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Why Stuff is Boring (A Case Study)

March 11, 2008 at 8:52 pm


Because I've seen it before. (Beware: what follows is a long, rambling post, full of inarticulate opinions and ruminations on television.)

Recently, Melinda and I did another round of revisions on our spec TV pilot, Outpost. I've also been working like a madman on the second draft of Bitter Seeds. Both of these projects have prompted me to think a bit about the kinds of things that make a scene boring, regardless of whether it's a scene in a novel, in a film, or on television. Every time I tackle the revision of a new scene, in our script or in my novel, I begin by asking myself if the scene feels... dull.

To be fair, I should begin by confessing that I put what may be considered an unreasonably high premium on originality and creativity. That's not to say my work is creative, original, timeless, and brilliant. If only. But creativity and originality -- that fresh-out-of-the-laundry scent -- are qualities I admire and appreciate in the work of others. And it's also something I've come to expect in my entertainments. I have a strange quirk: I tend to dismiss something if the central idea feels like something I might have dreamed up myself. But not because I think my ideas are so damn good; quite the opposite, really. If a story or novel or film or television episode feels like an idea I might have had myself, it automatically feels hoary. Unoriginal. Dull. Which, you know, isn't very fair, since depending on whom you ask there are only 3 or 16 or some other finite number of stories in the world, and they've all been told before. (Centuries before.) But this means being original has as much to do with how you tell a story as with which story you're telling in the first place.

Anyway. That's a long-winded way of saying that I tend to get bored very quickly when I feel like I've seen something before. But man how I love it when a storyteller tricks me by playing on my expectations.

A great example of this -- how old stories told in new ways are trump old stories told in the same old ways -- is playing out on television right now. New Amsterdam (hereafter NA, and not to be confused by a novel of the same name) and The Sarah Connor Chronicles (hereafter SCC, because I'm lazy ) offer a useful comparison. I think I've learned something useful by contrasting these two shows.

No, seriously! For real. Just hear me out.

In my humble opinion, these two shows couldn't be more different in how they handle recycled ideas. (To be fair, I've only seen 2 episodes of NA, and a handful more of SCC. So what follows is based on a limited viewing sample.)

The premise of NA is that a Dutch settler to Manhattan Island was granted eternal life in the 17th century, and that he walks around New York City today as a homicide detective. The premise of SCC (or as my friend Pam might call it, "The Robot Summer Glau Kicking People in the Head Hour") which is based on the Terminator movie franchise, is that robots from the future have come back through time to try to kill, and in one case protect, Sarah Connor's son. (Well, yeah, that's the really short version, but it's enough for the purposes of this discussion.)

Both premises rely on concepts that have been around for a loooong time. First off, New Amsterdam is a New York detective show... not exactly new territory for TV. And the loneliness of eternal life was done at length in several Highlander movies and 6 (I think) seasons of the spinoff television series. Not to mention countless novels, such as Ken Grimwood's excellent Replay. (It's been too many years since I've read it, but I wonder if Interview With a Vampire and related works might also qualify? That's a determination for people more knowledgeable than I am.) Those examples are straight off the top of my head, and not meant as a comprehensive list by any means. Meanwhile, killer robots from the future have been done to death in, well, the Terminator movies. And the idea of a man-machine war has been treated in countless places, perhaps the most famous film version in recent years being the Matrix films and their ilk. And people have been telling time travel stories at least since H. G. Wells, but almost certainly before then. (Rip van Winkle springs to mind.) And the story of a mother going to extraordinary lengths to protect her children probably dates back to the Greeks.

Okay. So, if I had bet on which of these shows would feel fresher and more original, I'd have put my money on NA. Why? Well, all things being equal, at least it's not a spinoff of an action movie franchise. (Call me cynical.) And, even though detective shows have been done to death, every once in a while something cool and unique comes along (witness Life.)

But I would have been wrong.

So far, NA has mostly shown me things I've seen before, and in ways I've already seen them done. It makes the storytelling feel perfunctory. And in fact I've been able to reliably predict plot points on this show based entirely on my lifetime experience as a television viewer. (Which probably says more negative things about me than it does about this show.) But SCC has surprised and impressed me several times because its writers have gone out of their way to avoid showing me things they know I've seen a million times before.

This isn't meant to evaluate the overall quality or airworthiness of either show. Both have elements I like, and both have elements I don't like. My interest here is strictly related to "freshness" as it relates to the issue of writing.

New Amsterdam spoilers ahoy!

