TV and Long Narratives

Walking Dead fans, the Governor is back for a second term!  And before I get this post underway, I’m going to go ahead and air my theory: I think Bob Stookey is an agent sent by the Governor to weaken the Prison.  After weaponizing zombies, using the flu as a biological weapon sounds pretty much right up the Governor’s ally.  Bob’s also got medical training, so he’d know how to alleviate his symptoms; maybe he’s even got a stash of medication hidden somewhere.  Also, he’s been at the Prison only a week before the outbreak began.  Tidy little coincidence, huh?  But mostly, what’s made him suspicious is how friendly he seems.  And as Merle pointed out in Season 3, “I think I’d piss my pants if some stranger come walking up with his mitts in his pockets.”  So we’ll see how it all pans out.  Maybe I’m right.  Maybe I’m wrong.

Now that my zombie nerdgasm has passed, let’s talk about what TV has done for writing.

Justin Cronin said, “I think what’s one of the things that’s actually re-trained us to read long books is really good TV.  The Sopranos was sort of the breakthrough show, but everything from Mad Men to The Wire to shows like Lost have kept people‘s attention for really long periods of time, albeit with breaks of seven days and then months or even a year or two.”  When he was growing up, Cronin said, the question of your favorite TV show was synonymous with the question of your preferred heroin.  Television, it seems, was just that low on people’s list of pastimes.

Nowadays, TV is social glue.  We use it as an icebreaker at parties.  For example, last month, when I was at my alma mater Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks for the English Department reunion, one of my professors asked around the table, “When it comes to TV, what’s your guilty pleasure?”  He’s a fan of Sleepy Hollow.  I’m more partial towards The Walking Dead and Under the Dome.

But let’s face it.  A long book isn’t as easy to get through as a long TV show.  You can binge on a DVD of your favorite show and get through a season in a day.  Sometimes, it can take months to get through a long novel.

What can writer’s learn from TV to keep their readers engaged?  First, I don’t think TV and novels should be separated at all because novels used to be presented to the audience in a serialized fashion through pamphlets, novels like The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.  These stories were presented in an episodic fashion and then later collected into a single volume, the DVD of their day.

Speaking for myself, I think it boils down to engaging characters and cliffhangers.  Sometimes, a novel can attract an audience by virtue of a controversial subject matter – which is why I think people followed Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray when it was serialized in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine – but that, I believe, is a very rare fluke.  Subject matter alone has to be a very bold shot to the heart if that’s the driving force of a story.

Cliffhangers propel the story through bursts of suspense leading one sub-story into another.  If you look at the first few episodes of the current season of The Walking Dead, the first episode involved a small sickness within the Prison, culminating with someone dying and reviving as a zombie.  That cliffhanger leaves you wondering what will happen next.  The people there don’t know that there’s a zombie locked in with them.  How will that play out?  The next episode ends in another cliffhanger with more and more people falling ill.  The episode after that, another cliffhanger with Carol coldly admitting she’s killed some of the sick residents to keep the disease from spreading.  What’s the fallout from that admission?

These cliffhangers serve one of two purposes: set-up or aftermath.  We finish one installment with the beginning with the seed of a crisis, and then want to follow along at least until the next part of the story to see that problem erupt.  Then another cliffhanger draws us into the episode after that, and another after that, and pretty soon, you’ve got a chain reaction that’s grabbed the audience’s attention.

As you draw people in through cliffhangers, you keep them there through the characters.  And the only way you build engaging characters is through time.  You can’t expect the audience to be hooked on the characters just through the first installment.  In the pilot of The Walking Dead, you stay because of the cliffhanger with Rick trapped in the tank in Atlanta, and you want to see how he gets out of there.  Over time, you follow the characters, get to know more about them, and start to feel emotionally invested in them, leading to character-driven cliffhangers.  When Rick throws Carol out of the Prison at the end of the Indifference episode, it comes as a shock because Carol’s been with the group since the beginning, and you saw how she changed from a very timid housewife in the first season to a rational survivalist in the fourth.  And you’re kept at the edge of your seat because of two questions: what’s going to happen to the group now that one of their most enduring members has been banished, and are we going to see Carol again?  Will we cross paths with this woman we’ve seen transform so dramatically over the years?

I’m using The Walking Dead here merely as an example, but you can apply this to any serialized story.  It would be a fun little exercise for you to watch reruns of your favorite show – especially the very, very first episodes where everything was new – and trace the staying power.  It could be Breaking Bad.  It could be Sons of Anarchy or Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire.  Even older shows like Babylon 5.  Creator and showrunner J. Michael Straczynski said it was meant to be a novel for television to try and rectify the problem of  lack of long-term planning that other series encountered.

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