Every other year or so I sit down and re-watch the bizarre television phenomena that was Twin Peaks, and it always revives my appreciation for David Lynch’s strange genius. It was as eerie and captivating as The X-Files and True Detective (eh, season one maybe) and for a season or so it had the intense following of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, and despite some amusing 80s-styled haircuts and clothing, the show holds up. Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, with a bevy of other writers to help—including Emmy nominee Harley Peyton, Saturn nominee Robert Engels, Barry Pullman, Tricia Brock, and others—the show became known for its blend of murder mystery tropes, soap opera camp, and spectacularly eerie dream sequences that included a dwarf talking backwards, flashing lights, a giant, white horses, and hip jazz numbers.
Most of all, Twin Peaks was (and remains) a storytelling playland where writers can discover all manner of tips and tricks for their own use. Here are some things that I found helpful with my own writing, and maybe they’ll help you too. Yes, many of these pertain to mystery, crime, noir, and horror stories, but you never know when you might be able to add elements of those genres into your own stories.
Like most large-cast television shows, there are subplots and subplots and even more subplots that weave in and out of one another, and for a great deal of Twin Peaks, these subplots leave you guessing about just how many people were involved with the murder of Laura Palmer. The culprit is eventually revealed midway through season two, but Lynch and Frost didn’t let on to anyone, even the actors, about who truly had blood on their hands until the final moment.
So it should be with your writing: Keep the readers guessing and they’ll keep reading.
One method for creating plausible red herring moments throughout your story is when outlining your story, work backward from the reveal (or climax), selecting three or four characters who could have committed the act, or three or four endings to your story, and then write story outlines for each character or ending, explaining how they did it, covered it up, influenced others, etc. But as the saying goes, “there can be only one,” but once you choose which way you want to go, you can sprinkle in hints and clues pulled from other storylines you’ve outlined, throwing the reader from the true killer’s trail.
Shades of Good and Evil
The expansive and motley cast of characters is another thing that made Twin Peaks so addictive. Almost everyone in town was guilty of something, whether or not it had anything to do with Laura’s murder. No one was exactly who they seemed to be, not even the damn owls. Each character knew something they wanted to keep hidden, but usually couldn’t for long. This can inform our own writing. Giving a character secrets to keep or making a character guilty of some small act, even if it’s entirely unrelated to the main plot, will make them more realistic and interesting. And if your character leans toward evil, consider some good deed they maybe have committed and want to keep secret. We all have things to hide, and not all those things are bad. Give characters a little dose of insecurity or malice and you’ll discover a more lifelike creation that will hook readers.
Memorable Character Quirks
Creating original characters doesn’t just have to involve the balance between good and evil. In Twin Peaks, almost every character had some unique and memorable quirk, be it physical or their personality. You can do the same. It can be as simple as throwing an eye-patch on the housewife and not explaining why until a passing conversation later in the story, or maybe give a doctor or teacher or police officer an unexpected spiritual or philosophical stance—some that come up in Twin Peaks include a detective interested in Tibetan Mysticism, a psychologist influenced by Hawaiian surfer philosophies, and a Native-American deputy who is as adept at reciting poetry as he is shooting a revolver (or throwing a giant-ass knife). Other characters have one arm, or have tasteful mullets, or wear red suits, or are wheelchair-bound, or are cross-dressers, or pass out whenever a dead body appears. Get funky with it, and don’t think that it would never happen in your small town. This is America, the melting pot, where anything can and usually does go!
The Underbelly of Suburban America
Continuing with the theme of “things are not what they seem,” David Lynch has long been fascinated with the dark underside of a seemingly peaceful, normal American town. In Twin Peaks, he borrows heavily from the nostalgic “innocence” of small-town 1950s aesthetics, including clothing styles, jukeboxes, music, cars, diners, and even the typical white picket fences around large, wholesome-looking homes on tree-lined streets. Everyone is drinking coffee and malts and eating cherry pie and singing songs around the family piano.
And yet the town is full of drug dealers, killers, liars, cheaters, and philanderers—the underbelly of small town Americana.