Early in the pilot episode of NA, our immortal protagonist, John, enters what appears to be a bar or restaurant. I knew instantly that the proprietor would be an old friend to John, and the only person on earth to know his Big Secret. Why? Because I've seen that dynamic played out before. Does the protagonist need a confidant? Sure, why not. It greases the wheels of storytelling if he does. I'm not objecting to the idea, only to how it was introduced-- directly, through dialogue I had already anticipated. It didn't surprise me. If the proprietor had, I dunno, shot immortal John in the gut simply to win a bar bet, well, I wouldn't have seen that coming. That's a stupid idea, but you get the point.

One thing I do like about the show is the way John is always so up-front with his partner when he refers to events in his impossibly-long life. I would have expected, based on my viewing experience, to see him Dissemble Mysteriously. So that's a nice reversal of my expectations. But as for his partner-- she's an amalgam of characters I've seen before. She's the new detective assigned to the eccentric old pro who has a History of Not Keeping Partners For Long. She's the feisty daughter trying to Prove Herself in a family of macho cops. Both of those tropes feel pretty creaky to me. If they haven't already aged past tropism into full-blown cliches, they're getting close.

The second episode of NA had two plotlines: a present-day murder mystery involving the death of a student at a prestigious prep school, and a subplot involving flashbacks to John's love life in the 1940s. As for the murder plot, I knew immediately that the Big Reveal would be that the student had been having an affair with one of his teachers. That much was obvious two seconds after the first appearance of the Attractive Teacher Who Had Been Fond Of The Deceased In A Strictly Professional Way. It may be topical, but it's also something I've seen before-- oh, what decadent living in the rarified world of the rich! (Even though neither of the characters in question were in fact wealthy, which is I think a subtrope/subcliche).

The romantic subplot was potentially far more interesting, being an exploration of interracial relationships before the Civil Rights movement. But in my humble opinion, it didn't deliver. Virtually all of the gritchy, conflicty stuff happened off screen-- we were told about the blatant racism and discrimination, but it wasn't shown to us. Okay, okay, show/tell is a separate writing issue, so I won't go in to that except to say that it continually prompted me to think, each time the episode transitioned to flashback, that I was watching a story I'd seen 20 years ago on Quantum Leap, except without the interesting bits. The storyline would have been more engaging on that show because it would have put the white male protagonist on the receiving end of bigotry. In other words it would have attempted to bring something new to the table. It's a meaty, uncomfortable subject that deserves intelligent examination; skirting the issue by phoning it in rather than approaching it from a new angle is a disservice.

So. Those are a handful of examples where I found myself bored by familiar scenarios presented in familiar ways.

Sarah Connor Chronicles spoilers ahoy!

SCC is another show that at first blush seems set up to present the jaded viewer with plenty of familiar material. It has a petite, lithesome high school student hiding the fact she's a Major Ass Kicker. It has a high school student who Just Wants To Be A Normal Kid. It has misunderstood protagonists On The Run From The Feds. It even has an FBI agent who is Thinking For Himself And Bucking The Party Line.

But... it plays with these things. Again, I'm not saying it's perfect, but it does subvert my expectations on a regular basis.

John Connor's personal protector/bodyguard is, of course, the aforementioend lissome ass kicker. [Aside: Could they have cast anybody more perfect for the role than Summer "she always did love to dance" Glau? The answer is a resounding no.] So naturally, since John's life is Perilous, there are many situations (one or two per episode, oddly enough) that involve Summer Glau heading off to beat the ever-loving crap out of people.

Thing is, I've already seen the show where a young woman routinely humiliates bad guys twice her size. It was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And in fact every time they set up one of these ass-kicking bits, I actually find myself thinking, "Okay, here's where we get the Buffy scene."

But then... we don't. Not always. Instead, they do something clever-- instead of showing us the fight scene (which would just be a retread of something we've already seen, perhaps with different choreography), they cut to the aftermath. I mean, we already know she's going to head-punch that leering hick 8 ways from Sunday because she's a freaking robot from the future specifically designed to head-punch people 8 ways from Sunday. So why waste valuable pages in the script dramatizing something the viewer has already taken for granted? It's far more entertaining to skip the fight in favor of the following scene, wherein the leering chauvanist hick has become a bruised hick who really, really respects women.

This isn't to say they always skip the fight. After all, half the reason we're watching is for the joy of watching Summer Glau kick people in the head. (Or maybe I speak only for myself.)

