A few thoughts on writing and storytelling

“I can’t speak for the other writers and we’ve agreed on no rebuttals but my criteria for enjoying something I read (or watch, or listen to, etc) is fairly clear-cut; I don’t want to be lied to, I want a complete story (beginning, middle, end), and I want to walk away from it fairly certain I didn’t waste the time I spent reading it.”

That’s a quote from the critique post. I want to expand a bit on that.

The pictures are here for the people who have no interest in reading or writing, no interest in what I read and write, and especially what I have to say about reading and writing.

So . . . I don’t want to be lied to; what do that mean?

Well, here’s the funny part; I’m about to explain what I like when I read something by using examples about what I like and don’t like about TV shows I’m currently watching (and that I recommend).

The shows — in no particular order — are:
The Brokenwood Mysteries
Shakespeare & Hathaway

All of the shows are crime/mystery with Unforgotten and Shetland ranking as the more serious and sometimes dark, Brokenwood as serious but with a wee bit of comic relief, and S&H as pretty light fare.

The other thing to know about these is that each season (six episodes, usually) of the first two shows deals with one story arc. Brokenwood and S&H are episodic treatments; one crime solved per episode (with an occasional two-parter).

With all that in mind, let me get back to lying.

Season 3 of Shetland . . . wait. I doubt anyone who reads this watches those shows, but . . .

*** SPOILERS ***

Ye hast been warned!

Season 3 of Shetland has a long arc but it begins with the murder of a young man. There’s this girl that he befriends, and early in the first episode, we see her frantically searching for him and asking the police to look into his disappearance from the ferry boat where they had met.

Well, it turns out she was the one who locked him in a container where he eventually died (suffocated). I won’t go into the complicated plotline and I’ll ignore the fact I don’t believe a garbage container is so hermetically sealed that he would run out of air.

What pissed me off about the revelation is that a 15-minute segment of the first episode was devoted to her first being cautiously worried and eventually frantic, and finally going to the cops and being insistent that his disappearance should be looked into. Now, the insistent part is explained; she wanted the cops to look into what happened to the young man (for reasons too complicated to believe — many a plot holes were strewn about).

What pissed me off was that we were shown her mounting anxiety as she searched all the places where she thought the guy might be.

Here’s the thing . . . no other character in the show was watching her. Her looking for the guy was not for the benefit of fooling another protagonist of the show; the only people watching her becoming ever more concerned were us; the audience.

That would be equivalent to me writing a story and saying something like:

She looked where they had sat last night, his cabin, and every place he might have gone to and with each place, she became more concerned and agitated; he should be somewhere on the ferry because he didn’t get off; she sure of it. As she exhausted all of the possible locations on the ferry, concerned, she went to the police to report him missing.

In reading that passage, a reader would rightly assume she had nothing to do with the guy’s death.

. . . and would rightly get pissed later on when they come to find out it was her all along.

That’s what I mean by being lied to.

I accept that mysteries and who-done-it shows try to mislead you. Sorry; mislead is too strong. They present the same facts the main protagonists examine so that you can follow along and actually have a chance of figuring out who did it the same as the stars of the show. Sometimes we figure it out before, and sometimes only after, but always we are shown the same clues as what the characters see. Yes, sometimes we see more than the other characters see and yes, that’s used to lead us toward one of the suspects, only to be yanked back when we’re given another clue.

But, we’re not lied to. Rather, we shouldn’t be lied to.

I made that mistake in one of my stories, Stopover (password protected; ask and ye shall receive) and it was rejected because of it. Meaning, they liked the story but:

“… we sometimes have trouble with stories that work by hiding the narrator’s thoughts/beliefs from the audience.”

I had written that story as first-person POV, and because I wanted a reveal at the end, I withheld some information. The problem was that the protagonist had no reason to do that; we were in her head; she was thinking to herself and we were listening in.

You can give a hint that you’re holding something back; for example:

“I was pretty sure I knew what was going on, but not certain; I had to find more information.”

That’s not a lie and it’s believable because when we think, we don’t review and discuss everything we know.

For the record, this is an example of what is completely wrong:

“I knew what was going on, but someone is reading this book and I need them to stay until the end for the big reveal, so I won’t say what I think or what I know.”

“I want a complete story (beginning, middle, and end).”

Here’s the thing; I don’t want to close a book, leave a theater, or watch the screen credits at the end of a show and wonder about . . . well, anything. I want to know the end of the story.

Inception‘s ending sucked not because of the ambiguity of the ending; it could be argued for either of the two possible results of the top spinning and we can each draw our own conclusion about real or dream. It’s that the ambiguity is only experienced by us, the viewer. If Cobb would have chosen not to spin the top and the movie ended, we would each draw our own conclusions and we could probably justify whatever we wanted to believe based on our interpretation of the movie we watched.

