What Writers Can Learn from the Umbrella Academy

What Writers can Learn from Umbrella Academy

A Super Netflix Comic Book Series

This is not a review of the series (not exactly, but if it were, I’d give it a big, fat recommendation!). I’ve also tried to keep this post as (mostly) spoiler-free as I can. Be that as it may, you will benefit from my assertions (below) if you watch the series.

Here are a few things that I believe the series does successfully: Beginnings, pace, mystery, and – most significantly – character.

Beginnings and Exposition

In a previous post, I condemned Altered Carbon for overloading the pilot episode with seemingly pointless fluff. These things were meant to invoke a sense of mystery and hook the viewer on a rich world. I argued that this kind of saturation works against these two goals.

Umbrella Academy’s first episode also tries to do this, but – I argue – far more successfully. There is enough exposition to help you understand what’s going on, but not so much that it bores or breaks the flow.

Lesson Number 1: Have just enough exposition to inform readers/viewers of what’s going on but keep it interesting by adding some mystery to it.

For example, we learn that Allison has a daughter, is divorced, and did not get custody of her daughter. This is explicitly explained through dialogue – crucially – in only a few lines. We do not know why this happened (mystery). We might suspect that it has something to do with her powers, but we aren’t told. That ‘suspicion’ is the key – it means that we are engaged.

This is an important point for your own writing: you can have characters explain what they are doing etc., but keep it brief, hint at some mystery, and be conscious of character. The latter point is important and often overlooked.

Lesson Number 2: Exposition is subject to the character doing the explanation and may contain false or biased information.

In Umbrella Academy we only learn what lead to Allison’s divorce later on – and only when Luther got it out of her. Before that, she kept the information to herself because it was a key to her character (her deep, dark secret).

Each character gets a similar treatment in the first episode: we are shown who they are, and their inner lives are hinted at.

Pace

[Note: I’m not talking about pacing in the narrative sense with regards to rising action and the like or story time vs. narrative time (perhaps a post for another time).]

Pacing a story is a difficult task. It is about knowing how much information to give the reader/viewer in succession. Yes, information, not just action. Sure, a fight scene or a gunfight is usually fast-paced – that’s a given or perhaps a necessity.

Here I am referring to the rate at which information (i.e. answers) are given to the audience. Mysteries must have a solution (see below). Delaying answers for too long results in filler and plot blocking – two evils that will frustrate the reader/viewer.

The Umbrella Academy is a series that’s economical with its scenes. If it is not characterising or developing a character, it is answering a mystery with another mystery. Honestly, have a look at any of the episodes and see if you can figure out what the function of each scene is.

I’m trying to avoid spoilers here so I won’t go into specifics, but know that each scene furthers the plot or develops a character or both. This will usually (for me, at least) make it seem that the pace is good.

Lesson Number 3: Economic scenes that further the plot develops a character, or both (whilst being entertaining).

The order of scenes is also important for pacing. You want to keep the momentum going – building, in fact. This might mean keeping the action until the end. Or, more pertinently, keeping the largest revelations until the end of the chapter/episode. This does not imply that there should be nothing until the end.

Mystery

Mystery hooks an audience (write that in your favourite notebook, on a noticeboard, or carve it into your desk). I’m not talking noir mystery as a genre. No. I’m not talking about genre at all.

To me, a mystery is an element of a story that is unknown to the reader/viewer that she/he wants to solve. The “want” is imperative. The audience must care, otherwise, there will be no drive to keep reading/watching to uncover the answer.

It seems obvious, but trust me, there are stories out there where the “want” part is ignored. Like in Aquaman (2018) one of the mysteries is: why is there an ancient Atlantean ruin under the Sahara Desert? A mystery, sure, but do you care about the answer? Really? It isn’t central to the plot, but it sure is mysterious, isn’t it?

And there we have a potential reason for not wanting to solve a said mystery: it is not central to the plot. It is also not central to the characters and their development.

Umbrella Academy presents us with several mysteries:

  • How did Ben (Number 6) die?
  • How did Vanya (Number 7) anger the family?
  • Why was Luther (Number 1) sent to the moon?
  • Where is Number 5?
  • Who are Hazel and Cha-Cha working for?

But to name a few. In each instance we a made to care about the answer. Luther, for example, lost four years of his life by being stationed on the moon. He was alone. We are shown that he is loyal, lonely, and cares about the fact that their father’s death was mysterious. This caring makes us empathise with him. So does his loneliness (I mean, who hasn’t been lonely?).

Lesson Number 4: Make the reader/viewer care enough to want to solve the mystery.

But how do you achieve this? Look at the above example.

Lesson Number 5: Link the mysteries to the characters.

Each of the characters in Umbrella Academy is lonely in some way. Each of them fights an internal conflict. The reasons for their isolation and the reasons for their internal conflict are linked to the various mysteries in the series.

Sure, the big mystery of “Why does the world end?” doesn’t seem to link to the two aspects named above…well…not at first. Watch it.

Character, Character, Character

This is the most valuable lesson you could learn from the Umbrella Academy is about character. Look at each of the above lessons – nearly all of them mention character. This is certainly a strong point of the whole series, and it is perhaps why the show (in my eyes) is so successful.

We care about all of the characters – even the ‘bad guys’. There is at least one scene for every character devoted to making us care about them. From Luther’s loneliness and Diego’s real day job to Allison’s need for her daughter and Vanya’s exclusion, we are made to care for each character. Heck, if the dance scene in the first episode (where each of these damaged souls realises that they are free from their father’s tyranny) doesn’t make you like them, then, well…go watch Aquaman.

Lesson Number 6: Give the reader/viewer a scene or two with each character to allow her/him emphasise with them.

Now, how do you create empathy? Here I’ll point you to (my favourite channel on YouTube) Just Write to explain how empathy plays a big in Game of Thrones.

Basically, it boils down to giving your character a disability or placing them at a disadvantage. Umbrella Academy does this too:

  • Luther is loyal to his father, but then his father dies
  • Diego is a skilled fighter but is a janitor at a boxing ring
  • Allison can make people do anything, yet she cannot see her daughter
  • Klaus fears his power and has therefore developed a drug addiction to suppress it

(Okay, there are many, many more, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers as best as I can). This makes you care for them.

Lesson Number 7 (which is totally not special): Give the reader/viewer a reason to care about the character by giving them a disability or placing them at a disadvantage.

Lastly, (main) characters in a narrative need to change. If they don’t – it’s not a story. This means that characters should be presented with an obstacle that they can only overcome by changing some part of themselves. This might imply placing them in a situation where they are at their greatest disadvantage.

[Minor spoiler, sorry, there was no way around this one] Klaus – who is trying to get sober so that he can see the love of his life again – is forced to go into a drug-fuelled rave to save his brother. This is the ultimate test for him and he comes out a changed man.

The Last Word

There is more to be said about the series and one can go much deeper. For instance, the atmosphere is generally well controlled, the comedy is on point and never destructive to the story, and the use of music is amazing. I am particularly interested in the latter point, as my novel has song titles as chapter names (much more on this later). But these are the most valuable things I – as a writer – took from it.

But now I want to hear from you. What aspects did I miss? Do you disagree with something I said? What did you think of the Umbrella Academy?

Please let me know in the comments below.

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