But even when the writers do follow through with a combat scene, they strive to make it different. The final episode involved a sequence where the FBI agent, having deduced that a Terminator robot was masquerading as a fellow agent, led a SWAT team raid at the imposter's apartment. Since this was a big climactic scene, they didn't skip past it. But we already knew going in that the team would fail, because it was sent to fight a freaking robot from the future specifically designed to tear through SWAT teams like tissue paper. So why bore viewers with several minutes of loud gunfire, and people screaming, and bullets pinging from the indestructible robot as he coldly executes each and every human present? We've already seen that in the Terminator movies.

Instead they chose to dramatize the fight in an unexpected way. Rather than assault my ears with gunfire and screaming, they softened the combat noises under a Johnny Cash song that somehow fit the scene yet came as a complete surprise. The fight begins with the first guy busting down the door, racing in, and seconds later flying out the doorway into the pool down below. The perfunctory way to continue the scene would have been to continue in that vein, with the camera following the SWAT team members as they entered the apartment only to get gunned down one by one. Instead, the camera angle transitions to the bottom of the pool, looking up... and we hear the sounds of combat faintly -- muted by virtue of water and Johnny Cash -- while one dead SWAT guy after another lands in the pool.

Wow. It was cool, surprising, and it told me everything I needed to know without showing me things I'd already seen before...

I hope one day I'll acquire the skill to recognize when I've done something overly familiar, and to turn those familiar situations upside down. Yeah. It's been on my mind lately.

Comments

S.C. Butler March 12, 2008 at 8:32 am
It's all in the presentation, isn't it? That's what I've learned over the years. And that includes the way the chracters are set up and evolve, too.

A great story idea is nothing if you can't put it over, whether you're trying to pitch it to an agent or a producer, or you're actually trying to write the damn thing.

And you know you just did it in your post, too. I thought you were about to praise NA, not SCC. Very cooly done, oh great one.

Ian March 12, 2008 at 8:57 am
(Who's Al, anyway?)

You know, I could have written a much shorter blog rant if I'd thought to phrase it your way. It is all in the presentation. Bad presentation can ruin a stunning idea, and fantastic presentation can make a banal idea work.

See? I just condensed all of that blathering down to 2 sentences.

And that is why you will always be the great one, sir.

Melinda Snodgrass March 13, 2008 at 7:09 am
Cool post. You had me LoL with your de ions of Summer Glau. I have tricks I use to try and (as we say in Regency Dancing with apologies to cavalry charges) try to get over heavy ground lightly. An obvious one is staring in the middle of a scene, but it's something that often telegraphs that this is a beginning or less talented writer. When I have to read through. Knock, knock, "Who is it?" "Data, sir?" "Enter." "May I speak to you, sir?" "Of course, Mr. Data, what's on your mind." Well, you get the picture. I'm not going to buy that or interview that writer, or read that book. For those who are interested I'll write up tricks I use to avoid the too familiar scene over at my blog.
Ian March 13, 2008 at 7:13 am
I would love to see a writeup of your tricks for avoiding overly-familiar scenes. That's a much better summary of what I was trying to get at, anyway-- overly familiar scenes. Between you and Sam I could have condensed this blog post down to 3 or 4 sentences.
Melinda Snodgrass March 13, 2008 at 11:09 am
Wow, I have no idea what I was trying to type that came out de ions. I think that was meant to be de ions.

I'm desperately trying to reach the end of THE EDGE OF RUIN, and it keeps retreating in front of me. I'll write my entry after I finish this damn book. I'm supposed to ride today, but I begrudge the time.
Why do I have to sleep?

Ian March 13, 2008 at 12:50 pm
My guess is that "de ions" was originally "depictions". Or, "defenestrations", in which case I'm not sure what you meant, because I didn't mention windows anywhere in the post. :-P
Ty March 13, 2008 at 2:21 pm
Maybe it was 'decepticons.'
Ian March 13, 2008 at 9:08 pm
I always had Melinda figured for more of a "Beast Wars" fan.
Richard March 15, 2008 at 7:21 pm
You had typed 'D E S C R I P T I O N S'. Twice. And twice, my custom blog code took out the 'S C R I P T'. There's actually a good reason for that: it's to prevent a malicious poster from running javas c r i p t in the blog post. Though now that I see it in action, I'll have to modify the code so that it doesn't mangle your words for you. Sorry.
Ian March 15, 2008 at 8:09 pm
Running malicious java_s_c_r_i_p_t is exactly the sort of thing the Decepticons would do.
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