Friday, June 3, 2011

On Withholding, Gratification, and Friday Night Lights

A few years back, I took a form and technique class over short story cycles or novels-in-stories taught by Robert Boswell, right before he left New Mexico State. In the middle of the semester, when people started to report that they were feeling a little daunted and that their stories were stalling, Boz decided to alter our assignment for the week to focus on developing plot. Other assignments had been based primarily on language, on metaphor, on character interaction, on event, but this one would be designed to serve as practice in making things happen--particularly things that would complicate and escalate the relationships between characters. As he explained the new assignment, he hit briefly on the difficulty of withholding information in a plot structure--on deciding when and how, but most importantly, how long to let important exposition unwind. As I recall, he didn't offer any maxims--just that it was important not to hold information back from the reader just for the sake of creating drama, and that withholding information should be used as a way to structure the tension in a story, not create it. In other words, if there is no drama between the characters until it's revealed that someone's pregnant, that someone's sick, that someone's cheating, that someone else has found out, then you've got a dead story. Likewise if someone's magic, if someone's in the mafia, if someone's dead, though Boz typically would not have encouraged such premises to begin with.

I struggle with this, though not quite in the way that Boz hypothesized. When I write, my problem tends not to be that the reader doesn't know all the crazy truths about this character that would make his or her actions matter. My problem tends to be that the character is doing things that really, really seem to matter, but that are rarely confirmed or supported by that one crystal-clear moment of exposition. More recently I've tried to get around the problem by not withholding information at all--by making the premises explicit, the tensions delineated, the stakes well-quantified. I have gotten better and braver at writing declarative sentences. But the fact is that having important things withheld does increase drama, and it does create a heightened sense of tension or dread or longing or excitement, and as such it's one of the more important tools a writer has to work with.

For the past month or so, while we've been moving, Mike and I have been catching up on Friday Night Lights, which anyone will tell you is one of the best-written shows on television. We're late to the game, but we're moving through quickly, which also means that we're not experiencing the kind of anticipation that fans of a franchise feel when they have to wait 7 days, or a whole season, to find out what happens next; we simply hit "Next episode." But what's been interesting to me is that the show doesn't really seem to structure itself around that kind of audience response. Rarely are there true cliffhangers of the kind we're trained to expect from TV dramas. The outcomes of the characters' actions are very quickly made clear. Major choices and decisions are usually made within minutes of when they arise. Football games nearly always end the same episode in which they begun. The characters are very rarely in a state of prolonged indecision or reflection (at least in terms of time on screen). Events are set up, and then they are seen through to conclusion. Rarely are we wondering what a character is going to do or say or see or learn. But we're still wondering what's going to happen to them next. 

This to me is an impressive answer to the problem of how long to withhold information in order to build drama. At the end of an episode of Friday Night Lights, I'm usually left with questions of how this will work out: how this will change the character, or how it will affect others. These are long-term questions where TV generally sets up short-term ones. Rather than building drama on the back of withholding, and teasing me with promises of unexpected endings, the writers are creating in me the anticipation of seeing the series through to completion, and then going back and adding up in my head how this all came to be, how it gestated and evolved, how the characters are at once the same as they always were and utterly unrecognizeable. I have this last problem with Julie--on one hand, I have constantly had this sort of primal maternal fear for her, this low-level dread for her propensity to make mistakes. I worry in nearly every episode that the next mistake she makes will utterly ruin her life. And yet I feel like she's changed immensely, and matured, and that I can trust her a lot more to handle things than I could even a season ago. The ability to create consistency of character amid constant change is one of the great accomplishments of the show, I think. The writers seem to know well which characteristics to keep foundational even as circumstances and personalities shift.

And maybe something like this is the key to withholding information well. Maybe it's not so much a matter of withholding knowledge of how a character will act and react--withholding the gratification that comes with knowing what people will initiate and what they will receive, the gratification of inevitability, of justice. Maybe there's just as workable a form of drama that comes from creating someone precious and not knowing what will become of them after they've done what they've done. A drama of parenthood; a drama not of inevitability, but of the unknown.

1 comment:

  1. This post got me to thinking about how I have sex for a really really long time (when I (less often these days) do have sex) because I know when its over I'm just going to be bored again and not having sex for awhile.

    So the general consensus in society (as formulated by our shrinks) is that delayed gratification is a good thing. Check out the Stanford study where they gave kids marshmallows and told them they could have more if they chilledTFO for twenty minutes and didnt eat their original mallows. The kids that did actually did chillTFO (and got more mallows!) ended up ( a decade later) being the ones that got the highest SAT scores and eventually went on to be more successful (career-wise) than the kids that just went apeshit on the mallows as soon as they appeared.

    So it should be a good thing that I can pound away on a babe for hours in order hold off on the gratification for just a few more miserable ticks of existence. But its not. You know this already. It is a very very sad thing. You've known this since I started writing.

    So yea, there's this popular emphasis on the idea that if we hold off on the really good shit until the end and then explode it all (the good shit) on your face all at once then...well...we must have done something great (I'm thinking of Hollywood Action movies...what are you thinking of?) But really that's just sad. And kind of gratuitously and rudely pornographic. This is no way to treat a girl (er...a reader) you care about.

    Or viewer. We're talking about Friday Night Lights? Yea. That's a good show.