Writing Serial Killers
I’m feeling like giving a break to our intrepid readers. There’s been a lot of bards and sorcerers and what not, but I felt I should share some more thoughts on writing in general. Today, I want to tackle serials and the impact this format of story-telling has on your narratives and characters.
I’ve been giving some thought to the serial nature of writing, not least because my D&D stories are essentially that. I’ve taken a rather peculiar approach to it – one that I’m not sure could really be replicated and certainly not in another medium. But before I get into that, I want to talk about serials people are going to be far more familiar with: television shows.
Now, the serial format isn’t particularly new. Radios had their famous series and even before that papers and magazines were bringing readers monthly updates for their favourite characters. Some classic literature was originally published as monthly serials. Pride and Prejudice is the first that comes to mind and probably explains partly why Austen adopted the letter format. However, television is easily the king of our generation. Most shows are serial by the nature, with mini-series and made for television movies the only thing I can really think of that don’t quite fit the category. Watching television, I’ve noticed there’s really only two prominent styles.
The first is the series that tells an overarching narrative with each component fitting comfortably within its thirty to sixty minute time slot. These shows generally have an overarching premise or focus on character development. Twenty-four is an obvious example, with each episode representing one hour from a rather action packed day. Each episode builds on the last, often requiring a quick “Previously on…” segment to remind its viewership what occurred before.
Running counter to this style is the episodic, slice-of-life, return to normal style of show that’s almost ubiquitous in sitcoms. Here, the emphasis is on some quirky situation for that single episode and the emphasis is shifted away from the narrative and to character interactions. There is little theme or connectivity between episodes and the characters are pretty immutable once they’ve been established. These shows are immediately evident by having quick opening segments that will immediately familiarize the audience succinctly with the primary actors. Typically, there will be a shared location that most of the cast convenes on that they can use to draw out these interactions. The Big Bang Theory is a prime example and Sheldon’s apartment serving as the de facto ‘hang out’ for the gang.
Now, from this break down, it should be rather obvious the biggest difference between these two approaches. The first has a story it’s going to tell and places that narrative first and foremost to its audience. The second cares less about the narrative and is more concerned with interactions amongst its characters.
So what does this mean? Well, probably a lot of complaints for different series will arise from these different aims. Sitcoms are notorious for the ‘return to normal’ in that, at the end of every episode, nothing is lost and nothing is gain. Sheldon and Leonard are generally the same from episode to episode and season to season. Contrast this with, say, The Walking Dead, where you can’t even be assured that some of the primary actors will even be in the next episode. The benefits of an unchanging format is that it makes it incredibly easy for people to jump into your show. There isn’t a rich history or story for them to catch up on. Most interactions will be evidently explained in that one episode and after watching a couple, a new viewer will have as good an understanding of the show as someone who’s been watching from the beginning.
The biggest problem with this format is stagnation. It’s very easy for characters to slip into caricatures – to boil down their personalities to a simple trait that can be expressed in seconds but depriving that character from any deep or intricate development. Since there is no grand narrative, these shows often become a bunch of stock characters parading through samey situations parroting the same contrived jokes and interactions from episode to episode and season to season. This immediate accessibility breaks down to shallowness and two dimensionality. Look at any sitcom in its twilight years and most you’ll find are poor shadows of their original selves. Like the Simpsons. It’s awful.
How can this be avoided? Well, for one, a creator can be wary of the first signs of this stagnation and end it before the show has truly jumped its shark. Alternatively, they can always start introducing elements from the other format – creating a continuing narrative that will fundamentally change the nature of its actors and premise. But this runs its own risk of alienating the audience.
What’s my solution – to try and avoid this type of serial altogether. My D&D stories follow a narrative – well a timeline at any rate. In my mind, different stories fall at different points in the characters lives so I know that they’re changing and if I’m successful, the readers do too. I already have some grander story arcs that are often alluded to in the passages that provide me the freedom to explore a grander story should I choose. Finally, I have new characters constantly coming and going. While this mostly reflects the changes in the inspiring people’s lives it also helps keep things fresh and exciting. But I know that my characters change. The challenges they face at the start of their journey are not the same that they encounter later on. And while some troubles haunt them for a time, as they grow and mature so do their personal conflicts.
Sadly, this post is getting quite winded now and I’m trying to not spew too much rubbish on this blog at once. I never really got to go into the weaknesses of the first type of serialization. Nor address series that mix the two styles and the benefits of that approach. Perhaps I’ll pick it up in another entry. But for now, I’ll leave it at that.