Wednesday, February 1, 2012

#56 -- The Plot, The Story, And The Expectation

"If you do it right, you can make the inquisitive ask questions, you can make the casuals come back, and you can make the professors lose sleep."

There is no such thing as zero-expectation. That probably makes some people happy. Heck, it's roughly 96% of what a marketing department does, fostering and metering expectations. If a marketing department is doing its job for a TV show or a movie, you're going in with familiarity about what's going to happen -- or what's supposed to happen. Elsewhere, if the storyteller is doing his or her job, they're aware of expectations, and while not necessarily playing up to those assumptions, they do not treat the crowd as a bubbling mug of stupid. The astute storyteller makes precipitous speculation a vital part of the story's existence and validation, using every tool, character trope, and twist on the norm that they can to accomplish this. This unsteady line-walking is a dangerous place to be, both creatively and financially. Either half could collapse the other if it's not handled with precise aplomb. I imagine every time somebody gets to minute-15 of a very expensive movie on release weekend and grumbles, "I have no goddamn clue what is happening," somebody in marketing is killed, and then probably hollowed out to be used as a pinata at the next Dia De Los Muertos party.

My father had that reaction while watching Inception. It's okay, he's probably smarter than me, and his brain knew to concentrate on more important things than figuring out if Christopher Nolan was creating a metaphor for movie-making via a shared-dream, idea-thievery, million dollar-grossing blockbuster.

"I liked the snowmobiles."

("Me too!")

Luckily (yes, luckily) you always have some familiarity and expectations because you are a human with a functional brain. You always know that, "This movie looks like something," and that you're familiar with that something. People know that there will be movies about robots, or romance, or mystery, or compelling moments in human history. People know that these things are ideas and stories are created by other people, or at least by the demi-humans hungry for mass-market appeal or prestigious awards. Regardless, you have basic expectations. That expectation will eventually become what the writer whittles a story out of. Even if a bizarre movie poster is all you have to go on, you'll think, "Looks confusing." And then you'll sit down in the theater, or fire up NetFlix, or whatever, expecting confusion. If somebody hands you a book, the book's potential contents are an extension of what you know about that person. Is it a person of taste that you trust? You'll expect good things, expectations perhaps altered and informed by what you know about their taste. Maybe Amazon recommends a book based on your prior purchases and shopping habits? After feeling a little intruded-upon, you give it a shot, curious if an analytical mouse-click algorithm could possibly be a good thing to identify your tendencies.

Even if you walked into a movie theater at random and sat down, not knowing what would come on the screen, you would still have a thought in the back of your head about how rebellious you are, flying blind, at which point, you're either attentive, anticipating surprise, or apathetic, expecting a bad movie. You come pre-packaged with expectations. We all start somewhere.

Expectations are part of fore-knowledge. Fore-knowledge is a collective pool of consciousness that a storyteller will tap into in order to draw an audience in. Take the familiar, arrange it, and then allow the story's characters and plot to drip into this mould. There is a library of ancient, universal storytelling templates that we share an understanding of and acknowledge, if not openly. These are the collective expectation. These are what storytellers inflict influence upon. On the one hand, you have the story. On the other, you have the characters, who must navigate that story and be as identifiable, and as convention-defying, as the understood fore-knowledge you've presupposed your audience will possess.

Logic suggests that you could begin with a something conventional, something easy, when crafting a story. Maybe it's a simple thing that could have its simplicity swept away by a tiny detail, yielding uniqueness. The most memorable:
A long, long time ago.
In a galaxy far, far away. . .
Those two sentences, standing blue against the black of space, blew a million minds. How could it be a long, long time ago, and in space? Why are we hearing about something so long ago? Because, there were Star Wars. Cue John Williams' score, and we're rolling.

Suddenly, audience expectation is heightened, and speculation begins, all because you showed them something ordinary, and then bent it. This ordinary thing could be a storytelling convention that's been altered, allowing "normal" people to be bumped around by some off-kilter world that might be just different enough. Consider the intro to X-Men -- a Jewish boy in a German concentration camp is separated from his mother, triggering an involuntary magnetic storm from inside his body. We know that this should not be real, and yet within some of the most disturbing moments in human history, perhaps there is in fact a story within a familiar plot. How is this event back in the 1940's going to change the modern times, which the movie quickly catches us up to? This is "plot" keeping up with "story," since we have people that embody safe conventions in semi-unique worlds and scenarios. The pace at which these details are metered out is often dependent on the medium. Take Harry Potter for example. For the first few books, it was very much a normal boy entering an amazing world. By the end the third book though, it's shifted, and the focus is more on character complications -- the magic is understood by the audience by then, and JK Rowling, demonstrating a great deal of growth as an author, smartly transferred the focus onto making the character-discovery just as fantastic as the magic, if not more so.

