Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Where’s the Line At?

A friend of mine mentioned that he was noticing something of a red flag I’ve come to notice, though he put it better than I did way back then, so I’ll try to put it at least as well here.

We prefer clever stories. All of us. Even when the story is about a man hitting a rock with his head, if he does it cleverly, we’re more likely to watch it. Actually, more I think about it, the man would HAVE to hit the rock with his head cleverly for that to work as a show, the nuance and pathos (note to self, new script project...). News shows and documentaries are not immune to this preference - if no thought is put into making them, we don’t think we’ll watch them. The news anchor that presents a story in a way that captures its impact on the world and connects it to their viewer is more successful than the one that reads an article off AP.org.

This holds true even for the bane of my existence: “reality” shows. If I believed the people on these things were average citizens of the USA, I’d have applied for another country’s residency long ago. I gave Survivor a longer shot than any such show to date, only until I realized no one was going to actually die. But even here, it’s the clever contestants (where applicable) that always “win” - they’re usually deceitful, backstabbing liars, but they’re clever liars.

Clever is essential. Clever is appreciated. And just like anything else, Clever can be overdone.

Too-Much-Clever is what happens when a show or story consistently gets into and out of situations that are impossible to follow from within the narrative. Such a narrative may grip the audience, pull them to the edge of their seats, and they may even follow along, but if they do, it’s only because they’re the audience. They get to see every perspective, thus collect all the relevant data, and thus can track what’s happening and why. Within the narrative, each character can only see their own perspective, and so when they arrive at a solution to a problem that uses all the materials and data, it’s dramatic, exciting, it may even be accurate, but something in our heads recognizes that they couldn’t have figured it out if someone wasn’t helping them cheat.

Now at all times, when it comes to fiction-based stories, it’s always the writer/ creator of the work who is being clever. But when a particular problem is solved not with brawn or explosions, but with a tiny idea and good timing, the strongest narratives make the audience cheer for the characters, not their writers. The best way to tell is, again, being able to define who knows what, less than how they work with it. As soon as someone on screen starts using what other people know to get their way out of a jam, while they may still be clever, it’s not their cleverness we’re really watching.

George R. R. Martin comes to mind as someone that makes really good use of this principle by flipping it. The fastest, most reliable means of long-distance communication in his Song of Ice and Fire series is carrier-pigeon (or raven, if you want to be technical). If someone wants to tell a buddy across town something, there’s going to be a lot of running involved. Most of the main characters are very clever (in their unique ways), but Martin is very careful in establishing each of their perspectives. What do they know that others don’t? How do they act on it? Within each one’s purview, they are making the best decisions they can, but as an outside observer with access to everyone’s information, Martin gives us a perverse sense of satisfaction as we observe a very clever person make a very stupid move. If only they knew what we did.

So the question I put is this: Where does the line fall? How clever is too clever? Just how brilliant can a character be before those of us on the couch just stop believing anyone could be so amazing? When you watched the series premiere of Dr. Who, did you praise the Doctor for the way he was able to stall long enough for the answer to make itself known? Or did you praise Steven Moffat?

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