I am a big fan of the Showtime Original series, “Dexter.” If you haven’t seen it, it is a show where the main character is a forensics blood-spatter expert by day, serial killer by night.
In the first season, Dexter manages his balance between these two extremes by rigidly following “the Code” which is a set of rules his father Harry established to protect Dexter. Harry’s Code acknowledges Dexter’s need to kill, and sets forth a rigid set of rules that MUST be followed, or else Dexter increases his risks of getting caught. Learning Harry’s Code is what enables Dexter to find and begin to practice his “art.”
However, as the seasons of this show progress, the audience sees Dexter questioning the need of Harry’s Code, and he looks to find his own answers. Amazingly, if you watch a season or two you’ll find yourself rooting for a serial killer to find himself, and achieve his murders without being caught. Really fun stuff, and wonderfully addicting.
I want to suggest that in writing corporate communications, Dexter makes a killer metaphoric role model.
- Harry’s Code: Think of grammar rules as the Harry’s Code of corporate writing. There is a fixed set of rigid rules to follow that guarantee safety. Like Dexter, if a writer follows the Code (rules of grammar) religiously, chances are pretty good they will always find safety. Learning and understanding the Code is a necessity to enter into the life we choose. Like Dexter, the Code needs to become intrinsic to your very being, so a violation of the Code immediately sends up a distress signal. As Dexter’s character grows, he starts to question the code, and test it. He knows the details of Harry’s Code as if it were twisted in his DNA, but he starts to use experience and desire to carve out his own set of rules. The results are not always good, but they start to establish Dexter as a character that is separate from Harry’s influence – or in metaphor-speak, a writer with a uniquely competitive edge. Kick your grammar lessons to the curb and see what happens. Breaking away from the codes and traditions that get us to where we are is not easy – but it is often necessary to achieve the unique character that keeps us successful season after season.
- Research the Kill for greatest impact. On the show, Dexter’s success comes from the fact that he is a very methodical serial killer. He does extensive research on each target, and understands and prepares the situation as well as he can before he engages. His planning is framed on his understanding of Harry’s Code and his own experiences. There is nothing casual or random in how things unfold: Dexter intimately learns the personal habits of the target and he uses the environments to carefully plan every detail so it goes without a hitch. He does not force his ways blindly onto every situation, but instead, he uses experience and patience to ensure he will strike only when he gets the strongest return. Many times, if all the elements do not align, he will wait for better circumstances to more effectively manage his risk. There is an eye fixed on the end result and passion drives the process, but only restraint, control, and discipline allow him to be at the top of his game. When things do line-up, which they always do in time, Dexter goes in (very precisely) for the kill. Passion inspires him to find what he needs. Research and attention to detail are what he uses to uncover opportunity, which in a sense, his passions are constantly proactively creating. Dexter is very plugged-in to his art and builds on each experience to become more effective. Every kill has purpose, he is always striving to be better. Even when he seems to be simply catering to his “needs,” he is perfecting his art by testing and tightening the routines, validating the power of Harry’s Code by either using it, or deliberately choosing not to. As writers, the metaphoric lessons Dexter’s carved out for us here are clear.
- Don’t be afraid to change. One reason the series continues to be so successful (in my opinion), is that Dexter’s character is growing and changing. As the world around him morphs, he adapts. He is trying new things, and his character is allowed to become deeper. At his core, the things we loved about Dexter remain: he is a killer conflicted by his immenent “dark passenger” – the need to kill – and what it does to him. His story unfolds in the very elaborate efforts to ensure a guise of normalcy while keeping the dark passenger entertained. After we are introduced to the safety offered by rigid attention to the details of Harry’s Code, we see Dexter shed it to find his own meaning. His quest seems to always bring him close to the magic elixir, but he has yet to find his perfect balance and complete his hero’s journey. We see him try and fail but try again, and all the while he is changing, growing and evolving. Writers need to be like this, and find the work that excites them enough to change. Test the limits created by of your own version of “Harry’s Code” (grammar rules, using slang, etc.) and see where it lands you. Pitch the rules, and start over. Let the past shape you, let the rules point you in the right direction, but don’t allow convention to dictate every step of your path.
Ok, so maybe a serial killer is not the best role model.
But in corporate communications, people talk all the time about “killer copy” and headlines that kill it. I argue that this is only possible when like Dexter, you understand enough to avoid normalcy. You must embrace the Code long enough to earn the right to use experience to discard it at will. And above all else, you must be willing to adapt, change and grow to keep the audience engaged.
Work with me, people.