Making it up as you go: Twin Peaks and Welcome to Nightvale
08 February 2018, Category: television
08 February 2018, Category: television
I spent a highly enjoyable few months last year watching Twin Peaks, both the original seasons and the revival. Even now, twenty-seven years after the original series debuted, it remains a strange mix of police procedural and occult mysticism. The revival plunges even further into the mysticism and dream elements of the show. It’s not always entirely clear what the story is, but as an experience it is incomparable. Many parts of the show work on a dream logic, with images and moments that only seem to make sense in a subconscious way. The last episode, in particular, is terrifying, even though I could not fully articulate why.
Such a rich mysterious show has created all number of fan theories. It feels like every detail of this incredible world must have been planned out ages ago, that Mark Frost and David Lynch knew where it was going all along. For example, Laura Palmer says in the last episode of the second season “I’ll see you again in twenty-five years”. Twenty-six years later, we have the new series, which opens with that same scene, only now with the actors older. What else could it be other than a master plan, made years ago and only now coming to fruition?
Similarly, the killer in the original series is revealed to be BOB, a destructive, dangerous spirit that inhabits the body of his victims and forces them to engage in horrific acts. It echoes out across the early series and is a key part of the revival. This mythology is revealed slowly, drip by drip. Again, the temptation is to think that Lynch and Frost planned this all out. Actually, the all-consuming spirit was a complete accident. The whole character of BOB was only created when a set-dresser got into shot accidentally. Lynch liked it, then wove it into the fabric of the story, creating a mythology to explain it.
That brilliant finale as well, linking it to the series twenty-six years later? That was mostly just Lynch improvising, throwing out most of the script and shooting scenes on the fly. That twenty-five years line was probably meaningless at the time, but the writers found a way to incorporate it into the mythology of the show once it was revived.
None of this fits with the popular view of creativity. We insist that writers have all the answers of the worlds they create. That they have a grand master plan that is slowly revealed to the audience. Sometimes though, writers just made up as they go.
It feels similar to the progression of one of my favourite podcasts, Welcome to Night Vale. It is another strange small town in the heartland of the United States. Like Twin Peaks, it has a strange mythology that reveals itself slowly, with odd inhabitants and powerful, otherworldly forces. But it has quite a different tone to Twin Peaks, funnier and kinder, and by being confined to a radio station it has a different emphasis. It too was developed serially, week after week.
The strength of both series is their ability to develop threads from small details. Characters take on larger roles and storylines get pulled from small mentions. It’s an exploratory way of writing. You start with the broadest strokes of an idea, but not all of the details. You have an idea where the story is going but it’s not set in stone. By paying close attention to the details as you write, the story goes in a different direction to what you expect. Lynch’s inclusion of a set dresser changed the whole direction of Twin Peaks. Welcome to Night Vale moves from more Lovecraftian horror to a focus on social issues.
In both cases, it works. Neither is quite like anything else. Twin Peaks draws uncanny moments from the ordinary and Welcome to Night Vale has an intimacy that allows for warmth in the midst of uncertainty. But both remember their origins and draw on all the details from previous episodes to inform the new, with old characters recurring even as new storylines come along. A major plot point in the revival of Twin Peaks is based on a throwaway line in unused footage from the film,* Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Welcome to Night Vale* develops Carlos, the scientist, until he is a main character and love interest. By paying close attention to the previous detail, each series creates its own universe and own rules.
To me, this all brings to mind George R.R. Martin’s famous quote about the two types of writers, which is worth putting in full here:
I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.>
Certainly, in my writing, I feel more like a gardener. Often, I start writing to find out where the story is going. I’m a reader and a writer at the same time, caught in the rush of finding out what happens next. 1 Similarly, I feel both Twin Peaks and Welcome to Night Vale work in the same way, with writers planting seeds and seeing how they grow. Perhaps the serial format is more open to this way of writing. The work is mutable week by week and can work with accidents instead of against them. It changes over time as each week shifts the story in a different direction. Twin Peaks and Welcome to Night Vale work so well because they keep an eye on previous episodes and develop the new ones from there.
Each of these approaches to writing is valid and each story is different. Some stories might be intricately plotted and take a lot of planning. Other stories might develop easily like a dream. There’s always a middle ground as well, having an overarching plan while being open to ideas on the way. I don’t think it’s a simple binary, but I do think it is worth bearing the two approaches in mind when thinking about the creation of art. Sometimes the most stunning of plot twists may not be planned out in advance. If you’re stuck when planning a project, it might just be worth starting to write it and see where you go. The smallest accidents could take you in different directions. Ralph Steadman once said, “There are no accidents in art, only opportunities.” 2 Twin Peaks and Welcome to Night Vale are successful examples of art developing out of accidents and the smallest details.