No, this is not an advertisement for anatomical enlargement. This isn’t that kind of blog. Well, it isn’t that kind of blog yet. Check back with me a few years down the line and see if I’ve started selling out. Man, that would be kind of an awkward time capsule. We’ll just leave a pin in that and move on. What I’m actually talking about today is telling stories and spectacle. It may only make a little big of sense now, but stick with me and see where this is going.
Grow-er, not a show-er
I consume a lot of media. I watch a lot of TV shows and movies as well as read a ton of books. I just want to lay that out there to give you guys a sense of perspective. Much of what I have consumed has been good and enjoyable. Admittedly, my definition of “good” isn’t necessarily the common one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look objectively back at whatever it was to say what it did right or wrong. I have a critical eye. I just choose not to use it all the time. Life would be no fun that way. So, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s move on.
One of the things I’ve noticed about a lot of things I’ve watched lately is that while they want to jump right into the action and draw the audience’s eye, they sometimes forget to go back and do things like develop the characters whose stories they’re telling. Sure, it’s all well and good to do some awesome special effects, but if that’s all you get, there’s not a whole lot of room for emotional investment. For example, I sat through almost two seasons of “Under the Dome.” It’s got great special effects and, admittedly, an interesting mystery (seriously, what the hell is up with the dome?). The characters, however, were lazily and inconsistently written with little development. It got to the point where I was pleased as punch when one of the newer characters suggested “culling the herd.” If you can’t make me care, how can you make anyone actually care?
I’m all for spectacle and everything, but not at the expense of the story-telling. At the end of the day, I may remember bits of the visual stuff, but it’s the stories and their emotional weight that will live a lot longer in my memory. It might seem like boring stuff to some, but a little goes a long way when it comes to developing your characters and engaging the audience in their tales.
It’s not the size that matters-
Speaking of tales, is it just me or do a good chunk of the ones coming out these days involve some epic struggle to save the world/galaxy/universe? I get it. Our stuff is in the world and we happen to live in it. Of course we want it saved. It’s big stakes that everyone can get behind. It’s some good vs. evil kind of stuff. That’s cool, but I think that we’re forgetting that our escapism doesn’t always have to involve chosen ones struggling against impossible odds.
What? I dare blaspheme?
Yeah, I’m going there. See, there are days that I want to save the world. Who doesn’t? Some days, I just want everything to go right. Sometimes the end game isn’t about such great things. Whatever happened to being all right with telling stories on a smaller scale? For example, at its blue furry heart, Monsters, Inc. isn’t about saving the whole of monster or humankind from something awful. It’s about friendship and converting to a more efficient energy source. Larger than life doesn’t mean that you have to become giants. Gaining an inch or two can be pretty awesome.
I think one of the reasons that fantasy and science fiction films and shows tend to lean toward the more grand, world-saving tales is because they can have the budgets for some pretty big effects. Dragons? Hell yes, let’s do this. Aliens? Woohoo! Aliens shooting disintegrating laser beams? EVEN BETTER. Look, I love big epic movies, but I think that we’re doing those genres a disservice by not showing the full range of tales that can be told within those genres. I want to see an elven accountant vying for a promotion with their wise-cracking minotaur buddy from the marketing department making things worse and better.
It’s how you tell it.
You’re probably wanting to quit on me now. When you have the ability to tell epic stories of saving all kinds of worlds, why would you want to go to something more mundane? Because there can be a beauty in the mundane. There is beauty in the every day things that people might ignore. Also, you don’t need spectacle to get your point across.
In the most recent episode of “Outlander” (SPOILER ALERT. SKIP UNTIL I TELL YOU IT’S SAFE), not a whole lot really happens aside from a really revealing conversation. The nefarious Captain Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) is telling a teary-eyed Claire (Catriona Balfe) about the day he gave Jamie Fraser a hundred lashes atop the hundred he’d already received. While the show did flash back to that awful day, it didn’t dwell too long on the messy stuff. It could have, but didn’t. No, it dwelled on the thing that was far more horrifying: Black Jack Randall himself and how he felt about that flogging. Hearing him and seeing him speak about that event. . .oof. It was rough and uncomfortable(SPOILERS ENDED, IT’S SAFE TO READ AGAIN.). Had that been an HBO show, it could have been a completely different scene. It seems that HBO’s MO these days it to figure out just how shocking they can be to start some water cooler conversation. While they still do great work with their shows, I feel like they should focus less on shock value and simply focus on telling the best stories they can. The stories they have at their disposal can sell themselves.
During one of the last episodes of the second season of “Vikings,” a character gets executed in a most gruesome fashion. The way the scene was shot and scored made the action have more impact than just using a chunk of their visual effects budget to show every excruciating detail. It’s a less can be definitely more thing.The audience’s imagination can frequently be far more terrifying than the visuals you can create. There is a time and a place for gore and more. Knowing that is a valuable commodity.
Never underestimate your audience or assume that imperiling the world will make your story more compelling. The story should come first. Without the backbone of a great story, even the best spectacle goes limp far too soon.