Note: This blog post is my notes for an Instagram live I did (which you can watch here), and as such, has not been thoroughly edited for spelling and grammar.
In January, while I was supposed to be editing my upcoming Beauty and the Beast reimagining, A Thieving Curse, and instead was having a crisis of low motivation, general blues, and extreme crankiness, I decided to procrastinate by re-watching an episode of MTV’s Teen Wolf.
Now, prior to this, I actually hadn’t watched much TV in recent months – both shows and movies couldn’t seem to catch or hold my interest. In fact, a few months ago, I’d very slowly rewatched season one, but hadn’t continued. I’ve also been struggling to read. I guess I was craving being immersed in a story, and Teen Wolf gave me that–even though I’d already seen it–because just like the first time I watched it, I got pulled in and ended up binging a few seasons.Yes, while I was meant to be editing. I did edit, too, okay? But when edits made me stabby, I went and watched Teen Wolf.
Also like the first time I watched – and in fact, even more so – I noticed so many excellent lessons on writing and story. So, I thought I would share!
If you haven’t seen Teen Wolf, you should still be able to follow along without a problem, and hopefully I’ll have some helpful writing tips or reminders for you!
One last thing before I dive in for those of you who have not watched the show:
First, I don’t wholeheartedly recommend the show. There are several content warnings, including way too many make out and party scenes (that I often skip past while groaning) and underage drinking, and many trigger warnings, including gore, self harm, and suicide, and the show frames mental health institutions in negative light by using the horror trope of an outdated and destructive insane asylum. If you have particular content questions or concerns, feel free to DM me.
All right, so, without further ado… Eight things I learned about writing and story from Teen Wolf.
1. I’m starting with this point because it’s maybe the least widely applicable and it’s one people may argue with me on for reasons I will get to in a minute, but I think the principle still applies: If you’re going to use a niche word or phrase, especially if it’s going to become an important part of your worldbuilding or plot…make sure you’re using it correctly and have the right word – or, in the case of Teen Wolf, the right pronunciation.
In season two, a new item is introduced – a book with information about a bunch of creatures, such as werewolves. Stiles comes across the concept of a collection of descriptions and drawings of these creatures, and calls it a beastiary. This leads to not once but twice a stupid joke about “I think you mean beastiality.” Stiles insists he means “beastiary,” a compendium of beasts, and the beastiary becomes an important source the characters reference throughout the rest of the show.
The problem is, beastiary is not a word. The term is bestiary, pronounced bes·chee·eh·ree or best-ee-ary or sometimes best-cher-ee. There’s only one a, and it is pronounced how it looks – that is, it does not contain the word beast. I know this because I took a college class on plants and animals in the Middle Ages, and we discussed bestiaries.
Here’s where some may argue with me on this–bestiary (bes-chee-ary) is the dictionary pronunciation and the pronunciation used in academia. However, in the arena where Stiles would have likely come across the term in the first place – table top role playing games – the community is split on pronunciation. While there are gamers who use the correct pronunciation, it seems the RPG community is rife with people calling these books beastiaries. Never mind it is perfectly visually clear there’s no way that’s how it’s pronounced.
So, it might be that only me and a few thousand other medieval history nerds who know the correct pronunciation of bestiary and are bothered by this. Or it could be that the writers decided to use the erroneous pronunciation because Stiles might have picked it up from role playing…but that doesn’t explain why every other character mispronounces the word, including Chris Argent whose knowledge of his family history (and because it’s his family’s bestiary) means he really should have known better. Lydia with her high IQ should have known better. And 30 seconds of Googling would have saved Teen Wolf from having a recurrent error that drives me crazy every time a character mentions a beastiary.
But I think my point remains regardless of whether you agree with the show’s pronunciation – if you’re going to make some niche object or idea an important plot point…make certain you’re right about what it is. So people like me don’t gnash their teeth every time it comes up. 😉
2.Stakes, stakes, stakes
One of the things Teen Wolf does beautifully is stakes. First, having varying types of stakes, and second, having rising stakes.
Maybe, just in case, I should quickly define stakes. When we talk about stakes in a story, we’re talking about what is at stake in the story – that is, what is in jeopardy. Think of it as poker stakes – what the characters have to lose or gain by failing or succeeding in their aim.
What do I mean by varying types of stakes?
I mean personal stakes and bigger, world-level stakes.
In season three, Scott is struggling with varying personal stakes – keeping his grades up and staying out of trouble at school, his own life or the lives of his close friends, the choices for good or evil that he personally has to make. He also struggles with bigger, more stakes that he cares about, but don’t affect him as directly – the safety of Beacon Hills as a whole, the lives of people he may not personally know, bad guys acquiring more power.