But, Cobb spun the top . . . and then the movie ends. We were denied a piece of data that Cobb will have in short order. Cobb will *know* with certainty whether he is in the dream world or not.

Some will say he walked away because he didn’t want to know . . . too late! He spun the top and at some point, he’ll see if it toppled or kept spinning. But, we won’t.

The story, for us, is incomplete. We followed the character for the whole movie; we learned everything about him . . . but were shut out at the crucial point. I was a bit pissed.

That was the same way I felt at the end of an excellent six-episode Season 2 of Unforgotten.

So, here’s the weird deal about this . . . the show follows the main leads as they investigate cold cases. But that whole six-episode run had us get to know the other characters. The three suspects had each been abused as children and had exacted revenge on their abusers. In between the time they are presented as suspects and us — the audience — discovering the truth, they became sympathetic and we were shown how the investigation brings chaos and devastation on their lives, their families, and the people around them.

It was their stories that were being told and, very near the end, at what is the lowest point for the suspects, they get discovered; the main character figures out the truth. The suspects go back to their families thinking they will be prosecuted and put through a difficult trial and possibly go to jail . . . but we see the main character and her partner decide the crimes are not worth prosecuting since it’s been 30 years and the circumstances are special.

. . . and the show ends with the main character — content with her decision — walking along a street as the camera pans out and the credits roll . . .

We don’t see if any of the suspect/victims regain any semblance of a life back, if the nurse goes back to her husband, if the gay couple will get to adopt the child they love so much, of the mother and her children can come to terms with what happened in the past.

Sure, the case has been solved . . . but the case was about these three people and what they went through and how they made something of themselves and coped with their terrible pasts. Normal, happy, functioning adults at the beginning of the series, we leave them with their lives in shambles and possibly suicidal because — as far as they know — everything will come crashing down on them the very next day.

But we’re supposed to be content with the main character calmly walking away, feeling good about the decision she made . . . which she didn’t bother sharing with the people who really could have benefitted from hearing it.

It nearly ruined the season for me; I would have liked just a few scenes showing the people returning to even a semblance of the lives they had at the start of the show.

What saved the series (and why I’ll watch the next season) is that I didn’t feel like I (completely) wasted my time watching it.

How’s that for a segway?

“… I want to walk away from it fairly certain I didn’t waste the time I spent reading it.”

Both Shetland and Unforgotten flirted with me walking away from the series.

Brokenwood hasn’t let me down yet, and S&H isn’t the kind of show I expect much from beyond being entertained.

Brokenwood has been very good at setting up a mystery, unraveling its layers like an onion, and giving a satisfactory ending that ties up the loose ends.

What do I mean when I say I don’t want to waste my time reading or watching something?

Let’s go back to why I read or watch something. I. Want. To. Be. Entertained.

That means I want something that challenges my brain. Failing that, I want some humor that will leave me in a good mood. Failing that, I want action that will serve as an escape from a world that has gone mad. Failing that, I want a feel-good story that ends with justice prevailing and the bad guys losing. The best-case scenario is a combination of all those (hint: Firefly).

If those conditions aren’t met, I’ve wasted my time because I won’t feel better for having read the book or watched the movie or followed the series. If those conditions aren’t met, I will be annoyed and pissed off, and wondering why in the heck would anyone write or produce that crap.

If I am reading fiction or watching fiction, I want to be entertained. That means an escape from real life. That means visiting a make-believe world that works by the rules that we say we follow but that in real life we’ve obviously forgotten. I want the bad guys (and gals) to suffer and preferably die. I want the good guys to win and go on in a better state than when they started. It need not be sugar and spice and everything nice, but I want — even if only marginally — for the characters I care about to persevere and triumph over the adversities they face.

In part two of my 2010 entertainment posts, I basically explain the same thing as I cover why Red and Kick-Ass were my favorite movies (and still rank way up there).

I’m very harsh when it comes to how I choose to spend my time.

I’ve said it before: I started writing primarily because I wasn’t reading (or watching) what I wanted to read and watch. If I feel like reading, one of my stories is the first thing I consider. Then, the Dresden Files, then (maybe) Old Man’s War, and then . . . well, it should tell you something I’ve not read any new books in about a year.

I’ve not seen any new movies in a long while and the ones I did watch last, sucked. I watch previews of upcoming movies hoping I see something that might interest me. Crap, crap, and more crap.

We watch British shows because I can’t find a US show that interests me. I watch them reluctantly because they are dramas, but they (usually) turn out OK.

A friend suggested Watchmen (HBO series) but we no longer even have cable, and what I saw of that show, is pretty dark. Now, maybe it’s good. But, look at Game of Thrones; tell me that ended well.

I no longer have the confidence that (American) writers and movies and TV shows can deliver what I want . . . I. Want. To. Be. Entertained.

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.


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