Alternatively, instead of a magical world or unusual circumstance, this "ordinary thing" being changed to run counter to audience-expectations could instead be an abnormal character, who is so compelling, that watching the entire world bounce off them becomes an insatiable, expectation-smashing experience. This is less common because it's harder to write and it's harder for an audience to connect with. Most people feel it's easier to identify with a tabula rasa, feeling that they can project themselves onto that character, deciding either yes or no, they could do well (or maybe even better) in an extreme circumstance that is so much more interesting than the mundane existence they inhabit. Note how that despite his wide appeal, many identify Batman as the least interesting character in Gotham City. He's smart and capable, true, but audiences are intrigued by a fairly particular character built out of right-angles and bullet-point commandments smashing into unpredictable, world-defining antagonism. Don't we all feel like the crazy world is against us normals? It's hard to have an identifiable, abnormal protagonist to have a good character arc without them becoming smug or predictable, especially on serialized TV. This is the reason why the hero is usually the straight-man and the sidekick is the wisecracking goofball. Connect with one, lazily, but actually adore the other. If the hero was the unique, world-defying personality, and he or she just kept doing good every week, only in an engaging, unorthodox manner with a pinball-vocabulary, then they aren't compelling or surprising or unique. If they suddenly lose their edge, and go off-script, off-expectation, then they're just a real-world asshole.

This is why normal people occupying weird worlds are the go-to for day-to-day television. We all think the world hates us -- why not give it a face that can be punched every week and a plausible, power-fantasy protagonist that somehow embodies our shortcomings? Well, if you want to be smart, you don't allow yourself to be satisfied with that. Be a tad more unpredictable. Let expectation of story fuel speculation about how a character will navigate the story's world.

In order to balance these things though, it comes back to audience. What do they know (about story)? What are they sure of (in the world)? What do they expect (of the characters)? Perhaps the most fun: what have they heard rumor and speculation of? How can these familiar threads be re-woven to make for compelling entertainment?

We can drill down into a few examples:

Alias is a show that did a lot with very little, but overstayed its welcome. Its characters and world had their arcs in the first two seasons, and creatively, it should have just ended. It tried a time-jump but only succeeded in a shark-jump. Observe Battlestar Galactica as a reference on how to do an end-of-season time-jump properly. Battlestar's world changed, the plot changed, the characters changed -- everything was altered. When Alias did it at the end of season 2, the audience was left behind in the past with main protagonist Sydney, a character that had trouble catching up with the plot that had progressed beyond her, and not in a, "Now the character will be tested and really grow" kind of way. More in a, "People got sick of the protagonist becoming a self-pitying mess, so that was the season everybody stopped watching" kind of way. We were expecting the established mythology, which was startlingly creative with its pseudo-science and Cold War legend, to steer the characters. Unfortunately, this plot couldn't be sustained, becoming much too convoluted and predictably outlandish, and the characters died on the vine.

Lost is a show that proves speculation alone is not fun, especially when "It" could be anything. Once we "knew" the characters, they lost (hah!) appeal. What began as people with baggage + haunted island + survival urgency became time-paradoxes and Cold War-era (again, JJ Abrams and his Cold War) grudges colliding with shape-shifting Egyptian blood-feuds. It began to become self-obsessed and delusional after the middle of the third season, insisting that a journey through throw-away weirdness with stubborn character archetypes was indeed interesting. It wasn't. The story stagnated, and the characters weren't strong enough to make standing around enough fun.

Batman Begins is a movie that capitalizes on sixty years of impossibility, and makes explaining away ancient implausibility compelling storytelling. The audience comes pretty well-armed to this one. Most everybody knows that a guy named Batman fights crime, and if you're tuned in a little bit more, you'll agree that superheroes are equal parts stupid and crazy. Batman Begins does not argue against Batman's idealistic recklessness, and it smartly takes the intricate details of a well-off man's metered descent into vigilantism, making it into a recognizably realistic world where a recognizably realistic version of a human takes philosophy and revenge to destructive extremes.

Is it impossible that Batman can beat up a dozen guys? No, he's a man that we watched train for years to learn that skill. Is it impossible that he could have such resources and technology? No, his company manufactures this stuff, and he carefully made decoy purchases to defer attention. Is it impossible that he could drive the batmobile over a rooftop? No, he had building schematics stating it could hold the car's weight. We once felt that Batman, and perhaps superheroes in general, were entirely implausible, and armed with that expectation, an audience is ripe for manipulation, if it is executed correctly. This is a prime example of story influencing plot, influencing character.