The stakes also have rising levels of intensity, not just differences between “I need to keep my grades up” and “if I don’t figure out what’s going on, someone might die” – but raising the intensity within that. It’s not only “I can’t play lacrosse if I don’t keep my grades up,” it’s also “if I fail this test I’ll get held back and can’t graduate with my friends.” It’s not just that someone might die – a lot of people might die. It’s not just people might die, it’s my family or friends’ family might die. It’s not just that these people might die, it’s that something evil will gain more power and do even more harm if they die.
You might recognize that these different levels and types of stakes sound a lot like subplots. Which is exactly right and is a good way to check if your subplots are extraneous – subplots should have stakes for the characters, and often, those stakes will be at odds with the stakes of the main plot.
For example, the stakes of “people will die” and “flunking out of high school” often coincide, with high school responsibilities or rules like no cell phones interfering with the characters’ goal of saving people from the bad guys.
Now, stakes don’t have to be life or death. But they should be strongly enough tied to your character’s personality and values that losing whatever is jeopardy will seriously impact the character.
The reason this is so important is that proper stakes are what keep your audience coming back – or keeps them from leaving in the first place – because they have to know: will Allyson forgive Scott? Will Allyson’s werewolf hunter parents go after Scott? Will Scott save the people the bad guy took before they’re killed? Will Scott be able to stop the villains without compromising his deeply-held morals? And raising the stakes or introducing new stakes can help pacing by preventing things from lulling or letting your audience become “numbed” to the old stakes. Which leads into my next take-away…
3. Pacing: Let your characters rest…but not too long
Pacing can be tricky. Too much forward movement and you’ll exhaust your audience, too little and you’ll bore them – either way, they’ll stop engaging and leave.
The key is to balance moments where your characters get to rest with pushing them outside their comfort zone. Moments where the characters get to pause and reflect on what’s happened or process how they’re doing. Even though I don’t like how intense the make-out and party scenes in Teen Wolf can be, they often are there for a purpose – to let the characters and the audience rest.
Light-hearted, fun, happy scenes, and even sad scenes where characters process their emotions, are important because besides providing an opportunity for rest, they provide another way to demonstrate what is at stake. It reminds us these characters are human and have a chance at happiness, and we root for them to be able to hold on to those moments of joy or peace. Even sorrowful scenes can do this, because they allow us to see how the plot is affecting the characters which makes us connect to them more deeply, and we root for them to heal and get back their joy.
But they can’t stay there too long, or all forward momentum is lost. Remember, stakes are about what the characters have to lose, so the threat should endanger those moments – either directly by literally interrupting date night, or indirectly because you and the character knows the looming threat might prevent future such moments.
Give your characters moments to adjust, to rest or recover, to regroup, and then hit them with a renewed, more pressing, or renewed threat. Move the timeline on that big bad thing up. Give them a piece of new information that makes the threat worse than previously thought. Introduce a new wrinkle in their plans. In those moments where your audience might start getting too comfortable, shake things up.
While this isn’t necessary (or even always a good idea), it’s also a great concept to keep in mind for chapter endings. Introducing a new threat to your character’s plans or happiness at the end of a chapter is a great way to get that “just one more chapter…” that keeps people up until 1am. 😉
4. Know your genre, but don’t be afraid to use tools from other genres
Something that fascinates me about Teen Wolf is how they combine genres. At its most basic level, Teen Wolf is an urban fantasy. But it’s also a high school drama. It’s also paranormal. It’s also dark fantasy/horror. It also has elements of crime/mystery and thriller. Now, these aren’t unusual pairings – these genres often overlap, and there’s a reason – they work well together.
By using concepts from crime dramas or pacing cues from thrillers or videography conventions from horror or plot beats from high school dramas, the show creates its own distinct flavor without feeling (for the most part) unbalanced.
This is why authors are often encouraged to read widely, but watching widely also works. I don’t typically watch urban fantasy, dark fantasy, or high school dramas, and almost never watch horror. Part of this difference of genre is what allowed me to think more consciously about what Teen Wolf was doing.
It’s an urban fantasy – it takes place in a suburban environment, there’s supernatural and magical creatures and a whole other society that is unknown to the average person, and the people in the know work to keep the normal people from finding out.
