Thursday, December 15, 2011
Storyteller's Rulebook #111: You Can Skip Over Unsurprising Scenes
As I mentioned before, I’m in love with “Homeland”, which is one of the most perpetually shocking shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a show about a genuinely self-destructive wrecking ball of a heroine before, and it’s utterly thrilling.
This show has lots of shocks for the audience, and they keep them coming at a brisk pace. How do they keep it up? They simply skip over every scene that goes down the way that you would expect it to go, even if those scenes have lots of dramatic potential.
At the beginning of episode seven, we find out that two huge developments have happened off camera since the end of episode six. The co-protagonist and his wife have agreed to take some time off, and the CIA has discovered that the suspect they’ve been desperately tracking has been killed by his own people, revealing a wider problem than they suspected.
Both of these scenes might seem like slam dunks with potential for high drama and great acting, but nothing surprising happens in either one. We already guessed that Brody and his wife would need some time apart, and we’d already seen the suspect get killed.
The two scenes that got skipped were “fallout” scenes, and actors love fallout, but it doesn’t move the story forward. These scenes come right out. If we hear Brody say that he and his wife agreed to spend some time apart, we can imagine how that conversation went. If we see that the CIA is now looking for who might have killed their suspect, then we obviously understand that they found the suspect’s body and freaked out.
In the one journalism class I took, from Alex Blumberg of “This American Life” fame, he explained the difference between dramatic and newsworthy: Usually, if you’re covering the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to your subject, that’s a good thing, but there are exceptions, like, for instance somebody’s wedding day…
A wedding day has high drama and life-altering stakes for the families involved, but they’re rarely newsworthy, because they’re rarely surprising. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. If you attend your friend’s wedding, you’ll probably cry a bit and laugh a bit, but if you can’t make it, you’re not even going to ask what you missed. You’ll just assume that everything went the way these things always go.
“Homeland” is a ripped-from-the-headlines show, and it holds itself to the same standards as a good newspaper: Keep it riveting and only tell people what they don’t already know.