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A good story will tell you everything you need to know

January 9, 2014

I have a friend who asks a lot of questions when we watch things, and it reminds me of when my daughter was younger and we told her a show would be over soon and she asked, “How do you KNOW?”

There’s a contract between viewer/reader and writer, and if it’s not clear, the writer has made a mistake.  The contract, however, requires that the viewer/reader make it to the end of the show/movie/book, and that the viewer/reader pay close attention.

In my daughter’s case, we knew that the show was going to be over because 1) the amount of time that the show was allocated had almost run out and 2) the narrative was progressing to the climax.

Sitcoms are approximately twenty minutes, with dramas about forty.  That’s American TV, of course.  BBC is different because their television shows are paid for by public license, if I understand it correctly.  But that was the first thing we taught my daughter.  The second thing was that most stories have a certain pattern to them.

You have characters, and a problem.  That problem comes to a head, and then is resolved, and then usually there’s a little after the fact for a sense of closure with the characters.  It’s pretty simple once it’s pointed out.

But of course there are those who like to play with the format, and that’s fine, but ultimately, you should still have answers.

The short story is an interesting format because a lot of times the best ending is open, but I couldn’t tell you why.  Maybe because they seem less like stories and more like writing exercises.  Anyway, this openness is less likely in a novel, where there’s a greater chance for a sense of resolution (unless you’re being ARTY), and almost always likely in a television show or movie, unless it’s a cliffhanger.  Lately, television has taken to larger and larger arcs, in part thanks to Joss Whedon, who taught a lot of people that a season of a show should have its own resolution (you know, in case it gets cancelled), but then you have to be willing to up your game the next season.

Anyway, a good story tells you everything you need to know, eventually.  It may not be all you want to know, but it’s all you NEED to know.  And asking questions the whole time breaks that contract, I think, not to mention the flow of the narrative.

Until my daughter asked her question, I took this contract for granted because I felt I’d always known it.  Until my friend asked hers, I assumed every adult knew it.  But now I’m wondering if it’s an English/literature major thing?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2014 7:11 pm

    There are older drama’s and shows that did it before Whedon. Not that I’m disrespecting the man. He deserves the accolades. I do think it has to do with Lit majors and or maybe film because you learn about series vs episodic, protagonist vs antagonist, spacing for cliffhangers/effect, plot points, and most of the character and plot developments. With that kind of background it comes easy to understand. Sounds like you are taking it for granted. Just my opinion.

    • bookslide permalink*
      January 9, 2014 8:56 pm

      Like which shows? I’m trying to think back…

    • bookslide permalink*
      January 9, 2014 8:57 pm

      Also, I didn’t learn those things in lit, I don’t think. That’s more writing. I didn’t take writing classes.

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