There are elements of police procedurals, with Sheriff Stilinski investigating crimes and Stiles applying things he’s learned from watching his dad. A murder or strange occurance happens, and Stiles makes a board with the evidence they have and starts thinking about things like motive. They investigate crime scenes and corpses and do research. The crime show approach builds mystery.
There are elements of thrillers, with the cast racing against the clock to stop the bad guys. The show uses elements like hiding important information, either from the characters or audience or both, plot twists, information from unreliable characters, and the concept of a plot driven by the villain who presents obstacles for the team to overcome as they try to guess what the bad guys are doing before it happens. This thriller approach builds suspense and tension.
The tropes of high school dramas with first loves and grades and family drama and cliques and parties help determine the target audience of the show and help ground the show in the midst of all the fantastical.
And obviously, and also closely related to thriller as the two genres often overlap – but are different – is horror elements. The show seeks to frighten – and by frightening, to drive home the high stakes and entangle your emotions – and accomplishes this by using elements designed to horrorify through visuals, audio, or conceptually due to connotations. I won’t give examples given that many if not most of you probably aren’t horror fans, but the inclusion of these elements helped set the tone of the show and adds gravity to the stakes.
Now, my point isn’t to go incorporate horror elements into your WIP or change your setting to a high school. My point is don’t be afraid to use elements you like from other genres that complement your story to help you set the appropriate tone or to entice your ideal reader. Maybe your characters in your sci-fi can take a note from the evidence-based approach of your favorite crime drama. Maybe you can increase the tension of the middle of your fantasy by taking a note from thrillers and letting your audience in on a threat that your MC doesn’t know about yet. It’s okay, good even, to be really confident in your genre but also borrow common elements from other genres.
5. Set-up and foreshadowing strengthens worldbuilding and plot twists
Something I noticed even more on the rewatch is how often Teen Wolf teases new creatures, threats, cures, and solutions way before they become plot relevant. From Chris Argent dropping a couple references to berserkers half a season before we met actual berserkers to characters who will become villains or otherwise central to the plot being banally introduced a few episodes before the threat is even known to showing us a rare, potent form of wolfsbane long before a character uses it against a villain, the show establishes or foreshadows new elements constantly.
This foreshadowing means that when a new creature is seen on screen, we’re more likely to accept it and know how to feel about it, because it’s been mentioned before. It helps prevent plot twists from feeling too convenient and manufactured, because they were set-up beforehand in a believable way.
Often I think writers can get too caught up in the idea of surprising their readers, but if you don’t at least hint at things that are coming, your reader won’t be shocked – they’ll be annoyed because it’s not believable or doesn’t fit what you’ve shown them about the world. Your audience going, “ah, you lingered on that, it might be important later,” or going, “ah, I knew it!” isn’t a bad thing. Your audience saying “THE HINTS WERE THERE ALL ALONG” is an awesome thing.
Adequate set-up of important people or items and foreshadowing of twists builds trust with your audience – and that trust is important to get them coming back season after season (or book after book).
6. Consistency is important
This is actually something that Teen Wolf sometimes gets wrong.
If you set up that a substance is horribly deadly…don’t let your characters easily heal from it all the time, or it loses its threat and you start wondering why anyone is even bothering with lacing weapons with wolfsbane at all when it has a 95% survival rate.
If you establish that your MC is super strong and powerful and can do things other characters can’t…don’t let him take a few sad swings at a new villain and then get his butt kicked while another side character fights better. Part of this is just shoddy battle choreography, because if the point is how strong the new villains are, the fight should show the MC trying to win and failing, not just making one punch and then standing there like an idiot while he gets pummeled because the new Big Bad wasn’t affected by the punch.
But in general, possibly Teen Wolf’s greatest weakness is that characters can survive anything – when the plot needs them to. And then when something does kill a major character because the plot needs it to…you’re left a little confused on the rules of what is lethal and what isn’t. Be consistent. If something is deadly most of the time, you need a really good reason why it isn’t the other times, and if something isn’t deadly most of the time, you need a really good reason why this time, it was.
This doesn’t just apply to deadly things. If something is a serious offense once, it shouldn’t be ignored another time. If something is said to have consequences and your characters never even have a close call with the consequences, or you never explain why your characters avoid the consequences, your readers will wonder if the consequences are real, which will decrease your stakes. And in general, consistency in details is another important factor in building trust with your readers.
7. Characters rule
When I first watched Teen Wolf in 2018, it wasn’t because urban fantasy appealed to me or I was obsessed with werewolves or even because of a recommendation. It was because I somehow stumbled across Teen Wolf stills and gifs on Pinterest, and this Stiles dude was hilarious. I wanted to meet the characters and figure out the context of some of the Pins I saw, so I decided to try the show.
