11 November 2017

Everything I Learned About Writing I Learned From The Shield

by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
If you’ve read my novel, The Big Rewind, or maybe stopped by my Twitter feed (@libbycudmore) or talked to me for, I dunno, 10 minutes, you’ll learn that there are three things I love above all else in this world: Raymond Chandler, Steely Dan and The Shield.

The Shield was the catalyst for much of what’s now considered a Golden Age of television. Without Shawn Ryan’s ground-breaking cop show, there would be no Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, no Sons of Anarchy and no The Walking Dead. The series revitalized Michael Chiklis’ flagging post-Commish career and, better still, introduced us to Walton Goggins, who went on to steal the show on Justified, co-star on Vice Principals and appear in basically every movie that’s coming out next year. And for this we are all so, so thankful.

But more than just seven seasons of white-knuckle brilliance (and an excuse to step away from your manuscript for a few minutes) The Shield can serve as a master class in writing – from plot twists to characters and world-building. It’s available on Hulu and Amazon Prime, so you really have no excuse not to at least watch the pilot.

  • Three Sides To Every Story: A typical episode is layered anywhere between 3-5 sets of storylines. There’s generally one Strike Team story, a Dutch/Claudette B-story, a Danny/Julian or Acaveda storyline, a family or personal drama and connections to the larger season arc. But it’s all about balance – too few and the plot feels dry after awhile, too many and your manuscript gets cluttered. A good rule of thumb is to remember your ABCs – have one main A plot, a secondary B-story and a third C-story that informs the other two.

  • Waste Not, Want Not: Every line of dialogue of The Shield crackles with tension. Not because of catchphrases or vulgarity, but because Shawn Ryan staffed his writers room with people who understood the value of every word an actor would say. Your dialogue must serve at least one of two purposes—move the characters or the story forward and, in an ideal situation, both. Page after page of “As you know, Bob” dialogue or mundane exchanges about the weather get boring fast. As you write the dialogues between your characters, load each sentence with the kind of tension that keeps the reader turning pages.

  • Every Character Is The Main Character: Too often, writers make the mistake of short-changing their minor characters. They appear only to feed the Main Character a line of dialogue or the occasional McGuffin. But what The Shield shows is that some of the most memorable characters are ones that only appear in a handful of scenes.  Van Bro, Taylor Orr and Connie may only appear in a few episodes, but they—and so many others—are all elevated to hint at a much larger world beyond the few lines that they are given. So when you write a minor character, write them as though they might be the star of your next book.

  • For Every Bad, There Is Good: There’s a moment in season three where Detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) strangles a stray cat in order to better understand the Cuddler Rapist (Clark Gregg) he’s chased for half the season. It’s an intensely uncomfortable scene that threatens to destroy an otherwise likeable character…until the season finale, where he rescues the last stray kitten left in a box in the Barn.  It’s a literal “Save the Cat” moment, as screenwriter Blake Snyder might say, that re-redeems a character you though you could never care for again.

The Shield
No character in The Shield was wholly good or wholly evil. Sure, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) routinely beats suspects, but he also brings groceries to a women’s shelter. Claudette Wyms’s (CCH Pounder) moral code may help her take down murderers and rapists, but it also alienates her daughters. And Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) might be responsible for one of TV’s devastating season finales in season five, but he knows why he does it and trusts that the audience does too. These characters are written as whole and complicated, challenging your expectations, and you should strive to write characters who reflect the range of the human condition. Nothing is more boring than a goody two-shoes, and nothing is more infuriating than a one-note villain.

Still In Hollywood: Farmington may be fictional, but it’s a city that lives and breathes, from the Barn to the Biz Lats territory. You’re dropped into the world from the start and expected to run to keep up, and better still, know your gangland and where you can and can’t go after dark. And while much of this is because film is a visual medium, there’s no reason you can’t take some of that world-building advice for yourself.

Try this: Draw out a map of where your characters live and work, where they buy groceries or hard drugs, where they go to hear music, where they go to pick up women. Know your streets, create neighborhoods, populate them with teens who rake their elderly neighbors’ lawns and people who don’t pick up after their dogs. Then fill it with your characters, main and otherwise, give them conversations that spark like an old electric chair.

And when that part’s done, maybe kick back and watch some TV. You’ve earned it.


  1. Good advice. Welcome to Sleuthsayers!

  2. Another show I never watched. But good advice. Welcome to the asylum, Libby!

  3. Libby, welcome to the SleuthSayers family. I'll look forward to more of your blog articles.

  4. Libby, that’s an excellent seminar on writing drama.

    The Closer and its sequel, Major Crimes, appeared three years later and I don’t doubt they learned from The Shield. The succeeded in both plot and characterization. The Closer introduced a thread about a ‘mole’ in the group. They pulled that off with plausibility and aplomb.

    The Shield, The Closer
    , and Major Crimes while having subplots, and managed to stave off SOS (soap opera shite) that typically plagues long-running dramas as they slip into their dotage. That in itself is a major accomplishment.

    Well done article, Libby.

  5. If you haven't watched it, queue up the pilot & come back to me & tell me what you think!!!

  6. Forgive my late response--we've been on a week-long road trip and only just returned. Trying to catch up a bit.

    Libby, I loved this column. I've heard so many good things about The Shield and have never watched it (!!). But I will.

    Welcome to SleuthSayers!


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