You can’t fool audiences

posted in: Creation, Media | 0

So AV Club conducted an interview with the creators of Rick and Morty.  Something Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon said really resonated with me.

DH: … but before we wrote the first episode of Rick And Morty, we had a conversation where, I think it was Mike McMahan who said, “Should we decide that there is a secret we keep from the audience forever?” But we always know it.” I won’t say what. We said, “Oh, what about this?” And we went, “Yeah, that’s really cool.” I was kind of obsessed with it for a while. But I think what’s really interesting about this new golden age of TV is that [Snaps fingers.] halfway through the first season, somebody made a Reddit post where they threw out the theory, which was exactly what we had talked about, basically. It was like, “Oh, thank God we didn’t really do anything with it.”

JR: We were operating with that thought, though. We were writing season one with that thought in our heads that it could be the case.

DH: I think that’s a really remarkable thing about today’s TV audience. You cannot write payoff-based TV anymore because the audience is essentially a render farm. They have an unlimited calculation capacity. There’s no writers’ room that can think more than 20 million people who can think about it for an hour a day. That season of Dexter being the big example: They had planned out this whole Fight Club reveal that there was a character that didn’t really exist except in someone else’s head. They’d planned out the whole clever thing, and they were going to reveal it, and all this stuff, and then after episode one aired, somebody on Reddit just like, [Snaps fingers.]. You can’t do it anymore. You can’t try to fool the audience.

JR: Unless you’re M. Night Shyamalan, and it’s just a movie. You can do it. Go ahead, do it. But if it’s a series—

DH: But the really cool thing is that render farm reduces your job as a writer to story and jokes. Character. Just things that in the moment that you provide for them, it’s like you’re spinning plates or juggling. This idea that you’re a magician that, like, gets there early and puts threads somewhere—they’re always going to see it.

Emphasis mine.

I happen to agree with them, completely.  Further, I see it constantly in new writers who struggle to get out of the starting blocks with their books.  So many new and wanna-be writers have it in their heads that they can’t go forward unless they have something completely original, utterly new.  Their idea has to be bold and groundbreaking and something that’s going to knock socks off readers everywhere.  I’ve touched on it before.

Writing is hard.  Learning to write is probably harder than actually writing.  It’s one of those skills that seems like it has no obvious starting place when you’re standing at the bottom looking for a place where you can begin digging in.  One of the things I try to do when I talk about writing to new writers is get them to just start moving.

The comments by the two tv writers above are good ones, I feel, because they speak directly to a common new writer issue.  And it describes a very 21st century issue as well.  Back in the day, when horse drawn wagons were the primary mode of transit and even telegraphs hadn’t been invented yet, there was effectively no gestalt.  There was little collective wisdom, no crowd sourcing.  With everyone scattered so far and wide, without viable connections binding them together, it was easy to be the smartest guy in town.  A traveling show could wow and amaze at each stop, because they were always fresh and new wherever they went.

Today, that’s just not the case.  Everyone’s constantly connected.  I’ve bemoaned it myself.  Last May I took a trip, and went to places I’ve always wanted to go.  One of those places was Disneyland.  Now it was one thing for people waiting on, or actually on, buses and trains as I traveled to be glued to their phones.  It was another for tourists at the Sears Tower or USMC Memorial or crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to be buried in their little handheld screens.  But surely, at Disneyland, they’d take a break and just enjoy what was happening right in front of them?  Right?

No.  Even there, people were logged on and plugged in.  An awful lot of them were more interested in taking selfies and other photographic proofs they could use to ensure everyone in their online circles knew they’d been there than they were in actually enjoying being there.  I find it odd.

But it speaks to our online culture.  Everyone’s constantly feeding into and taking out of the electronic gestalt.  That especially includes fictional content and discussion of same.  The only argument I give any real credence to about how Netflix should maybe consider not releasing their series content all at once is the water cooler effect.  These days people don’t actually go to water coolers, but the point remains.  By dropping it all at once, Netflix mostly removes the event discussion effect from the experience of consuming the content.  You can’t go one at a time, safe in the knowledge that everyone else is held to the same rate.  Binge watching lets people tear through it, and the most common question is now “have you watched the show”, not “did you see it last night.”

Part of that online culture is what Roiland and Harmon mention.  With millions, tens of millions, even hundreds of millions, all reading and writing and thinking about a show; it’s pretty difficult to catch them out.  And I really don’t think that’s a bad thing.  If your show or book or movie or whatever depends on the ‘big reveal’ or it won’t work, I think that maybe you should’ve tried harder.  I was one of the “oh my God!” people back in 1999 watching The Sixth Sense, and it was an amazing moment when Anna drops the ring.  I still think quite highly of that movie because of how skilled the handling of ‘the big reveal’ is.  And I do feel a huge part of the problems Shyamalan has had with his career since is a continued insistence on trying to duplicate the success of that big reveal.

Shyamalan is actually a great case study for this reason.  His subsequent films tried to use the big reveal technique, but even in a ‘short’ movie format, it stops working when your audience goes looking for it.  Like it or not, there are people who can’t just sit back and enjoy a story; they have to be actively involved in poking and prodding and trying to guess every last thing about it before it comes up.  I don’t get it, but it’s a thing and fighting about it doesn’t change the facts.  Shyamalan has stumbled a lot since his initial success because of this, and I’m not sure where it’s left him.  Not at the height he was in ’99 and 2000, that’s for sure.

The same problems Shyamalan’s had apply to all creators.  Don’t let yourself get written into those corners.  As Roiland and Harmon say, it sort of reduces your role to character and jokes.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It does, if you think about it, take some of the weight off.  Your job’s just to create great characters and manipulate them entertainingly within an expected framework.  The only problem is when you, the creator, get bogged down on the insistence that you have to be hitting the audience from their blindside.  Which, as I think the above text shows, is more or less impossible.

Incidentally, it’s part of the multiple of reasons I personally believe in as to why Martin continues to have problems with A Song of Ice and Fire.  I won’t go into the whole spiel here, but I think Martin has more than a little “must surprise them” in his approach to writing.  I feel he sort of sulks and gets stuck when the audience gets ahead of him and ‘sees’ plot points coming.  It’s just my personal theory, or part of it anyway.  I could be wrong.  I don’t think I am, but whatever.  Martin if I’m right, or anyone who is acting like that, needs to get over it and just get on with the writing.  Relying on the reveal is missing the point. The point’s to entertain.  Not shock.  Let the audience have their reactions, their theories, their predictions.  That’s the fun of being in the audience; you get to guess and discuss and play what-if.

My job’s just to write.  So is yours.  Stop getting sidetracked and just write.