Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #148: Be Like Cable News

 In keeping with my comment discussion yesterday with J.S. about false balance, a post that synthesizes some previous posts:
Pay off is what goes into the trailer, but you should spend most of your actual screentime on set-up.  It takes a lot longer to roll the rock up the hill than it does to roll it back down. In fact, by the time you’ve done all that setting up and paying off, that you won’t have much time for anything else.  

You can’t have “slow character scenes” and “fast plot scenes”.  You have “set-up” scenes in which tension slowly builds as the characters reveal themselves in ways that put them in opposition, then, when the tension twists too tight, you burst into a big plot-filled pay-off. 

This can happen within one scene or over the course of several… you can devote ten minutes of screentime to one long wind-up that ends in a big confrontation, or you can devote that same time to six short character interactions, set over the course of six months, that culminate in a big showdown at the end of that sequence.

As I said here, there is another type of slow scene other than set-up: aftermath or “fallout” scenes, but these should mostly be avoided.  You should just skip right to the next set-up.

This is especially true for comedy.  A dialogue exchange or even a whole scene that sets up a comedic pay-off is great: the audience will get more and more excited as they anticipate the coming joke, then go crazy when it arrives.  But if you show the aftermath of the joke, or let the characters discuss the punchline after it’s been delivered, everything deflates. 

Now don’t get me wrong, this is actually very unrealistic: In real life, nobody ignores a devastating zinger or a massive pratfall, but it’s standard in comedy, because it’s necessary in order to keep things moving at a fast, funny clip.  Everyone should be in too much of a hurry to set up the next joke.  

Here’s a strange example of this principle at work: As predicted by Network, news programming now see itself primarily as entertainment programming.  Sure enough, they follow this rule religiously, even thought it results in terrible news. 

About ten years ago, cable news totally transformed itself.  Previously, the news model had always been to tell people what happened over the course of the previous 24 hours.  But these days the networks almost never do that.  Instead, 95% of their airtime is devoted to speculation about what might happen in the next 24 hours.  This is true for several reasons:
  • Even if something only happened an hour ago, the networks are terrified that it will be considered old news because it’s already appeared on the internet. 
  • They’re even more terrified of seeming biased towards one political party or the other, and nothing is more biased than actual facts: Either the president delivered on his promise or he didn’t.  Either the opposition party’s prediction came true or it didn’t.  (And of course, what terrifies the networks the most is the notion that both parties may be wrong.)  But if all you ever talk about is what might happen, then you can be totally even-handed: perhaps one party will turn our right, or perhaps the other one will.  Who can say?
  • But the most important reason is this: talking about the future is far more dramatic.  Since their goal is to entertain, they have no interest in fallout (aka: the actual news).  “What’s done is done,” they now say, “but the question of what will happen next is so much more dramatically compelling! 
This is a principal that makes for horrible journalism, but it undeniably makes for great entertainment, so you should do as they do: keep the focus on what’s going to happen.


j.s. said...

So cable news producers have been reading their Alexander Mackendrik: "What is happening NOW is apt to be less dramatically interesting than what may or may not HAPPEN NEXT." Stay tuned!

Another thing that wigs me out about cable news in the last decade or so is how unironically it's now scored with background music, just like a fiction film or a TV show. And the creepiest thing of all is when there's some kind of huge story -- a big on-going disaster or war or other tragedy that they know they'll be covering for days/weeks/months -- and it gets its own special music cue. What's up with that?

Matt Bird said...

A development presaged by "Broadcast News". (Hmm... that's a movie that I haven't seen in years that I should really see again.)

christinembird said...

Don't know how this fits, but my boss at Smith Barney used to tell his brokers:

The prospect you are talking to on the telephone is a whole lot more interested in what he owns than in what you're selling.