This exploration of the deeper secrets in sleepy communities is sometimes called “Suburban Gothic,” and while your story may not take place in a little town in the northwest like Twin Peaks, you can always make your setting more memorable by flipping the script from what is expected as the norm and looking deeper. We did this by adding shades of good and evil to characters, so now try the same thing with the setting. Maybe the gorgeous greenhouse on the edge of the village where everyone buys their flowers is home to unspeakable acts of a cult, or drug dealers, or is haunted. Maybe a town’s criminal element is harder at work at finding a killer than the police are because the extra spotlight on the town’s darker side has put them in a jam, so now they’re the good guys…in a sense. Maybe the prosperous church in the center of a dwindling town has a dark financial secret that keeps it out of the red when other shops and locals begin falling by the wayside. By taking something that is wholly decent and likable on the exterior and filling the interior with misdeeds and darkness—and vice versa—you give yourself plenty of tools to create a tense, dramatic storyline.
I sometimes call these “cocktail genres,” mixing two or three distinct kinds of stories and making something unique and potent. Twin Peaks turned heads for mimicking (and in some ways poking fun at) soap operas, buddy-cop comedies, and dark murder mysteries, with overtones of the absurd and surreal. Lynch found just the right concoction to make the show an overnight sensation (for at least a season and a half). Can you find a similar mixture of genres to take your story to another level? Maybe your family drama takes place in modern times, but your test readers are saying the story feels a little dry. Who’s to say it can’t take place 100 years in the past, blending some western or Victorian-era tropes into the plotline, or 100 years into the future, utilizing science fiction, utopian, or dystopian themes. Or maybe your police procedural feels too formulaic. Who says you can’t make your detective a supernatural creature like a werewolf, as Paul D. Brazill did in his crime series series? I love Humphrey Bogart movies and H.P. Lovecraft stories…who says I can’t blend a 1940s detective with trench coats, .45 pistols, and sarcastic patter with gas-lamps and cobblestone streets where strange cultists pray to otherworldly gods beneath New England churches? (In fact, I’m working on something like that right now!) It’s your story, your novel, so mix and match the genres you love best until you find something that makes you think, Hey now, I might have something here…
A great character development device in Twin Peaks is the protagonist’s ability to tell the audience what he’s thinking when he speaks to a tape recorder. Special Agent Dale Cooper, the FBI detective charged with finding Laura Palmer’s killer, often speaks to a woman named “Diane” via handheld tape recorder. We never learn who “Diane” is, but through these conversations we are able to learn about Agent Cooper’s fastidious personality and some of his thoughts about the case, usually without anyone else in the room. Consider using a similar device to do the same in your story. And no, I don’t mean specifically use a tape recorder, but have a sidekick who needs things explained to him from time to time (like Sherlock Holmes did with Dr. Watson), allow the character to keep a video journal or give daily reports to far-off supervisors (as you will find in Andy Weir’s The Martian), or have the character call home to give updates to someone who inadvertently helps solve the puzzle in little ways each time he or she calls. Any method of imparting information and character traits without making it feel obvious or clunky is key, and having an off-screen character who gets the inside scoop every time someone hits the record button is just one more way. Find your own “Diane” and use her accordingly.
Speaking of Sidekicks
Twin Peaks employs a number of sidekick situations, and each brings something unique to the story. The first is Agent Cooper and Sheriff Harry S. Truman (yes, you read that right). Cooper is the Sherlock, reading body language and spotting minor clues with such deftness that he seems almost preternatural in his knowledge of others. But Sheriff Truman, who makes a reference to feeling like “Dr. Watson,” is no dummy. He’s Agent Cooper’s guide to who’s who and what’s what in Twin Peaks. And this calm, taciturn sheriff—who isn’t above getting tough with a suspect—is far more than a sidekick. The two are equals who bring different yet complimentary skills to the table: Cooper his experience and detailed intuition; Truman his relaxed physicality and common sense.
Agent Cooper has a secondary sidekick when FBI forensics expert Albert Rosenfield comes to town to lend a hand. Where Agent Cooper is amicable, interested in others, and excited about small town charms, Rosenfield is grouchy, confrontational, and a perfectionist who despises the fact that he’s been called to a “backwater” town like Twin Peaks. The two play off each other’s yin-yang personalities, and Rosenfield’s clashes with members of the community add tension and humor to the plot. Again, the two bring different skills to the union, but they also push each other to advance both the plot and develop other characters.
