A few days ago, I had a bit of a witter about comedy in writing. One of the points I made in that post was that sometimes the humor could seem very forced. Mostly, I attributed that to starting with the idea of ‘comedy’ as their building block, rather than starting with an interesting plot, to which comedy is then naturally added.
I also made the point humor is really tough, and that I’m rubbish at it.
Either way, putting those thoughts down in words has had me thinking about other genres and topics that suffer if they are the sole point of a work, a conversation I ended up having with another writer buddy of mine yesterday, while out playing the wonderful ‘Gaslands’ tabletop game.
World building and plot are always the most important thing to me when writing. I’ve abandoned multiple potential writing projects over the years because the settings or rules I am being asked to work within do not make sense to me, or are not constructed in such a way I feel I can apply my personal touch to it appropriately.
I’m a sucker for putting real-world learning into my creative works (almost like I used to teach, or something…) and I simply cannot abide a map that makes no sense for the social habits of humans or has illogical borders and restrictions.
I also tend to put down books, movies, comics and anything else I might choose to read where there is no viewable plot or point to the work within the first few chapters. Generally, I will give a work up to a quarter of its length to truly get its teeth into something. I like horror stories, and you often have to have a set up of normalcy with that genre before things go wrong, so I can be patient for a good few chapters before I wander off. Yet, wander off I shall if I don’t feel immersed in or interested about the world, or there isn’t anything actually happening. Which brings me to the one genre worse than comedy for starting from the ‘wrong’ focus point…
Slice of Life
I grew up with the anime boom of the 90’s, while Friends was at the peak of its run, and every sitcom ever made was on constant repeat on your choice of 100 cable channels!
As a result, even though I never liked the genre much even at its peak, I have had a very rounded and protracted look into the slice of life/situational comedy/family lifestyle of storytelling. And I have always felt the one thing it was missing was an actual story.
Now, I know this is a hugely popular genre with a lot of people, and when it comes to things like soap operas, there are people out there who hinge their lives around not missing an episode. Naturally, I have no issue with people liking what they like (folks are allowed to enjoy things I don’t, after all), but I would strongly contend, even to those people, that such shows and books are really not particularly good storytelling. And I shall quantify why I feel so.
For a lot of these sorts of show, the starting point written in big letters on the writer’s project board, underlined and highlighted, is ‘drama’.
Not ‘character development’, not ‘unique setting idea’, not ‘story with surprise twist’, just ‘drama’. Everything else that goes into a story then comes in slaved to the concept of ramping up the drama, regardless of how likely, sensible, compelling or interesting it is.
Example: We are creating a doctor-themed slice of life show. The point of the show is Drama, so everything else is in service to this. Our first problem, then, is needing a cast of lots of characters to cause the drama, rather than a few key people we get to know well. As a result, the characters are written as very trope-ish archetypes so the audience knows what this kind of person is like with minimal exposition, story time or development. The Drama is more important than really knowing the players.
Our second problem is we are competing with dozens of other TV shows and multiple book series that do a similar thing, including in the ‘doctor’ genre, so to get any media attention with our pilot series, we need to stand out. Drama is most important, so the producer/publisher is most likely to bite if we got for ‘highlighting current cultural issues’. So we decide to set our doctors up at a remote trauma center just outside a war zone, or in a refugee camp, dealing with the fallout from the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.
In service to Drama, we can guarantee that there will be a strong female lead, defying the standards of males dominating power roles in technical fields. There will be a forbidden love element somewhere, despite the ‘no fraternization’ policy of the medical unit. There will be a story arc where the local military force representing the West throws its weight around and oppresses the locals (maybe through demanding treatment for their men first or some such) and after we’ve been taught to hate the war machine of the developed world, some twist will show why such ruthlessness is actually ok, because war is hell and the locals aren’t following the Geneva convention or something.
Someone will have a prescribed drug addiction, and repeatedly put the unit in jeopardy and nearly get caught, until they finally slip up, in series 4.
There will be a heartwrenching episode with children in it, showing the true price of war – loss of innocence.
There will be medical-ese thrown around for realism, but none of it will be accurate, all of it will be misleading and will teach people bad habits for first aid situations in reality.
People will die when it is considered most dramatic for them to do so, such as on their birthday, or when things have been going well for a while, regardless of the likelihood of that happening for real. Heaven help any character getting married on their birthday. Guaranteed to kill them, right there, just like the black guy about to retire in a horror movie. (And I am very much pointing out how not ok that trope is, too.)
Drugs will go missing, smuggling will be going on, conflict with the locals will happen, someone will get fired wrongfully, there will be a bio-weapon threat or attack, a bombing, and a doctor who gets PTSD from dealing with it all.
And if we are really lucky, it will be a comedy AS WELL.
I can almost see the show inside my head as I describe it. Part of that is because, technically, that show has already been made – it was called M*A*S*H and was set during the Vietnamese conflict.
