Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Beauty of Briefness

I'm a part of a modern, first-world country. So, of course, I watch television. It's often a good medium for story, and there's a surprising number of television directors, actors and producers who actually know what they're doing. Lately, however, I find myself getting bored with television shows. It's not that the characters aren't interesting, or the dialogue isn't funny or the stories aren't engaging. It's not that at all, these shows are still made very well, and have been for the last few years. This is actually a much more serious problem than that. In fact, it has expanded not just into most television shows, but into feature films, videogames and even books.
They just don't seem to end.
The Word of the Day is: 'FINALE'.

Finale /fə'nahlee/ n. 1. The last piece, division, or movement of a concert, opera, or musical composition. 2. The last part of any performance.

I am really fond of Murder Mysteries. I haven't read that many, since people don't write that many these days, (which I find really frustrating, but that's a discussion for a later date). The reason I bring up the point is because Murder Mysteries have a very simple template. No matter how complicated everything gets, every murder mystery has the same premise:
  "Someone has been murdered. Who done it?"
These stories will often have twists and turns; red herrings and false promises. But the thing is, no matter how much happens in the interim, we know when the story is over. It's over when we answer that question. Now other genres, despite their less specific nature, also have these questions even if you never noticed it, but they're obvious when you think about it.
Romance: "How will they get together in the end?"
Action: "Can one man defeat the bad guy?"
Horror: "How many people have to die before you're entertained?"
Comedy: "How much comedy can we squeeze out of this premise?"
Fantasy: "What the fuck is going on?!"

For individual stories, the questions get more specific. But my point stands, most stories have a hook, which you can phrase as a question. I like to call this The Promise. When you write a story, you entice the reader with a question, a query or a dilemma, and promise the reader that you will answer this question by the time the final page rolls around.

That is why it's really starting to annoy me how often television shows just keep on keeping on, without much conclusion to look forward to. Even crime shows, drama shows or soap operas, which seem to have a premise that can go on forever, in reality have an even simpler question to answer:
  "Who are these people?"
No matter how much air time is dedicated to solving the crime at hand, sorting out the issues, curing the disease or whatever; the heart and soul of these shows are the characters and their character development. That's the reason why, when a show starts to stagnate, one of the characters is killed off or gets stabbed or does something dramatic. It changes their character, and gives the writers more to say about them. Hell, some shows actually introduce a new character, just so they can divulge them, and have the other people react to them in new ways.

I am getting really sick of it.

I believe that the most poignant and important part of any story is its finale. Not only does it mean that The Promise will be fulfilled, but it also solidifies the story, completes it and allows for the writer's message to come across entirely.

In the words of Benjamin 'Yahtzee' Croshaw:
  " . . . To my mind a good story is like a good bowel movement: it's only really satisfying once it's ended. Because if you just keep going, then eventually your body runs out of shit and moves on to pushing all your internal organs out your sphincter until only a foul-smelling shell remains."

I tend to agree. The thing is . . . with any question, we want an answer. You can imagine that a Murder Mystery would get pretty frustrating if people keep on ignoring the question, or wasting time or going off in a different direction. In fact, this has even coined the term 'Jumping the Shark', from the old television show Happy Days. In essence, it means that you can tell when a show has gone on too long when it has run out of good ideas and has settled for the ridiculous.
It's why so many people think that The Simpsons isn't funny anymore; the reason I no longer watch Family Guy & the reason why I am worried about these endless Crime Dramas.

Don't get me wrong, I mean, I understand why people do it. If you're making up an entire fictional world, then you can get quite attached to the characters in it. With so many details in the background, the history and the narrative mechanics of a fictional world, some writers start writing tangential stories about this background stuff, just to keep the story going.
One needs only look at NCIS: LA; CSI: Miami, Law & Order: SVU & Torchwood to see this happening in the realm of television. Spin-offs are a reprehensible invention of writers. Despite some of the good ones, like NCIS, or (arguably) Torchwood, I find that spin-offs too often allow authors an excuse to not end their stories that they love (that is, if it's not just a money grab).

Lately, I've even seen this happening with the amazing medium of books. I have been reading Skulduggery Pleasant on and off for a while now, ever since I found the first book in the bookstore, and enjoyed it. But after nearly half a dozen sequels, the author has now written two little spin-off books, just to postpone the inevitable conclusion. Then there's the Wardstone Chronicles series, another set of books that I absolutely love, despite cover changes, two spin-offs and a finale that looks further away than the horizon.

Why are people so averse to ending their stories?

Television shows, and long series, have something that other mediums can't compete with: Time. No matter how low the budget, with time we come to understand and empathize with characters. This also, often, results in the audience becoming attached to these characters, so it gives writers and readers an incentive to avoid an ending. But a story without an end has no meaning, and continuing a story just for the sake of it is nothing more than wasting the audience's time. I mean, think about it, if you don't have the whole story, then you can't really call it a 'story' at all. It's still just a 'work in progress'.

Thus far, my favourite show on television is House, M.D. and that is due, in no small part, to the fact that it actually isn't a show on television anymore. I like the characters, the intrigue, the drama and the tragedy; but even after four seasons, I knew that it was too much. I haven't seen the finale, since I buy it on DVD and watch it in my own time, but just the simple fact that it does end means that I have more respect for the series.

Not only does an ending make a story complete, but the longer a story goes on, the more likely it is to stagnate, lose focus or jump the shark. For example, this very post has been meandering on for so long, that I think I've lost the plot. I'm not sure if I've made all my points, and I could keep on writing about this for another twelve pages.

But, as we all know, all good things must come to an end. I'm sure you've got Youtube videos to watch, games to play, people to see, things to do & most importantly, other things to read. No matter how good your story is, you have to give people a chance to branch out and read other stories, otherwise you're just being a selfish arsehole.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and this is the end of this post.

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