Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Death and Resurrection of Formula

I've been teaching media writing since 2001 — not all that long, but much has changed with the rise of new media. Not just in terms of production and distribution tools, though those have evolved and proliferated with amazing speed. Content is changing. Which means writing is changing.

I sometimes have difficulty getting my students to believe that they are writers. They see themselves as audio engineeers, camera operators, directors, editors, producers. But more and more, these separate jobs are getting done by one person. More and more, the media we watch is coming from a single author, or a very small team operating as an author.

And a lot of these authors don't want to write sitcoms, or crime dramas, or anything else they've seen over and over again on TV. Or they do, but they want to write it better. No one has to copy a formula to get their work "on the air" now. Perhaps the most important feature of new media is that it's different from TV.

This is a beautiful thing. It could save us from the suffocating affliction of monoculture, as long as we refuse to let it devolve into a small-screen version of old-fashioned, corporate-owned, commercial-sponsored television. I understand the urge to keep new media pure in that sense.

But I'm worried, too. "Kill Your Television" worries me. The "death of the sitcom" worries me. I'm worried for all those media-makers out there who suddenly have to be writers, because it seems like a lot of writerly knowhow is about to become taboo.

Yes, I know TV mostly sucks, but we should figure out exactly why before we issue a blanket condemnation of all things broadcast. I feel strange saying it, but I think there's a lot about TV that is worth saving. I feel even stranger saying that one of the things I hope survives is — and now I'm really taking my life in my hands — formula.

"Formula" shouldn't be a dirty word. Of course, most TV shows are crap — but not because they follow a formula. It's because they do so in uninspired, repetetive and predictable ways, and because they sacrifice art (which is original and risky) for commercial viability (which relies on imitation).

But it's silly to say that a bad sitcom is bad because it's structured as a comedy, or that a drama is bad because it's structured as a drama. Formula doesn't make a story boring; rather, it heightens the impact of the material by keeping it clear, uncluttered, and powerful. It helps the storyteller focus and strengthen the plot, create engaging characters, and send the audience on an enjoyable trip.

Formula doesn't have to limit or repress creativity; it can help a writer tell where, whether and why the story is working (or not working). If a story is going to engage us, it needs to be shaped, edited, structured — some writing has to happen. Decisions must be made about what gets told, in what order and at what pace; what gets omitted, or rearranged, so that there can be focus and clarity and meaning; what effects are achieved, what gratifications delivered, what experience is created for the audience.

When a writer knows how to tell what works and what doesn't and why, then any element of a formula can be rejected or modified. Some proficient storytellers (vloggers, for example) do this instinctively and so might think that they're not doing it at all, but we've all seen enough clunky, pointless and boring vlogs (and cable-access TV shows, and student films, and "experimental videos") to be able to instantly register the difference.

Do a search on YouTube for "cat fight" and you'll see where we might end up if we choose to forget what we know about storytelling. (And I'm not even talking about the porn.) I've chosen three cat-fight videos (at right) as examples of storytelling technique (or lack thereof), hoping to inspire my students and other new-media makers to take up the work of being writers.

I've done this because I dread the day when all there is to watch is people's cute cat footage, or unedited road-trip videos, or private musings in extreme close-up. Because, honestly, your cat is not as cute to me as it is to you; your friends are not as funny as you thought they were when they did that crazy thing you caught with your cell-phone camera; the raw footage you shot of the broken-down semi in a ditch somewhere along I-90 is not a pithy commentary on the economics of food transport or life in the heartland. It's just home movies — which can be a lot of fun to watch, but most people still prefer to go to the cinema or the video store or, yes, the dreaded TV, to see something that's had thought and craft put into it. The fact that someone was somewhere with a digital camera doesn't necessarily mean the result is anything anyone wants to watch.

So my hope for my students is this: that they think of themselves as writers. That they take the time to learn about story structure, and then hack the hell out of those formulas with precision, deliberation and skill. That they make media that brings light and life to the great world of people out there, watching.

Click on images to play

6,090 views; 5 comments; 11 favorites. This one didn't "go viral" (spread by word of mouth) and didn't generate much response. It's easy to see why: viewers have to wait through lots of nothing-happening time, and what little action there is doesn't build. Real life is like that: lots of waiting, events not effectively arranged in sequences with pacing and timing and rising action. But a good story needs some shape, needs an arc — or else no tension, no drama, no interest!

25,530 views; 2 comments; 10 favorites. This one didn't generate much discussion either, but it had almost 20,000 more viewers. It uses music to establish some context, and focuses on one event that has a bit of build; not quite telling a story, but getting there.

249,836 views; 116 comments; 986 favorites. Now we're talking viral! And the reason is obvious: at only 9 seconds, this video tells a complete story with identifiable characters and strong 3-act structure. Act I: Naive, overconfident protagonist faces a challenge; is ignored by bigger, wiser, more powerful opponent. Act II: Naive protagonist doubles his efforts, taunts the opponent; at first it seems his second attempt has failed as well (dark night of the soul). Act III: Climax! Powerful opponent engages, beats crap out of naive hero. OK, so it's not a happy ending. But storywise, all the elements are there. And the audience definitely responded.

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