Of the necessity of closure and good characterization. Thoughts on screenwriting.

Have you ever found yourself binge watching a tv-show? Or better yet, re-watching?  Have you ever wondered why you do this? Why it gives you pleasure and a feeling of satisfaction? But if it does, why do you keep going back? Is it because re-watching a tv-show feels like re-reading a good book, one that asks so many questions you feel compelled to ponder them again and again, drawing different answers each time as you grow older? This is something that happens a lot, especially with books we read for the first time at school, and then reopen once we’re adults and are able to reflect on our own life experiences through our favorite author’s eyes.

But a book is a book, meaning once you’ve read it, it is over, and unless the author is still alive and planning on writing a sequel, this particular book is an emotional experience you might want to relive only at the risk of questioning your mind and soul, and your identity.

A tv-show, however, is something entirely different. A show (especially a comedy one) exists for your entertainment, and it’s main goal is not to have you think. Still, it is sometimes a quite enjoyable experience. One would think though, that if it is only there to cheer you up, you can use it like a chewing-gum, smack your lips a few times, throw it out and go on with your life.

But then you start obsessing. You wait until the next episode. Then for the next one. Then one season is over, and you can’t wait until September again for the following one. Then, when it’s finally over, you have a hard time to move on. Not all of us are obsessive freaks like me, I’ll admit. Not everyone who enjoys an episode once in a while, or even watches a show religiously becomes a die-hard fan. Fandom is something entirely different. But in the last few weeks, I have found something about myself while (re)-watching a show I used to love, and that used to bring me peace and joy, and that this time around has made me totally obsessed with the fate of its characters. I’m talking about That 70’s Show, the one that ran on Fox for eight seasons beginning in 1998.

Something that started as a “guilty pleasure” became a full-on obsession within a few days. I couldn’t think of anything else than the storyline of the last seasons, couldn’t bring myself to let it go, that is my frustration with the way the series ended (disrupting all storylines built from the beginning of the show, ruining six or seven years of characterization, breaking up my favorite couple Jackie and Hyde). And even though I felt quite ashamed (because, let’s face it, obsessing over That 70’s Show is not very PhD student-like), I kept digging and digging, trying to find answers, before finally admitting it: the writers of the last season (and maybe even those of season 7) weren’t that good.

What’s a good recipe for on-screen storytelling? Well, it basically boils down to this: you have to keep your audience on their toes but from time to time strategically throwing it a piece of bone. It’s all a matter of teasing. But as too much of a good tease can be too much in real life and lose it’s appeal, too much of a tease can weaken the whole story. Screen writers play with the audience’s emotions, perpetually releasing and pulling, pulling and releasing. Of course there is no fun in watching over and over a happily ever after. But when one thing falls apart, another thing has to “fall” together: if your story is about two couples and you intend on splitting up one of them, you don’t go and do the same with the other simultaneously. Why? Because the secret to good storytelling, and it’s not news, is that a good story is a story that challenges the widest range of emotions. Joy, sadness, pity, anger, compassion, and the more the better. If things get out of balance, that is to say if one emotion is more often triggered than the other four (or more), then things fall apart, because a disbalance has been created. And without balance, the audience cannot experience any catharsis. A show, and, on a smaller scale, a season, and even a single episode, has to be cathartic: it has to leave the viewer emotionally drained, even if it’s claimed purpose is to make you laugh. No laughing experience will be satisfying if other emotions weren’t involved.

The obvious thing is, that most show runners don’t really want the audience to get closure too soon, well, because, if they do, they won’t be coming back for more. There is also a subtle balance to be reached between giving just enough to make someone want to keep watching a show and making an episode satisfying on its own. The shows that achieve best results in this department are those who combine single episode intrigues with bigger story arcs that last for five or more episodes.

But in the end, when a show is almost over, it has to give the viewers closure. It means it has to wrap up all loose ends. It has to answer it’s own questions following simultaneously logical and emotional guidelines. And it certainly can’t ignore the full range of emotions, especially if it once lived up to its own standards.

What makes a show go bad?

  • Unfinished character development. Worse, a character that returns to an undeveloped stage and thus displays OOC (out-of-character) behavior.
  • Switching genres and styles. A show is defined by its atmosphere. Although change can be good sometimes, some things have always remain the same throughout episodes and seasons, mostly protagonists characterizations. As always when it comes to entertainment (books, theatre, tv, radio), the unspoken goal is to make things believable, real. If the style, characters and genres aren’t consistent, it throws off the audience.
  • Choosing to play on one or two emotions instead of exploring a full-range: joy cannot be derived only from punchlines, sadness cannot be experienced if the audience is forced into it only by tear jerking scenes and storylines, compassion doesn’t run deep enough if the only thing set to trigger it is a never evolving pitiful character. The more emotions are at stake, the better.
  • Not knowing when to stop. Back to That 70’s Show again. Not knowing (or not willing) to wrap up when all the circumstances are gathered for it is the biggest mistake a show (or a novel, by the way) can make. As with everything fictional or otherwise written, the ending is where loose ends finally wrap up, that is when all the questions that have risen from the story are answered. Not when an external cue (like the lack of audience, or the ball drop on December 31st, 1979) says it’s over. External cues end stories in real life. People who lived in Pompei saw their life end when the Vesuvius erupted. But that doesn’t make for a story. That is history. The reason this tragedy has drawn so much attention from writers and painters throughout the 19th century is precisely because in real life, closure is not part of the deal. Writers and artists of all kinds are the only ones who can achieve closure not only by inventing stories, but by wrapping them up. So when planning on writing, thinking of the ending is by far more important than thinking of a place to start.

When a story is not only well-written, when it invites the reader (or the spectator) to experience a full range of emotions, when it finds the ideal balance between “pulling” and “releasing” the tension of the intrigue, when finally it draws it to its own logical conclusion (this doesn’t mean the ending has to be predictable), then the show (or the book) makes you feel satisfied, whole, complete, and entertained at the same time.

What do you think?

Have you ever tried to write a script?

Do you allow yourself to think of the ending before the start when you prepare yourself to write a story? Or do you prefer to “go with the flow” and see where your characters bring you?

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