Casino Royale is a movie that turns a myth into a man. Similar to Batman Begins because it's about an impossible demi-god like James Bond, this is an interesting case because it's a modernization with so much history, but it's Bond himself, and all of his recognizable habits and, *ahem*, conquests, that are most famous, and his individual stories are less-so. (How is he modernized? He's made human. That's an intriguing argument for humanity's increasing need to identify itself.) Nevertheless, Bond is a character whose myth can inhabit any sort of plot, and he'll traverse it with confidence, killing henchmen, seducing women, stopping the global crisis, and not even slowing his gait as he strides right into the next movie. Giving him a problem that he can't solve destroys audiences' expectation that the plot is inconsequential to Bond. He is given emotions this time, but no consistent outlet for them. He is given true fear, but that just makes his arrogance all the more dangerous. This suddenly-humanized character is suddenly-sympathetic at the end of the movie, all because the story, formerly meaningless in the Bond-universe, worked in tandem with the character, the plot, and the style. Casting him as a brutish sociopath that eventually reforms somewhat was a brilliant piece of visual language.

Once Upon A Time is a show that reminds us that story-worlds themselves are sometimes the most interesting characters -- so make them collide. This is the exact opposite of Casino Royale. The fairy tales, the very fables themselves, are the key characters. We've never known what Snow White likes. She spites a queen, lives with dwarves, and is revived by a kiss. End of story. We've never been told what Hansel and Gretel's main character motivations. They're kids lost in the woods that kill a witch. That's all. It's the stories, the plots, that are famous, and ready to be amalgamized. This show smashes these scenarios together, so damn familiar as they are, and then lets the character drama (mathematically-impossible, 108% schlock that it is) inhabit this recognizable, mashed-up world. The recognizable stories collide to create storytelling fission-reaction -- the resulting energy is a candy-coated, mass market-ready dram-opera that sells itself. It has speculation, variation, fallout, familiarity, and no real rules, letting our minds soak up the sucrose.

Seinfeld is a show that moved from people in a world full of nothing, to horrible people destroying the world around them, to a cultural touchstone unto the real world itself. The show is not self-recognizing until the very last episode, and that's why the last episode was flopped onto the ER waiting room floor with a big "DO NOT RESUSCITATE" sign pinned to it. The show turned on itself and for once, it ceased to be about Nothing -- it suddenly consequences, and it suddenly had a story, whereas before, it simply had characters, well aware that there was no real plot, but also never looking directly into the camera and acknowledging it. We weren't expecting that -- I don't think Larry David intended it to be funny when he wrote it either. Most interestingly, Seinfeld became one of the first modern comedies to become canonized in the popular culture pantheon, meaning that if a new show lacks true purpose and focuses on character neuroses rather than them progressing as humans (because by the end of Seinfeld, they were so far beyond human, which is why they had to go to jail) then the audience will be able to say, "Oh, so it's like Seinfeld. Just less funny." 

A good modern comparison would be It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which has followed an almost identical tonal arc of fairly-human characters coming across the bizarre, and then eventually the characters become the malevolent, primary inflictors of plot on a world that seems increasingly more sane by comparison.

Mad Men is a show that enshrines America's cultural turbulence. The good and the bad. If you have a decent awareness of American history, you can observe this as characters passing through an era that was both clinically superficial and startlingly private. The rocket-age was optimistic because fear would surrender a Cold War foothold to the Reds, so cultural progress was frequent and rapid -- a good time to stage a period drama. As I mentioned earlier, humanity is increasingly interested in discovering itself, so to frame a plot, containing the characters, within a time-period where we expect there to be more going on in these lives than they'd like us to know. It's not a terribly unpredictable world, so the show's writers inflict some chaos on the situation with good-humored style, like when a linchpin character gets his foot shredded by a lawmower at an office party (spoilers?). The way Mad Men handles something as solid as recent-American history and shows how it will morph the characters, who are in turn trying to morph the American psyche as ad agency pitch-men, and then subsequently, the plot that contains the characters within this epoch, is all very exemplary historical fiction storytelling. 

So knowing what we know about history, a constant, we can guess how that history will change the plot, a variable.

If you do it right, you can make the inquisitive ask questions, you can make the casuals come back, and you can make the professors lose sleep. You can make the journalists write the dissenting op-eds weeks later, because that proves you're a presence in their heads. You can make worlds collide or stop them from turning altogether, and people would divide into sides, agreeing that either would be entertaining, but there is only one right answer -- theirs! You can make people lose faith, for just a moment, on purpose, and then give back the audience's terra firma at the exact right second. If you do it right, people will think that they can outsmart you, and that you want them to, and you'd be so damn happy if they stood a chance.

Maybe they do.

-- Alex Crumb
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Recommended related reading:
[The 10 Types Of Bombast In Storytelling] by Ghost Little and Doberman

1 comment:

  1. The intro paragraphs were meant to be shorter, with more space devoted to the examples, but it eventually became the stronger part, so I went with that.