In 2013, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland was ABC’s first attempt to really cash-in on their so-far hit series Once Upon a Time (concurrently airing its fourth season). A spin-off that plays host to a few of its mother show’s side characters, OUAT in Wonderland follows Alice, a veteran of Wonderland adventures, and now young woman, diving back into the nonsense realm to find a love she once thought lost to the evil Red Queen. With her wise-cracking friend Will Scarlet at her side, Alice searches for Cyrus, a genie trapped by the evil sorcerer Jafar who searches for his lamp. The show opened to a reasonable viewership but is widely recognised as sub-par against the original series (rating up to 20% less favourably across IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and Reelgood reviews) and only ran for a single season before cancellation.
Our What We Can Learn articles are dedicated to assessing the inferior points of a writer’s work and how a deeper inspection of these weaknesses can help new writers avoid common pitfalls. So, read below for the best four lessons Once Upon a Time in Wonderland has to teach us.
1. Delivery Is Everything
When it comes to delivering a good story, what you withhold is more important than what you present. Your audience (or reader) doesn’t stick around to witness what they already know: you hold them with mystery. It’s what they don’t know that will keep them tuning in. As a writer, you can build this mystery and tension in two ways. 1. Your characters can know something your audience does not. Viewers will continue watching, wondering what your protagonists are talking about, dealing with or reeling from. 2. You give your audience information that characters don’t. Anticipation for what will happen when the characters are finally clued in, will keep your audience hooked.
For OUAT in Wonderland‘s precursor (Once Upon a Time) creating mystery could have been a huge obstacle, particularly in the first season. With a heavy leaning on the fairy-tale of Snow White, how was a show suspend tension around a story known world-wide in a thousand incarnations? In the end, it actually managed to use both techniques 1 and 2 to create a (mostly) gripping first season, despite the all-too-familiar fairy-tale. One: the audience knew the story of Snow White but not so much the tale of Storybrooke, or how the modern world interlinked with that of the fairy-tale. And two: As the fairy-tale world becomes clearer, explaining the prelude to the Storybrooke curse, the audience is given more information about Emma Swan than she herself is aware, creating an excitement for just how a young boy was going to convince the straight-shooting, no-nonsense Emma to believe in wondrous stories. The show had the potential to trip and fall right out of the gate by relying on a well-known story and yet skilled writing kept them going strong.
OUAT in Wonderland didn’t have it’s predecessor’s difficulties. Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass are less stories with beginnings, middles and defined endings than they are a series of nonsense episodes. The original Lewis Carroll material, not to mention the momentary visits audiences have already had to Wonderland in the original show, have no specific ending for Alice, no guaranteed/predetermined finale to potentially strip the mystery from the show. In fact, OUAT in Wonderland went one step further and introduced new characters and a romantic plotline for Alice, ensuring that audiences had no idea where the story might be headed… So much mystery!
Or at least they had the potential for it.
Instead of building tension with unanswered questions, OUAT in Wonderland blurts out all of the key facts of Alice and Cyrus’ love story (and tragic “ending”) within the first episode. We know Alice thinks Cyrus is dead; that’s why she’s depressed and in a Victorian asylum. We even see how he “dies”, who the culprit is, how they fell in love, the reason Alice was in Wonderland in the first place, the fact that Cyrus is a genie… Then Will Scarlet shows up and insists Cyrus is alive and we very quickly see Cyrus imprisoned. So, where’s the mystery? We know what’s going to happen… Alice will face a few obstacles and eventually be reunited with Cyrus. Yay. So why are we bothering to keep watching?
It’s true that other information is eventually revealed in the show, such as Cyrus’ origins as a genie, Jafar as a predominant villain and each of the famed Alice in Wonderland characters coming into play. But really, it’s all just additional fluff… it doesn’t pertain the main plot. Even the plot between Will and Ana feels shoe-horned in. As if the writers got three episodes in, realised they’d prematurely blown all their Cyrus and Alice material and needed something else to keep the tension going.
