. He also needs an internal plot.

I wonder if the writers are trying to invert the storylines, that strategy has been used with some success in the past (notably, in my favorite novela of all time, Encadenados). Levy's character is going to be accused of rape so that may give him a decent stigma. I'm not sure what they'll do with Navarrete, though, her values are pretty solid. Maybe she's too driven? Too easily fooled by appearances?

The villain, Iván Sanchéz, is fabulous. His GMC (goal, motivation, and conflict) was established in five minutes of airplay. Likewise, Daniela Romo as Navarrete's real mother has a fabulous plot line which is moving at warp speed.

Iván Sanchéz is the villain. He's perfect.
I'll keep watching for those two and for the intriguing human trafficking storyline, but I really hope they fix the main conflict. I like Levy and Navarrete, but I don't want to watch them fight over tuna fish for eight weeks.

What about you? Did you tune in? What did you think?

All pictures belong to Televisa.