Writing Lessons from … Narcos
TDW: Welcome to the first edition of Fantastica’s Writing Lessons, where we take examples of writing from popular media. Today we’re looking at Narcos, a Netflix original TV show. What can we learn from the story of Columbian narcos and the American agents sent to stop them?
I don’t like TV in general. There are rarely good shows to watch. Recently though I watched the first season of Narcos, and I wanted to like it. It’s such a great true story after all. However, my stance has not changed – TV still sucks. Daredevil was another example of why I don’t watch television (both Netflix shows). Some of you may be outraged, but there are things to be learned so that all is not lost. Below are writing lessons to be gleaned from Narcos.
The Lesson: How to Tell a Narrative
There are a few things wrong with Narcos – and I’m clearly not alone in thinking this – but they all relate to narration.
Choose your narrator wisely, or at least how they tell the story. Narcos employs a white DEA agent to tell the story of Pablo Escobar, when there are a range of voices that could have been chosen. It is quite clear that despite investing in Spanish speaking parts and hence lots of subtitles, they still needed to cram in a link to America. How is this relevant to your story? First you must choose the POV, or POVs, and then how you will transition, both scene to scene and chapter to chapter. Make it unique to give your story some flavour. Choose the right POV at the right time. Will your story be first or third person? How close to the narrator are we? Narcos also utilises a judicious amount of voiceover that is completely unnecessary, often telling the viewer precisely what they have just seen or are about to see. This is the visual media equivalent of ‘show, don’t tell’. Don’t have your narrator tell the reader everything in exposition.
Overall Narcos tries to tell us far too much. It is a worry that it spent the first season trying to pack as much in as possible, with the finale leaving very little room for extrapolation. I fear yet another long-winded ten episodes are near as they find the need to pad out the remaining events. In the first season we also follow the story arcs of many characters, all of which come together in a piecemeal fashion. It takes far too long setting up, with long periods of boredom. Escobar, played by Wagner Moura, steals every scene he’s in but by the end of the season his nuance is played out. There is a lot they could have done to trim the narrative down, which is a similar complaint I had with Daredevil. Content is king, and so a natural result is content for contents sake.
Poor choice of narration and bad pacing leads to too much foreshadowing. Everything is built up for too long, and the results are obvious far too early (particuarly the episode where a plane is blown up). One clanger is in the first episode which shows DEA agents killing a group of sicarios, presumably to start the show with a bang and draw audiences in. These assassins then aren’t actually killed in the plot until about episode eight. Talk about a complete failure to build tension. The narrative chops and changes all the time, going backwards and forwards when it feels like it. If a tighter narrative had been employed a lot of the errors of narrator, pacing and foreshadowing could have been avoided.
As I mentioned, I think the issue comes down to Netflix wanting to drag out content of Narcos, which affects the final product. Don’t do this with your story! Editing is vital, and the first way you decide to tell a story isn’t necessarily the narrative that suits it best. Employ foreshadowing in a clever and unobtrusive manner, try to cut out slow sections to fix pacing and choose a narrator that will tell your story perfectly. How you deliver a story is often more important than the grandeur of it.