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The death of storytelling? (We hope not.)

September 30, 2013

Although this blog is about writing, a lot of its references are to television and movies, rather than books. Why? Because unless there’s a book everyone has read (something like Harry Potter or the Bible), it’s tough to have a cross-cultural understanding. Also, it’s easy to link to YouTube to show a sample of what I’m talking about–and not so much to link to page 112 of Gone Girl.

Earlier this year, I got DVDs from The Fugitive from Netflix. The stories quickly lost my interest because of the lack of character and story development. Richard Kimble had been through an awful thing. His wife was murdered and he was convicted of that murder. But in most stories, beyond a brooding, kind of hangdog look, you really didn’t see the aftereffects of all that.

Contrast that to Magnum in the 1980s, when a girlfriend’s suicide, on top of all the other deaths he’d undergone, resulted in a deep depression that nearly resulted in his being committed. Or Mad Men, when the accumulated weight his past and the suicide of Lane Pryce, cause a slow-motion breakdown for Don Draper over this past season. In some ways, storytelling on the boob tube is better than it’s ever been.

One of the shows I’ve started watching this year is The Bridge. It’s the story of the teaming of a Mexican cop with an American cop after a body is found in the road on the border between the US and Mexico. About halfway through the first season, I’m not certain whether this show’s going to be brilliant, or another in a growing line of shows that throws stimulation at us like popcorn and counts on this week’s fireworks and our short memories to forget the contradictions and unanswered questions.

Put another way, on 24 Los Angeles might have been partially wiped out by a terrorist attack but that was three whole hours ago and there are new shiny things to be worried about. On Fringe, the very first time we see Olivia Dunham is when she’s enjoying a hotel bed with her lover, Agent John Scott. He’s killed later in the pilot and as the series goes on, he fades from view. What’s up with that? On LOST, well, there are enough questions that all the pages in all the book in the world can’t hold them all.

What does this have to do with writing? Like it or not, our tastes are shaped by the culture around us. It’s the reason my son likes the, uhh, music he likes and I like the obviously superior work by U2, The Rolling Stones, Credence Clearwater Revival, and even Chuck Berry. And if television and movies emphasize stimulation over storytelling and character development, at some point that’s going shape the books we read (50 Shades of, uhh, Stimulation, anyone?).

This is the part of the blog where one should tie the entire premise together with a capstone point or call to action or something for you to take away. Maybe the point is that we should redouble our efforts, as craftspeople, to create three-dimensional characters and riveting plots rather than just blowing stuff up. Maybe we should stop going to Michael Mann movies. Or maybe we try to get ahead of the trend by blowing a bunch of stuff up in a complex plot with equally complex characters.

Who knows?


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