And the characters are what hooked me. The characters were the main thing that kept me coming back when the horror elements made me squeamish. Because if Teen Wolf does anything right, it’s characters.
While some things like werewolves’ healing abilities are a bit inconsistent, the characters are very consistent. Their values, personalities, and fears are well-established and constantly inform the choices the characters make, which in turn affects the plot. Their reactions to plot developments are thoroughly grounded in their desires and values.
You need to know your characters well enough to understand what motivates them – what they find most important in friendships or love interests, what they want to achieve at school or work or in their lives, their personal morals, what loss or failure means to them, etc.
Scott’s affection for his hard-working mom, his anger at his dad for leaving, his close friendship with Stiles, his drive to do the right thing and valuing of life and consequent drive to protect people and to win without giving in to his animalistic urge to kill, his high valuing of loyalty, his willingness to compromise or sacrifice himself because of how deeply he cares for his friends, and his desire to live a normal life where he can get decent grades and enjoy playing lacrosse and have a girlfriend and go to college, even the fact that he’s a little bit of an idiot who can be slow on the uptake and sometimes reacts without thinking things through, all work together to make Scott into a complex, realistic person. All of these traits inform how he makes decisions.
For example – this is a spoiler, so if you don’t want that, skip this paragraph – after Scott becomes an alpha, it’s hinted alphas usually want to create betas. But Scott doesn’t bite anyone until he is in a position where he thinks someone he barely knows is going to die, so he bites Liam in the hopes that it will be enough to keep Liam from dying if he falls from the roof of the hospital. Of course, Scott then panics and makes some very stupid decisions, but all of this is completely believable because it is so consistent with his established character.
Okay, spoiler over.
This point about strong characters ties into my final point:
8. Make your secondary characters memorable
It’s not just Scott or even the additional three or so main characters who are strongly developed – all of the characters are. One of the ways the show does this is by giving each of the characters a “thing.”
Stiles is the smart, snarky, sarcastic one.
Lydia is the secretly genius pretentious popular girl.
Stilinski is the long-suffering, overwhelmed sheriff.
Derek is the broody, over-dramatic one struggling to figure out who he is.
Peter is the conniving, power-hungry, manipulative, untrustworthy one.
You get the idea.
But the show doesn’t stop there, because that would leave us with caricatures instead of realistic characters. So they flesh out the side character’s values, desires, and fears, too. They give the character extra traits related to their backgrounds or circumstances that help make them more complicated, or put them through situations that challenge everything they thought they knew and force them to change.
For example, putting logical, reliable, intelligent Stiles in a situation where he can’t trust his own mind was genius.
Putting Lydia in situations where she had to trust the school weirdos, forcing her to reveal the parts of herself that she tries to keep hidden to maintain her status and to reconsider her priorities and attachments, makes her so much more than just a stereotypical mean girl.
Giving the villains, such as the durach, complicated or tragic pasts or conflicting values or good goals but a horrible methodology helps make them not just terrifying, but fleshed-out characters.
The characters also all serve different purposes within the narrative. None of them, by virtue of their varied personalities, values, fears, and skill sets, could perform the function of any of the other characters in the plot.
Additionally, the characters all relate to each other differently – while maintaining his own personality, the way Scott talks to Stiles isn’t the same way he talks to Lydia or Allyson or Derek, because he relates to and thinks of all of them in very different ways, and they relate to him in different ways than each other.
Teen Wolf does have excellent plots, incredible twists, fascinating worldbuilding, and some excellent videography and effects, particularly in later seasons, but I didn’t rewatch it for that. I rewatched it because of the characters. When a friend I got to watch the show thinks about rewatching it, she doesn’t say, “I really want to rewatch how that season arc played out,” she says, “I miss Stiles.”
I firmly maintain that readers are more likely to forgive things they don’t like about a book if they absolutely love the characters. And if readers can’t connect to, like, or remember the characters, they’re less likely to enjoy or remember the book, even if everything else is excellent.
So my biggest take-away from Teen Wolf – and if you take anything away from this live, I hope it’s this – is to make your secondary characters distinct by giving them specific traits and roles to play, both in the plot and in the MC’s life, and make them realistic but giving them them fleshed-out personalities, values, and fears just like your MC, and when appropriate, even giving them their own character arcs.
So that’s my list of eight things I learned about writing from watching Teen Wolf. Hope you enjoyed it and maybe it was helpful or gave you some ideas for your own writing.