When writing a story, I have found how easy it is to gravitate to the “black and white” and to the “cause to effect” with the storyline. It is also all too easy to stay confined to the linear way of thinking while staying within these self-induced bounds of certainty. But, over the last few days, I have spent my time re-watching the old HBO series, “Carnivàle,” and asked myself these two questions: “what was it about this series that drew the viewers in?” and “why did it only run for just two seasons?” Somehow, in some semi-cosmic, hap-hazardous way, I am starting to think that these two “events” (for the lack of a better word) relate.
Doing a story in straight black and white leaves nothing to the imagination. If you’re as old as I am, or at least close, you’ll remember the three years we all debated whether or not Darth Vader was really Luke’s father. Three long, blistering, “fuck politics and everything else” years! Imagine that! Damn! Talk about captivating your audience! Of course, in our current ADD society, this would be damn near impossible to pull off. To keep an audience in suspense up to six months, sure… maybe that could be done. But, not three years. Let’s be reasonable.
Alright, not quite a shining example. We all know there was a Light and Dark Side of the Force – black and white, right? But, wait… what about the anti-hero, Han Solo? Smuggler? Drifter? Pirate? Hung out with a gambling con-man back in the day, he did. Won the Millennium Falcon in a card game against him, he did. Not really the text book definition of a “good guy,” right? And what about those bounty hunters? Not really “bad guys,” you know? Hell, we celebrate a guy called “Dog” who stars on his own bounty hunting reality show. A class act “good guy.” In our accepted reality, a “good guy” is just someone who works for money and has a running loyalty to whatever law and government happens to be in power. With that in mind, who was the real “bad guys” in “Star Wars?” Hmmm… was it the Rebel Alliance all along? No! Really? Well… maybe. (Damn. I got a bad feeling about this one.)
See? It’s all a matter of opinion on which is black and which is white when you get down to it. And, as crazy as that sounds, it’s thoughts like this that I have discovered a good storyline plays with graciously in creating that tale which just sucks us in. We become obsessed with trying to figure out a good suspense. We become addicted to those little debates. Is this person evil? What is really going on? Who is going to blank who? (Feel free to fill in the blank with whatever you like.) It’s the “gray area” that keeps us coming back for more. People love to waste time trying to sort out the given “facts” and categorize them according to if they feel it was “good” and “evil.” It gives them something to do… and grants them that excuse to feel more (or less) superior to others, in comparison, based on how much they think they’ve figured out and how many elements in the tale they have classified as being black or white. (This phenomenon, whatever you wish to call it, is just the thing I think a writer should look for when he or she is trying to decide on which direction to take that next episode… and which grouping of popular opinion should be put to shame in the process.)
Life itself is filled with gray areas. So, to make a story realistic, it also must be filled with gray areas. The lines between what can be perceived as either good or evil should not only be blurred, but completely crooked as well. Think of the Yin and the Yang – in each, a percentage of the other. Like Darth Vader having a bit of Light inside him remaining and Luke on the edge of giving into his hate and falling to the Dark Side, there was still some of the other in both characters. (Talk about a dysfunctional family!) Therefore, let me also add that nothing in a story should be completely black nor totally white. This is why I believe it is important to plot out the story first, these tendencies to put things into black and white must be as indefinable as possible while retaining a certainty to which character is the protagonist and which is the antagonist. (It is also chiefly important to remember that neither one has to be “good” or “evil,” and, in my opinion, labeling either character as being one or the other should appear to be an impractical undertaking.)
On a side note: We have all come to know that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to be believable while the truth never does… and, often, is not even believable at all. As a writer, I think playing a bit with what is already believable and how convincing I can be with the lies I’m writing is the key to that ever-famous “suspension of disbelief.” Therefore, I had planned to experiment with this concept by pushing my tales into those realms of the bizarre and see how believable a fiction truly has to be. I’m sure that will be evident with my first novel, “The Misadventures of Mason Stone, Private Eye.” Guess we’ll all just have to wait and see how experimenting with this idea turns out, huh? As for myself, I’m shaking with anticipation.
Now… how about the “cause to effect” element? Often, a writer comes up with a series of scenes and tries to link them all together somehow. And, often, these scenes have nothing to do with an action and its reaction as the plot itself is concerned, but in small fraction in and of themselves. Man pulls out a gun (cause), second man pulls out his (effect). First man fires his gun at the second man (action). The second man returns the favor (reaction).
Why these men are firing upon one another should have something to do with the plot of the story, but too often, it does not. Like the generosity of explosions and gunfights Hollywood has tossed us over the years, they’re just pretty to watch. As a society, we’re casualty vampires. We love to watch a good train wreck. We rejoice at the sound of an explosion much like the Pavlov’s cat responds to his dinner bell. We love gratuitous violence. It’s our drug of choice.
Personally, I think Hollywood relies on pyrotechnics and special effects far too much, but this is something to keep in mind when writing a story. It’s its own language, violence – one language which is universal and easily understood in every dialect. (By the way, so is every other dominating emotion we can experience outwardly.) And, so long as one can make it an integral aspect of the plotline, I see no reason to exclude such things. It just has to make sense to the story, though.
I think the second film in the “Matrix” trilogy, as well as the third, illustrates a bit more clearly this principle and how it can fail. Both films truly seemed like a series of scenes slapped together. Neo went from one fight to the next and to the one following without any clear reason why these fights were important to the storyline. In fact, both films seemed to just be highlights of the special effects used in the first film and nothing more. The temptation to write a story like this is too great. When a writer comes up with a great scene, it’s as if he or she just did an 8-ball of cocaine. That writer goes crazy… and that’s easily seen by the first grouping of people of whom that writer reveals that revelation along with the details of that scene. If this excited the others, the results become explosive (pun intended). In the writing room, this domino effect yields to creating a whole storyline in under two days. What is the quality of that storyline? Well, just watch the “Matrix” trilogy and you’ll see.
A good storyline needs to be raised much like a cannabis plant. The seed must be germinated properly, then planted, nourished, and allowed to grow. (Sure, one can use some fertilizer, but one also must remember that fertilizer is often just shit. Too much shit in the soil or in a story is never a good thing.) After it comes to fruition, it can be harvested and prepared for consumption. If it’s strong enough, the audience will desire more.
When a tale is just a series of scenes, it leaves hole in the plot big enough to drive a semi through. These holes are empty spaces and the tendency to fill them with shit is all too great. I say don’t. Instead, delay the effects after the cause with something that would support the next cause. Stack the effects if desired for a grander impact. This will create more interest and doesn’t lose anyone in the process. That’s my theory, anyway.
So, why was “Carnivàle” so captivating in the first season and canceled after the second? The first season was unpredictable. The plot was almost shrouded by the amount of subplots that spun around it like buzzards. The writers were not overly concerned about reaching conclusions. Comme la vie… no real direction, just possibilities. The second season, however, worked way too much towards getting the protagonist and antagonist together in that final conflict. Of course, the first flaw was the concept of a “final conflict” that wasn’t intended to be final at all. The second flaw was in that “bringing the forces together.” That could have been dragged out. There could have been a few “near misses” where the antagonist shows up just after the protagonist left the area, and vice versa. More could have been added in the quest for olde Henry Scutter… like with the first season, there could be more clues hidden in the debris in the wake of his travels. More twists, more turns, more meat. This series could’ve easily ran for five more seasons before ever needing that “final conflict.” All that was needed was a bit of that mystery we were craving to be nurtured and some of those black and white elements to be smeared gray.