A Vintage Blog Post About Writing and Attention Spans
Now, I’m not a writer for television (though I’m available–call me, really), but I’m an avid consumer of television and I’m a writer, so I confess to having a few opinions about writing and television, including why some shows are successful and some aren’t and how shows change over time (aside from the fact that the female lead’s hair tends to get longer and longer, the longer a show stays on the air–heck, you can tell what season a clip from Castle is by that fact alone).
One thing that is reasonably easy to spot about television writing is that some shows are more episodic and some shows have an extensive mythic arc.
On the mythic arc side of this equation are shows like Lost and Flashforward and most of the HBO/Showtime Emmy-bait dramas and all of the soaps (daytime or primetime). These shows depend on hooking the audience into a long-term mystery or storyline with complicated character interactions, long-term plot puzzles, and cliff-hanger endings to pull you from episode to episode.
Episodic shows are all about the twenty-one or forty-two minutes of that particular show. While the characters may be familiar, the show is all about the wacky problem(s) or clever crime(s) of the day. Episodic shows include most sitcoms, most police procedurals, and a good number of mysteries. By the end of the hour the family crisis has been solved, the bad guy has been caught, and we are given a teaser about next week’s new issue/murder/family crisis. Law & Order is, of course, the king of the episodic hour-long drama. Over the years, the characters have changed and partners have switched and new good-looking assistant prosecutors have shown up and it doesn’t really affect the show at all. We know almost nothing about the characters except their mannerisms at a crime scene or in a courtroom. (In fact, when one assistant prosecutor was terminated, she asked if it was because she was a lesbian and while she was assured it was not, most of America was probably looking at each other and saying “She was a lesbian? Was there any suggestion/set-up for that in the show at all?)
Episodic shows like Law & Order and CSI are great for reruns and syndication, because no one cares what order you watch them in, because it really doesn’t make a difference–you don’t need any information from the prior show to watch whatever one happens to be on at the moment. (Same is true of episodic game shows like Wheel of Fortune.) Mythic arc shows may have a strong, even cultish, fan base, but they demand that the audience watch in sequence, so are less attractive in re-runs and syndication. (Same is true of progressive game/reality shows like Survivor.)
Of course, not all shows are at the extreme of the spectrum from episodic to mythic. Some mix things up a bit with a season-long arc that is moved slowly along as episodic shows occur or which pops in for an occasional dedicated episode. While a crime show like Law & Order has little mythic arc, another crime show may ratchet up the arc a bit, like Beckett’s quest to find her mother’s killer on Castle (there’s the whole Castle/Beckett romantic arc, too) or the Red John serial killer on The Mentalist.
Heck, even House adds in a bit of mythic arc to its medical procedural which is so episodic every freaking episode has the same plot (patient comes in with mysterious illness, House doesn’t want to take the case (or work in the clinic), but reluctantly does so, then misdiagnoses the patient at least three times (almost killing him or her), before chancing upon the correct diagnosis because of either discovering the patient has lied about something or because of an irrelevant comment in the lame personal subplot with the rest of the staff).
One thing you may notice if you watch TV a lot, like me, is that most long-running shows move from primarily episodic to primarily mythic. I would contend this is true from everything from Friends, Big Bang, and HIMYM, to things like Fringe, Grimm, Castle, and even Magnum, P.I. and Moonlighting. Even talent shows like American Idol and SYTYCD move from prelims (watchable in any order) to the drama of a winnowing field with plenty of character backstories. This is an even more pronoounced phenomenon in cult favorites like The X Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural.
Take Supernatural, for example, one of the best series since Buffy went off the air. Season 1 gave us a premise of guys who hunt monsters. Sure, there was a motivator/arc about their dad (also a hunter) being missing, but the early shows were monster of the week. Over the next six seasons the overarching storyline for the season became stronger (the guys hunt while they try to figure out why Sam has strange powers; the guys hunt while they try to save Dean from going to Hell; the guys try to stop the Apocalypse and occasionally hunt on the side; the guys fight Leviathans and try to figure out the Leviathans’ plans for world domination).
There are reasons for this tendency. If you want to avoid the formulaic approach of Law & Order, you need to mix things up. Viewership for individual episodes can fall-off in the initial showing if there is not a compelling reason to watch the shows in order. Writers want new challenges. And the more dedicated your fan base, the more you have to do to keep ahead of where they think the show is going.
So, why not just start out more mythic? It worked for Lost, didn’t it? Sure, Lost was largely mythic and had a dedicated fan base, but I would argue that part of the reason that it was successful is that it didn’t appear to be mythic at first. Each episode had flashbacks for one of the characters and was complete in some ways in itself. Sure, strange things were happening at the Circle K … er, on the island, but in the first season the order of those strange things was not particularly important. Lost hooked people episodically, then retained them with mythos. The shows that tried to replicate the Lost formula, like Heroes, Flashforward, and The Nine, were less successful because they were promoted as mythic from early on and potential viewers or early viewers weighed the potential commitment of a lot of time before an ultimate payoff when deciding to view or keep viewing. That’s one reason why more mythic shows will often repeat the first episode or premier it on the web before the season starts or make shows available on the net the day after showing–they want to make sure they get and retain their audience right from the git-go or trouble quickly looms.
This has mostly been about television, but the same issues can affect other writing. Some readers avoid epic fantasy or open-ended series or a trilogy (at least until complete) because they don’t want a long commitment to a book/series until they are absolutely sure it is wonderful. Thus, standalone books (mysteries, for example, with a continuing detective) which can be read out of order can be a more effective strategy that a series with strict sequel order. Also a short story to introduce a world or character can be effective in getting readers to take a chance on a longer work that extends the world/character to a more complex plotline.
As you can tell from the sporadic posting times for my blog, I’m not exactly a mythic arc blogger, so feel free to go back and read my old blogs in any order while you are waiting for me to post anew. And, if you like what I say about writing and think it might make me an okay writer, check out my stories and books. More on that at www.donaldjbingle.com than even my mom wants to know.
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