OUAT in Wonderland did not have to be a poor show. It didn’t have to have this lacklustre hold on viewership. There is plenty of content in its pages to hold a plotline. In fact, it had more opportunities for holding tension than its predecessor. The issue here was the delivery. Alice should have been depressed without us knowing why (Did Cyrus leave her? If so, why? Did he die? If so, how?). Eventually it should be revealed that Cyrus “died”. Then we, as the audience should see him hanging in a cage, whilst Alice believes him dead and goes to help Will on a different adventure. Cue some flirting and sexual tension between Alice and Will, with your audience yelling at the screen that her true love still lives…! (*shakes fist at the television screen*) There was potential here. But the way its delivery sucked that potential dry is a fantastic lesson in how not to build your story (either on page or on screen).
2. “Why Not?” Isn’t Good Enough
You know those shows or books where things just don’t gel or “feel” right but you don’t know why? There’s no legit reason why something is wrong, but you also don’t think it lands? Here’s a tip: things don’t feel right, when what you are witnessing does not fit the boundaries of an established diegesis (the fictional world of the story). Humans crave security and sense. And that sense has to have reason behind it. A creative “hey, why not?” attitude doesn’t cut it. Not if you want to write something great. What I’m trying to say is, just because there’s no reason not to do something, doesn’t mean you should. Because doing anything possible, instead of what is probable, blurs the lines of your world’s reality. It communicates to the audience that literally anything can happen. And if literally anything can happen the audience can’t anticipate and invest, because they’re too lost at sea.
For example: in the original Once Upon a Time, the Queen of Hearts, Cora, is the mother of the Evil Queen, Regina. This is obviously entirely outside the boundaries of the canon material, merging a Grimm fairy-tale and a Victorian novel. But it works within the show’s own boundaries of sense; boundaries already established for the audience. 1. The stories of Once Upon a Time are all merged and interlocking, so it’s not odd to see two narratives come together. And 2. the magical technique of removing hearts has been favoured by the Evil Queen already and ties into both the original fairytale and Carroll’s novel. The two characters work together, make perfect sense as mentor and student, as well as mother and daughter, and no “rules” of the show’s diegesis have been broken.
In comparison: Carroll’s Wonderland is full of creative, amazing characters. Most of them are either morally grey or entirely whacky. Any one of them could have been cast as OUAT in Wonderland‘s villain. Instead, we get Jafar. The guy from One Thousand and One Nights. In Wonderland. Chasing genie lamps.
Okay, says I… Jafar, genie, lamp. His internal story tracks… Just one question: Why are we even in Wonderland? If you want a story about Jafar hunting a genie who falls in love with a young girl, why are we even here? Why Wonderland specifically? Either give us a reason (some kind of plot in which other lands are losing magic and Wonderland is full of it so sorcerers from all over are emigrating and it’s causing all kinds of mischief) or just set the story in Agrabah in the first place. Technically, there’s no reason Jafar can’t be in Wonderland – realm travel has already been established. But there’s equally no reason why Wonderland is the place of choice to set this particular part of his and Alice’s story. You can’t throw two stories together with a “why not?” attitude. The issues might not be obvious but the story ends up “feeling” weird and audiences notice…
3. Respect Your Elders
Perhaps one day I’ll write an entire segment on what it means to be a sequel or spin-off and how to handle it well. For now, let’s just say that OUAT in Wonderland had a shit hand to play. It’s one thing to try and stand on your own two feet as a pilot series. It’s another issue entirely when the shoes your standing in a hella roomy. The original Once Upon a Time was well-received and generally very popular. By the time OUAT in Wonderland came around, it was in its fourth season, had just paired with Disney and was really hitting its stride. Unless the spin-off was fantastic, it was doomed to fail.
And, compared to its predecessor, OUAT in Wonderland failed on the “fantastic” meter in two distinct ways. Its multi-timeline structure was handled with less skill than in the original show. And it was less creative with its canon material.
OUAT in Wonderland followed its mother-show’s example of concurrent timelines within each episode. Alice’s quest to be reunited with her true love is regularly interrupted with flashbacks of her growing relationship with Cyrus or with Will and Ana’s history together.
Within each episode of Once Upon a Time, however, similar flashbacks interlocked either practically or thematically with the current adventure unfolding in Storybrooke. Each enhanced the other, with a semi-conclusion every 45 minutes episode. Not to mention the then overarching storyline of Rumplestiltskin manipulating the entire storyline, for the last thirty-odd years, all for his own gains. The stories are layered, related and complimentary to one another. OUAT in Wonderland isn’t so carefully formed. The flashbacks rarely relate, at least in any deep way, and are mostly there as background exposition or extra fluff to fill-out the runtime. They feel like filler. Add to this the lack of mystery/tension issue and it becomes boring filler. This is in stark contrast to the story-telling skill shown in the original series.