At the time, with the genre nowhere near as over saturated as it is now, it was brilliant. It made an actual point in a useful way, and while there was a lot of comedy and drama, the story came first, especially in a climate where the war in question was very controversial. The final episode was a doozy.
Making the same thing today about the worlds current conflicts just doesn’t have the same weight or ring of truth. It isn’t unique, new, it doesn’t make a point, and all too often I feel like these kinds of shows only kill people for the sake of the shock, not to make an actual point, or take the story to its logical conclusion. It’s done so people have something to gossip about at work the next day, not in service to good writing or storytelling.
For me, everyone can tell a slice of life story, because we are all living our own, right now, right this minute. We quantify nothing about our own experiences or the higher-minded capabilities of our species by simply rehashing every day of Joe Average, with some gimmick thrown in just to dramatize it. I do not need Joe Average, but with Autism, to make me feel better about my own existence. I do not need the story of how doctors are over-worked and underpaid to know the world isn’t fair. Issues we deal with as a species are not tokens on some drama bingo card, and it annoys me no end to watch Slice of Life shows treat them as such,
I want an actual story I can get invested in, and a plot with a conclusion to it, and a satisfying one at that (note: satisfying doesn’t mean ‘nice’ or ‘happy’. I’m ok with ‘bad’ endings, so long as they are satisfying and not just Phil Mitchell dying because it’s convenient, or because the actor has had enough of playing him for years, or whatever.)
Doing it Right
Now, for all my whinging above, there are some shows and stories that do it right. One that got mentioned in a chat with a friend of mine today was ‘The Addams Family’.
I love that show, I’ve enjoyed the movies, and I can easily say why: the concept was good.
It didn’t start with Drama, it started with ‘what if we invert expectations? What if we put together a macabre family and view their lives from our concept of what is normal, while they are perceiving ‘normal’ people from their different standpoint?”
That is plot, right there, not Drama, or Just Life.
One of the very best things about the Addam’s Family is that for all the creator made them ‘weird’, he did not make them ephemeral or poke fun at/use genuine issues for a cheap sense of depth and poignancy.
The family is actually an excellent family to model one’s own behavior after. They all care about each other, they are all unique, they all value each others uniqueness and abilities, and the family dynamic is very very very far from dysfunctional. Morticia and Gomez have the kind of loving relationship with each other, and for their children, I aspire to, frankly.
They are a family who celebrates each other, rather than denigrates each other, and they never needed a single drug, abuse, abandonment or other bleak storylines to do it.
Another good example of a show that does it well, on a different scale, is Mrs Browns Boys. This is one less people may be familiar with, but it is a comedy show about the life of Mrs Brown and her children, full of comedy and silliness.
What makes this one worth the watch (so long as you are ok with some crass humour, which admittedly I’m usually not) is that once again the instigating concept isn’t Drama.
The concept with this one was to show off the actors, more than anything, and to have fun. The plots and stories aren’t going to win any awards, but it’s the world that makes this one worth it, and for a very unusual reason.
The show is filmed live, in front of an actual audience. And they leave all the mistakes in.
One episode in particular that I recall ended with the two ‘female’ leads in the pub (in a throwback to old stage productions, there are female characters played by men in drag, hence the quotation marks), and one of them needed a prop out of her handbag.
Which she had left in the living room section of the set, ‘back at the house’.
We got to see the actor stand up, walk in front of the partition separating the ‘pub’ locale from the ‘house’ locale, retrieve the missing bag, and then get back on with it, with a few jokes thrown in on the spot about forgetting things at home.
It was a wonderful 4th wall breaking experience, the jokes in that mistake section were ad-libbed instead of pre-written, and you end up with a weird dichotomy with the entire show of being invested in both the characters you are following in the actual story, but also the actors who are portraying them.
The world is unique, because it is happy to reach out and touch the real world, right there where you can see it, and that makes it much more meaningful in my eyes.
I guess, ultimately, I am saying the same thing I did back on my Comedy post.
We all like different things in our entertainment, and it will always be ok for people to enjoy whatever they enjoy… but I think there is value in always thinking about the point of your work, what you are trying to say and why, before just churning something out.
Yes, shows like East Enders and Neighbours and Friends make a lot of money, but the stories all blur together in my head and none of them mean anything, while better planned out stories that speak with passion can go on to change the world.
If you want to make me laugh, don’t start from ‘comedy’ and only add in a plot as an afterthought. Tell me a good story, and let the humor shine through from your characters and situations.
If you want to make me appreciate the lives some people live, handle a genuine issue or topic with care and heart, or give me a unique spin on it that makes me think. Don’t just give me Drama.
And for my part… I will try to do likewise in all that I write, if at all humanly possible. Because readers are worth it, and smarter than we give them credit for.