Novel concepts in your story

28 Jun 2021

Me and my girlfriend have been watching 1st season of "His dark materials" on HBO lately, and the show made both of us think about the exact reason it's so… Meh.

Neither of us have read the books, and "Golden Compass" from 2007 evokes only vague memories of arctic stations and polar bears, so we were pretty much clueless going in. After 8 episodes I can clearly say - the show isn't good. There are many things wrong with it (dialogues are clunky, main character is Mary Sue'y, pacing isn't great and the threat from the villains is simply not there), but one is so apparent I just couldn't resist writing about it.

No need for exposition (or…?)

The story drops you into a fantasy world, where every human has an animal companion and a vaguely religious organization called "The Magisterium" controls the ca. 1950s society. There are also witches, mysterious particles called "Dust", magical truth-telling compasses and so on. That is a whole lot to take in - many novel concepts, which, you may think, need a lot of explaining, either through dialog or just plain old voice over exposition.

But truth is, they don't. A skilled writer can tell a story in a complex, novel setting, without the need for immediate exposition. Or even without the need for any exposition, save the bird's-eye overview of the mystical creatures and magical powers involved.

That is exactly what HBO's "His dark materials" tries to do - tell as little as possible, keeping most of the details intentionally vague and unexplained. And it fails horribly, for one simple reason - motivations.

Clear, concise and personal

What is the origin of the soul stone? Is it really sentient? Why exactly does it require sacrifice and what does it even do?

All of those things aren't really explained in Infinity War, and they don't have to be. Infinity stones may be crucial to the story, but they are simply means to an end - Thanos' quest to eradicate half of all life. Quest on which he embarked after seeing his home world in ruin from overpopulation. This is an example of a clear, concise and personal goal, one every member of the audience can understand. It doesn't matter what the stones can and can't do, as they are just a storytelling background letting the characters express their motives.

What is happening

In contrast, "His dark materials" features no such thing. Leira's mother (Evil Woman) does experiments on children. Why does she do that? Is it simply means to an end, or a goal in of itself? All evidence points to the latter, which raises a significant problem: the audience need to understand the goal.

I can understand wanting to prove yourself better than your former lover, or wanting to show the Magisterium they are all wrong and backwards, but Evil Woman wants neither of those. The experiments are not a part of her personal vendetta, just a thing she does. Because… she's evil, I guess?

Why does the Magisterium want to separate kids from their daemons? To "end the original sin"? Sorry, but I don't get that. That is the opposite of clear and personal, it's vague and impersonal. The cardinal isn't doing it because it's important to him, but because it is important in the grand scheme of things. But I don't care about the grand scheme of things. I care about the characters I am seeing on the screen now.

Why does the Black Spiky Hair Guy want to track down the man who, like him, traveled between the worlds? Does he not want others finding out about it? Was he send to our world by Magisterium, or is it a personal thing? Or is it just because

Look, traveling to other worlds! That is important, therefore the Spiky Hair Guy investigates it!

But why? Why are they important?

Why does Leira's father so hell bent on traveling to other worlds that he murders a child to do it? Did he lose a brother or a family member, is he looking for someone he loved? For knowledge, perhaps? Or does he do it because, just like the Spiky Hair Guy, he thinks other worlds are "important" just because they are?

None of those questions were answered in the first season, and I doubt things will get better. A character's motivations should be clear (or at least strongly hinted at) from the minute they are first shown on the screen, yet in "His dark materials" that is not the case.

The lesson

When it comes to setting the stakes, you basically have two options:

  1. Perform an info dump, specifying why things are happening the way they are. Dust is this and that, can be used to do this and that, the world needs/doesn't need it because this and that. This is what Tolkien does in Lord of the Rings - explains the origins of the ring, what it does and what the consequences of Sauron getting it are. Everything is crystal clear (albeit impersonal).
  2. Simply add personal stakes to the story - things are important to the characters, and as such don't need explanation. Evil Woman does experiments because she was hurt by Leira's father, and wants to prove herself greater scientist than him, or because of some other personal, clear and understandable reason she may have. After all, who cares what soul stone can or cannot do, all we need to know is what Thanos needs it for.

The first option is more "old-school" and often frowned upon (as are info dumps in general), but it gets the job done. I am personally in favor the second option - it creates an unbreakable bond between the objective the story is moving towards and characters' motives and arcs.

Whatever you do, don't be "His darkest materials". Because it does neither.