As well as technique, OUAT in Wonderland lacked the glorious creativity that was such a joy to watch in the original show. The idea that Rumpelstiltskin (due to his scaly appearance) is the “crocodile” who took Hook’s hand? The fact that he’s the “beast” in Belle’s story? The way Regina controls others through their hearts that she keeps in boxes, harping back to the original huntsman story in the fairy-tale? How about the fact that magic beans can open portals to other worlds, just like they create beanstalks to the world of the giants? Allow me to chef’s kiss over all of this. They’re creative and entertaining titbits that work within the established world of fairy-tales and give the audience something original to consume in between the necessary, classic moments we’re already familial with.
OUAT in Wonderland is nowhere near that creative. Barring placing the caterpillar as some kind of mob boss in the shady “Underland” of Wonderland (I approve), there was none of this fun play on original material. There are moments where creativity is barely attempted (such as Elizabeth being the “Lizard”. No really, that’s it – just her name to make the connection) or where characters were altered entirely for no real reason (such as the Tweedles, who barely resembled the original Tweedledum and Tweedledee and the change of whom serves the plot in no way whatsoever). Again, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. But when you do decide to make a creative choice, show, at least do it with effort and due consideration…
4. Details Matter
Remember I said about a show not “feeling” right? Well, audiences are smart. They notice things. Even if a viewer doesn’t consciously recognise specific details, their subconscious will pick it up. Guaranteed. So, when details aren’t right and when motivations don’t hold a deeper sense, or elements of a story are thrown in with a “why not?” attitude, your audience/reader will register it. And it draws down the general impression of quality for the material.
As well as the points mentioned above, OUAT in Wonderland hangs itself completely on the details. It’s like the people who made it didn’t care enough to pay close attention.
The show isn’t visually consistent. At times Wonderland is a highly saturated, CGI backdrop. At others, they’re in the middle of a normal-looking forest. The difference is so jarring, it doesn’t even feel as if the characters in the same world anymore (Me: Did everyone just jump to the Enchanted Forest when I wasn’t paying attention?). When writing, consider how much time you’re giving to your descriptions, how your world appears and how different areas of that world should hold similarities as well as differences.
Characters don’t remain consistent. Jafar, for example, in the final episode, messes with Will Scarlet by manipulating the woman he loves. But why? Will is captured and is no longer a threat and Jafar has never shown a personal animosity towards him before. And yet, Jafar goes out of his way to be petty (a trait he’s not previously shown). It makes no sense other than to try and manipulate audience emotion because they’ve run out of a finale material.
Motivations aren’t consistent. In Episode 9, a character declares that there are “four of us and one of him!”; that they have the odds in their favour against Jafar. Literally the next episode, almost the next scene with these characters, the same individual says “the four of us are no match for him” (??). Come on show, keep your characters’ attitudes straight… This kind of inconsistency is a sure sign that the plot a writer wants to create is manipulating characters to behave as is most useful to that plot. The scene needs a moment of “gung-ho”? Okay, the character is confident of their chances. Crap, we now need to build tension? Okay, have the character point out that they’re outgunned. Consistency be damned. When you plan your own writing, remember that the reverse should be true: your characters and their motivations should fuel actions which build plots. They shouldn’t be dragged into behaviour out of character to meet the plot requirements.
Even external knowledge doesn’t persist in the show. Will Scarlet has spent time in the modern world, a lot of it in the library with Belle. And he’s been to Wonderland before. And yet, he’s constantly surprised by the nonsense of the world and, in Episode 10, asks what the Jabberwocky is. Is there anyone who has spent time in the real world who’s not at least heard of the Jabberwocky? (Beware the Jabberwock, my son!) Come on show, let’s remember what our characters should and should not know…
Also, whilst we’re on the subject of details… Remember to edit your scripts/novels. Because OUAT in Wonderland‘s writing team clearly didn’t. “Undoubtably”? Not a word. You want “undoubtedly”, friend…