Here’s the first post in a series that will focus on writing lessons authors can glean from some of the great shows airing in this golden age of TV.
The most common piece of advice authors give to aspiring writers is “read lots of books,” not “watch lots of TV.” But some of the boldest, strangest, and most compelling writing happening today is on television. In this post, we’re going to get some writing lessons from the maestros at Rick and Morty.
Don’t judge this show by its whiney, entitled fanboys. Rick and Morty is one of the greatest things happening on TV. Each episode offers a densely packed wild ride into some of the bleakest corners of the human condition. We’re going to explore a few lessons that I think Rick and Morty does better than, perhaps, any other show and we’re going to use two of the best episodes to explore those ideas. (Spoilers abound.)
Quick overview: Rick and Morty began as a spoof of Back to the Future, with the titular characters being stand-ins for Doc Brown and Marty McFly. In reality, Rick is really more of a belligerent, alcoholic version of Doctor Who — an incredibly brilliant scientist who can travel across infinite dimensions — and he drags his hapless grandson Morty along for the ride.
Lesson #1: Take your ideas beyond their logical conclusion
I had an advertising professor once who use to say that when it comes to ideas, “Take the train all the way to Jamaica.” By “train” he meant subway, and by “Jamaica” he meant Jamaica, Queens. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it has stuck with me for more than two decades. His point was that once you grab on to an idea, go far past where you think you might need to for your current project, whether that’s writing an advertisement, a book, a movie, or, as in the case of Rick and Morty, a 22-minute episode of TV. Go crazy with it. “You can always reel your idea back in later if needed,” my professor added, “but it’s a lot harder to extend the idea once you’ve stopped your initial brainstorming.”
The writers of Rick and Morty practice this lesson in every episode, but the fan-favorite, “Total Rickall” (Season 2, episode 4), written by Mike McMahan, offers one of the best examples.
Quick overview: The Smith family (Morty, his father Jerry, his mother Beth, and his sister Summer) is eating breakfast with Uncle Steve — a character we’ve never seen before. Rick shows up, and says … actually, it’s probably easier to just watch the cold opening.
Thus begins one of the wackiest and most hilariously paranoid episodes of the show.
Every time someone flashes back to a false memory, more of these aliens disguised as family members or friends appear in the house. Realizing he can’t let any aliens escape, Rick barricades the house and the Smiths have to figure out who is real and who they have to kill, in spite of the fact that they can’t trust any of their memories. As far as they know, every single character in their house, no matter house weird they are, has always been there, either as a loving family member or lifelong friend.
It’s a fun idea, inspired by the classic season five premier episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Buffy suddenly has a sister named Dawn who everyone on the show suddenly treats as having been there all along (though we know this isn’t true).
It’s the kind of idea you might see on Doctor Who or Star Trek. But what sets Rick and Morty apart is how much surreal fun they have with it. These aliens disguise themselves not just as human family members like Uncle Steve or Sleepy Gary (Beth’s “real” husband), but also what looks like an all-star cast from an intense LSD trip. (Some examples: Pencilvestyr the talking pencil, Reverse Giraffe, Amish Cyborg, Photography Raptor, and Mrs. Refrigerator.) And the “flashback scenes,” which the aliens use to replicate, are hysterical and often mock corny TV tropes like Mr. Belvedere and My Little Pony. These flashbacks beget more flashbacks until the house is so crowded with zany characters (at least 60 by my count) that Rick even makes a Where’s Waldo joke.
They took the train all the way to Jamaica.
Of course, you’re likely not writing a sci-fi comedy. That doesn’t matter. Whether you are writing a romance or thriller or whatever, take your idea and go all the way — as far as your genre of choice will allow. You can always scale it back later.
Lesson #2: Tie your Big Concept into your theme
This episode isn’t just some fun, monster-of-the-week idea. McMahan uses this concept to explore the larger themes of the show and to play around with the family members’ dynamics. The show culminates (spoilers) with the realization that the Smith family must kill anyone for whom they only have wonderful memories because the parasites are unable to create negative memories.
Morty realizes Rick is real because Rick has been torturing him for years. Then we have a montage that is the twisted antidote to all the previous, wonderful-but-fake flashbacks showing all the times Rick has betrayed his grandson. It’s a hilarious montage set to a touching song about memories that is, perversely, kind of touching. Yes, we see Morty getting dragged away by a giant crab while Rick hits on two alien chicks. Yes, Rick pantses Morty in front of his classmates. But that just means Rick is real. After all, family will let you down. All those people in your life who you love unconditionally — people who have never let you down or embarrassed you — those people must die.
“Now let’s go, Morty,” Rick says, “We’ve got a lot of friends and family to exterminate.”
No wonder “Total Rickall” frequently tops the “best R&M episodes” lists that pop up on the Internet like alien parasites.
Using an idea to enhance and explore your themes is an important lesson to keep in mind if you’re writing a series. I mentioned how “Total Rickall” was inspired by a Buffy episode. Buffy takes this idea of implanting false memories and explores it a totally different way, one that is consistent with that show’s themes. We can imagine how Star Trek, Doctor Who, The X-Files, or other shows would have taken this concept and run with them in totally different directions.
Lesson #3: Efficiency
One of the things TV shows in general (and Rick and Morty in particular) have excelled at is efficiency. After all, TV shows often have just 22 minutes in which to tell their stories. (Or, in the case of Adventure Time, only 11 minutes.) That means they have only a minute or two to set the stage for each episode. Of course, authors have more than 22 minutes in which to tell a story, but you do need to grab readers’ attentions quickly.
McMahan sets up the premise of “Total Rickall” in just one minute and 40 seconds, and only 30 seconds of that time is actually spent explaining what these aliens do. McMahan could have started the episode with Rick running into the room telling the family to “keep an eye out for any zany, wacky characters that pop up,” but instead he decided to jump right in to the action and have Rick murder a seemingly beloved family member. It’s a shocking start that pulls you right in. Then comes the explanation.
And then, right before the opening credits roll, Rick finally does deliver the line about being wary of any wacky characters, and suddenly a little banana-looking guy tells Rick he’s here to help, to which Rick replies, “Thanks, Mister Poopybutthole, I always could count on you.” Roll opening credits. You get a shocking beginning, a fun big concept idea, and a great setup for imaginative fun in less than two minutes. This is the kind of beginning authors should strive for.
The next post features more lessons from Rick and Morty and explores what I consider the greatest 22 minutes in TV history.
Narrative Structure, Part One: What It Is and How To Use It
Narrative Structure, Part Two: It’s OK To Stray (or: Don’t Forget Your Cockroach Races)
Truth and Narrative: The Two Timelines Of Your Story
A Lesson In Storytelling From The Ultimate Dog Tease
Are TV and Movies Killing the Written Word?