“How To Get Away With Murder” is a hit television show that is legal procedural, soap opera, and mystery—and it’s narrative-candy: it’s like a long-lasting gum…a good chew, bursting with tons of flavor. I’ve been binge-watching it through its two season run and the question on my mind is how it keeps holding my interest…how I can chew and chew and not spit that wad of rubber-nothing out my mouth.
The show follows a sassy black law professor, named Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and her multicultural team of first year students—the black guy, the gay guy, the latina princess, the hard-around-the-edges-pretending-not-to-be-poor-mixed-race-country-girl-from-the-bayou. There’s even a token white boy, who is of course a stereotype of privilege—the son of a judge who is from Kennebunkport. Each of her students vie for a trophy—a figure of blind Justice holding her symbol, the scales–a prize that gets them out of taking an exam and into her good favor.
Each episode involves the team solving a murder of some sort and saving a client, usually in a dramatic court room presentation of evidence in which the charismatic Annalise Keating—barely restraining her emotion—exonerates her clients before a grand jury. Needless to say, there is all sorts of un-reality to this show.
Tthe show has its faults: it is actually quite conventional and very quickly moves from legal procedural into steamy soap opera—the very thing I despise the most. Still, I was riveted. I kept binge-watching. And I kept binge-watching. And I wanted to know why. And I think I know why. And the reason why is this: the show has the novel element of the flash forward: We get snippets of an unfolding crime that is the master plot that the season is building toward—the sun—which is the solar system around which all the planet of lesser crimes revolves.
We get to see a murder unfolding but we only see parts of it, up-close. The trophy banging upon a head. Blood. A hand. Bits and pieces of confusion: a shovel digging a shallow grave. A panicked voice, whispering ohmygodohmygodohmygod.
Each episode opens with this flashforward. Each flashforward follows the same design but is different. So there is more information revealed—a dance of the seven veils. Tantalizing. Teasing. Inviting.
This kind of device holds your interest well after the novelty of melodrama and soap opera and Perry Mason showboating begins to wear on your interest…and make you want to spit out that gum, which long ago should have lost its flavor.
Novelists have long exploited this type of device. We see it as the italic openings to books—flash forwards that seem to make a promise of how the novel will reach its moment of climax. And in this moment, the writer is using something like a pick up line: accosting us, like a stranger on the street, with the promise of dinner and a date and an adventure on a vibrating motorcycle along a bumpy road that will end in the woods with a postprandial smooch.
Some of the great postmodern writers—writers like the African American genius Toni Morrison—use it at the beginning of every chapter. The short italic opening—the repetitive opening that initiates each chapter of The Bluest Eye–involves a repetition of a series of lines–a Dick and Jane narrative that all little kids learn in elementary school.
Such a narrative gets progressively jumbly…then jumblier…then jumblier…the words mashed together to display the disorder in the life of a girl whose world is falling apart. And so we begin to get a sense of how the world of the protagonist will fall apart…and we wait to see exactly how this will happen.
So here’s a suggestion for your next writing project: Write a flashforward for your book. Write it as an italics opener—that moment when Babe Ruth points his finger out the park and spits out the cud he’s been chewing in his mouth before preparing to hit that home run into the grand stands. This opening just might hold your reader’s interest longer.
But ultimately, it can be a tool that only serves to sharpen your focus: You can always take it out later if you don’t like it. Putting those italics in might be exactly what you need to show you where you need to go: your focal point, your climax, your sacred promise to the reader who is your solar system—your one and only—the sweet focus of pleasure that lives at the center of your mouth.