Posted by: kshayes513 | November 17, 2013

Watching Sleepy Hollow and Making the Preposterous Work

The best new TV series this year is the one that everyone, including me, believed was the most preposterous, out there, guaranteed-to-fail TV premise we’d ever heard. Until we watched the pilot and realized that the only preposterous thing about Sleepy Hollow is how incredibly entertaining it is. You don’t have to take my word for this; reviewers from everywhere, even The New Yorker, are saying some version of, “This should never work, and I love it!”

Washington Irving Sleepy Hollow owes nothing to Irving's original story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" except the legendary horseman, the locale, and the names of three main characters.

Sleepy Hollow owes nothing to  Washington Irving’s original story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” except the legendary horseman, the locale, and the names of three main characters.

Here’s how it goes: patriot Ichabod Crane is mortally wounded in a Revolutionary war battle, but preserved by a spell cast by his good witch wife, Katrina. He wakes up in 2013 to find that the Hessian soldier who killed him, and whom he beheaded at the same time, now rides Sleepy Hollow as the Headless Horseman, aka Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Crane is found by a young police sheriff, Abbie Mills, whose partner and mentor was murdered by the Horseman, and they team up to stop the Horseman from bringing on the Apocalypse. Throw into this mix some demons, portals into hell, rival covens of good and evil witches, undead cops, and Freemasons descended from the Founding Fathers, and you have a bubbling brew that has no right to form a coherent world. 

So why does Sleepy Hollow work? First, the story moves at gallop that could keep pace with the Horseman himself. No dragging out every riddle for weeks to keep the audience mystified and guessing. Minor and medium questions are resolved by the end of the episode, bigger ones usually within a couple of episodes. And because the writers have structured the plot well so far, the answers to each question often lead to new and bigger questions to pull the story forward.
Second, this preposterous (there’s that word again!) mythology requires very little exposition to get the audience up to speed, because each element of it is already familiar to a general audience. Headless Horseman: check. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: check. Witches, demons and portals to hell: check. Survivor of the distant past waking up in the present:  check. Famous Revolutionary War touchpoints, e.g. Washington, Paul Revere, the Boston Tea Party: check. Founding Fathers involved in Freemasonry, which is involved in keeping esoteric secrets:  check. From all this, it’s only a short step to accept that the Revolutionary War was really a surrogate war in the cosmic Cold War between Good and Evil.

Third, the writers are making sure the mythology works consistently. Once they set an important piece of mythology into place, it stays where it’s put. Not only that, each new piece works to build the big picture, expand our heroes’ knowledge of what they’re up against, and often, present a new challenge.

Fourth, and by far the most important, the show has a solid cast of characters who make us care about them, especially the two leads. The partnership between Crane, the man far out of time, and Abbie, the junior cop trying to save the world without making her superiors think she’s delusional, already ranks high in my list of favorite TV friendships. Their chemistry is an endearing mix of drama and humor that just pulls you into their lives – especially the humor, with Crane reacting, often snarkily, to the strangeness of the modern world, and Abbie reacting to Crane’s reactions.

Fifth, and probably just important as four, all the characters react in genuinely human ways to the extraordinary events that have suddenly become part of their daily lives. You can get away with almost any weirdness in your world, as long as your characters react to it in ways your audience will believe.

If you want proof of how well Sleepy Hollow works, I present as evidence a whole stack of small errors and illogical details that ought to drive me and other viewers mad. But somehow, they don’t.  For instance, the Village of Sleepy Hollow has, according to the welcome sign, a population larger than most small cities.  Fair enough. Move on. A child from the lost Roanoke colony (don’t ask!) speaks the English of Chaucer, not Shakespeare. Noted. What’s your point?  A civilian like Crane, especially one with zero records of his identity, would not be allowed anywhere near a police investigation. Correct. Now shut up and let him keep investigating! And three weeks after he woke up, Crane is still wearing his 1781 clothes every day, and seriously, anyone who really had to hang around with a guy wearing 250 year old clothes he had been buried in, would take him to the mall ASAP for a new wardrobe. Right? Right. Crane looks AMAZING in those clothes. You want to make something of it?

So let me recap Sleepy Hollow’s lessons for builders of complicated and far-fetched worlds:

  1. Keep the plot moving and don’t get bogged down in details and exposition.
  2. One way to prevent deadly exposition is to make sure your world’s mythology is accessible.
  3. Use your mythology consistently, and build it gradually (and I should NOT have to remind you of this, unless you’re entirely new to worldbuilding).
  4. Make your characters likeable, believable and compelling, and they’ll pull your audience along. Character based humor helps a lot with this.
  5. Do NOT get lazy and make a lot of stupid factual error. Unlike Sleepy Hollow‘s producers, you’re probably not good enough to get away with it (Sleepy Hollow‘s team includes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who also produced Fringe, Alias, Hawaii Five-0, Star Trek, and a few other hits you might have heard of).

If you’ve learned any other worldbuilding and storytelling lessons from watching Sleepy Hollow, please share them in the comments.

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