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Shape of a Story – Dexter

Shape of  a Story - Dexter

I began watching the Showtime series, “Dexter” since its first season. For some reason I was hooked after the first episode and I have watched every episode since. Something about how the premise, characters, and setting all culminated that made this story extremely fascinating to me. Although the main premise of the show is dark and dreary, it maintains a level of happiness and prosperity that balances it all out. The main character, Dexter, is a serial killer who murders only other serial killers. Clearly there is someting wrong up there, but for good reason; he witnessed his mother get murdered at a young age and ever since was scarred. His father helped to channel his anger and “urges” for good. Of course as Dexter got older he found himself in many predicaments, dangers, and many regrets. After reviewing Vonnegut’s approach to stories, I realized that in Dexter’s case, there was no “infinite happiness” or ending “better off” from his experiences. However, during the course of the many episodes Dexter finds not only glimpses of happiness but he experiences times of bliss and success. He made new friends, got married, and even had a son. But the interesting point of this story is that Dexter himself, is not mentally capable of accepting forever happiness since his “urge” will always get him in trouble.

The image I drew depicts a low beginning of the story since Dexter’s mother was murdered in front him. His levels of good fortune however, are capped, since not only is he incapable of feeling happy, he will inevitably get into trouble again. Notice the arcs highest levels are at a “ceiling line” and his troubles get worse and worse, ultimately ending in the death of someone he cared for most because of his actions.

One of the “22 rules pixar uses for creating appealing stories” that can relate to the story of Dexter is #19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. A particular situation in the Dexter story, which turns out to be one of the biggest story-turning-points is when Dexter’s sister finds out his secret of being a serial killer. It is something he never intended for someone to find out, in fact he kept it away from those who knew him for many years. Dexter needed to crawl his way to find a solution to this, and the majority of the latter seasons deal with how Dexter copes and deals with his sister knowing.

To summarize the story of Dexter, the following is a “Story Spine,” a way to organize the different sections of the story and from a writers persective, to gather thoughts.

Once upon a time there was a man, who due to a catostrophic event as a child, was forced to “feed his urge” by living one life as a serial killer and another as a “loving” family man.

Every day, his urges controlled his actions to point where he’d find himself in grave danger again and again.

But one day, his urge spiraled so out of control, the one person that was closest to him (his sister) found out about his secret.

Because of that, the agony, pain, and chaos that proceeds becomes unbearable for his sister and she attempts to kill them both.

Because of that, the sister finds meaning and reason behind Dexter’s secret.

Because of that, the two create an even stronger connection.

Until finally, Dexter’s urges and actions prove to be too risky and dangerous that his sister is killed.

And ever since then, Dexter must move away and stay “hidden” for the rest of his life, in order to protect the rest of those close to him.

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5 thoughts on “Shape of a Story – Dexter

  1. Very interesting analysis, and the sketched curve works perfectly to show the shape you described. I am intrigued by the idea that there is a cap to the vertical scale; and have always wondered if there are good stories that do not end up high on that scale.

    Perhaps that it is not an absolute scale (so many happy units achieved). but perhaps a relative one from where Dexter started. I am also interested in if Dexter is a character, who’s life is so out of the scope of ordinary, that one can identify with. Traditionally, the notion has been the central character is one that you can root for, or for whom your emotional ride is hitched to their finding of good fortune. What do we get out of Dexter’s path, is there some sort of personal achievement possible in such dark lives?

    You are doing really good writing/thinking already in this first week. One thing I will be asking more of is to add hyperlinks where relative for content; e.g. when you mention Dexter, find a link to the show’s site or a source lime imdb.com so a reader can find more if they are not familiar with the show. Also, you should link the references to the pixar 22 storytelling rules and the story spine if a reader has not been looking at the assignments; each blog post should be able to stand on its own as a coherent set of thoughts and not depend on knowing what these refer to.

    Did the story spine add anything or make it more clear as to a story structure? Maybe not since you know it well, but it does help for me, who has never seen the show.

  2. Thank you for the feedback! Its been fun to write on the blogs so far. The story spine absolutely helped sum up the story. I think its useful for someone who is new to a show, movie, etc to read something like as a cliftnotes almost.

  3. bcodelson says:

    Great post. I’ve watched the first few seasons of Dexter so I have some knowledge of the show. I think it was interesting and appropriate that you added the ceiling to the good fortune that Dexter could experience. It seemed to me, however, that over the course of a few seasons, his character evolved and he was able to get a little happier. Do you agree? If that’s the case, do you think the ceiling would go away at some point in the future? Interesting to think about.
    I also think that Pixar’s rule #19 was a great one to call out for Dexter. He certainly finds himself in a lot of jams and his struggle to find his way out of those jams is what makes the show so exciting to watch.

    • You make a good point about the “Ceiling” I mentioned could actually rise over time since he found ways to channel his anger and urges. However, no matter how high the ceiling it was inevitable that he ends in a dramatic fall in the end.

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