Consider these things when you pair two characters together: Are they too alike? How can one’s flaws impact the other? How does one push the other to take his or her game to the next level, even if begrudgingly? What imperfections do they have as a duo and how can someone (say, the villain) take advantage of that? What tensions reside between these two? What respect? What humor? Are they lovers, enemies, friends, strangers? Cooper and Truman are a good example of a complimentary duo, but an antagonistic duo (Cooper/Rosenfeld) could bring a whole different vive to the story, and that could be a good thing depending on your goals.
(Caution: some plot spoilers abound in this section)
One of the themes found in many of Lynch’s works is the duality of all things, and Twin Peaks is no exception. Much like how the town has a dark underside and most characters have secrets, Lynch likes to explore the idea of moral opposites, doppelgangers, and doubles. Even the title of the show references the duel nature of things. While you’ll find a lot of subtle and clever references to this theme of duality throughout the show, the concept of the Black Lodge is the most outright example. The Black Lodge is a surreal, dream-like place that exists in a parallel universe and is accessible to the people in Twin Peaks (and likely in other parts of the world) through a strange ring of trees in the forest. Living within the Black Lodge are all manner of strange, demonic beings, including BOB and The Man From Another Place. There are also twisted, dark, killer versions of ourselves, as we discover later in the series when Agent Cooper enters the Black Lodge and faces horrific versions of himself and other characters from the show.
This is Lynch taking Suburban Gothic themes to the surreal extreme, showing us that maybe somewhere out there (or somewhere within) there is a dark, evil version of ourselves, and if it escapes, there’s no telling what sick havoc it might reap upon the world. We all have this doppelganger, this opposite, and that idea can create a multitude of incredible storylines. Of course, you don’t have to hit it on the nose quite as hard or as bizarrely as Lynch did here with the Black Lodge, but if you’re looking to add some tension or a twist to your book, consider your character’s double, its opposite, and what might happen if that otherness was able to come through at times, or if your character is aware of this hidden darkness within and hides it from others. This doesn’t have to be done on a surreal level. We all act differently when alone…maybe that is when shades of our double come through, when we think no one is looking? We’re chipper and happy one moment, then when alone, we reveal hidden bitterness and anger, even murderous intent. How might that nod to a doppelganger within affect your book, your story, your characters?
Finally, one of the best things we can learn from Twin Peaks about our own writing is the development of a stunning atmosphere. We’ve already populated our story with quirky characters with shades of good and evil, some hiding outright evil opposites within, and we’ve blended genres and explored the dark underbelly of suburbia. Now how do we add the frosting to this cake? In a visual medium like Lynch’s, it can sometimes be a little easier. The lonely shot of the red traffic light at night, giving off a bloody glow. The shots of ceiling fans hinting at the cyclical nature of things. The fir trees that Agent Cooper loves so much can create a claustrophobic feeling at night when characters find themselves in the woods. The 50s aesthetic offering a comforting setting but also feeling oddly out of place in the late 80s timeframe, thus creating a jarring “time out of place” vibe for the whole series.
These are things you can attempt to do on the page as well, and I don’t necessarily mean adding a ton of description at every turn to create a setting. Adding just a few hints here and there, like a painter touching up a nearly finished piece for a few last bright strokes to draw the eye, is what you are looking for. Maybe your character hears a certain song or smells something peculiar in key scenes. Maybe your character notices a string of crows on a power line before he enters a building, and they unnerve him somehow with their silence and the way they seem to watch him. Or perhaps your character decorates her home with bright sunny décor and dolls and yellow colors but instead feels anxious and acts paranoid of those she interacts with in her home—creating a juxtaposed atmosphere that could be quite off-putting. You could create a police barracks interior scene with clinical white walls and scant furnishings or instead use wood paneling and worn plush chairs, shifting the tone and atmosphere this way or that with a few key choices. Background details and subtle backdrops used in moderation and in the right moments can work wonders for making characters and readers feel comfortable, nervous, or even haunted, and Lynch uses them to perfection in Twin Peaks. So when you watch, take note, and borrow from his genius if you like what you see.