Monday, June 10, 2013

How mystery & suspense generate immersion & emotion

Last month I was lucky enough to attend Story Lab [not Story Lad, as an earlier version of this suggested], an occasional gathering in Glasgow organised by Simon Meek. This session was about story, immersion and emotion. I was asked to discuss these in the context of TV drama screenwriting. Here's roughly what I said:

I can't claim to be an expert, but I have written stories across a range of media - TV, computer games, novels, radio plays and audio dramas, comics and graphic novels, etc.

The first question we have to answer is - why write stories at all? Common answers: to entertain; to escape reality; sometimes to educate; but mostly to help us make sense of our our lives.

How is storytelling different on TV? There are a lot of similarities between film and TV. Both primarily visual mediums, so drama mostly has to be externalised. As audience we don't tend to have direct access to character's thoughts. A writer can only work with what the audience can see, hear and infer. Hopefully characters go on an emotional journey, but it has to be made visible.

Seen at the cinema, film has a lot of advantages over TV. You're in the dark, facing forwards, focusing on a single screen. It's a naturally immersive environment [unless you're at Edinburgh Cineworld where audiences persist in talking, texting and rustling plastic bags full of smuggled in food].

TV writing is harder because, as writers, we have to grab and hold your attention in a domestic situation where every possible distraction is at the audience's fingertips. Dozens of different channels just a button push away. Family and friends, ringing phones and PPI offers, etc, etc, etc.

It's estimated that 60% of people watching TV are now having a two-screen experience. The TV is one screen, but they also have another screen at hand - be it smart phone, tablet computer or laptop. If you need proof of that, watch this Holby City clip which has real time Twitter comments superimposed over the action, giving you access to the audience's thoughts:

That gives you some idea of the challenge facing TV writers right now. So, how do we grip an audience constantly distracted by life, etc? Here TV has one significant advantage over film.

A film is like a one night stand, but without the walk of shame afterwards [assuming you haven't just seen the latest Adam Sandler dreck-a-thon]. But a TV drama series is a relationship. The audience forms a bond with the characters, comes to care about them, about what happens next.

That keeps them watching, keeps them coming back next week. Or it makes them watch a whole series in a single weekend, whether that's a Blu-Ray boxset or via series record on their Sky+ box or online binge viewing feed by Netflix or the iPlayer.

holby City won't be everyone's favourite but - as those Twitter comments show - much of its audience watches because they care about the characters. some of that is driven by the actors, but a lot of it stems from the writing. the audience identifies with or recognise the truth of a character.

That doesn't mean characters have to be lovable to succeed. You could argue that Frank Gallagher in Shameless got less interesting over time as he became a more lovable cartoon version of himelf, and less of the bastard dad he appeared to be in series one.

Characters have to be compelling, and that comes from truth. If the audience believes in the character - their words, their actions, their motivations - and finds some truth in that, they find it compelling.

Why was Broadchurch such a huge water cooler moment in recent TV drama? [Ironically, at the Story Lab hardly anyone had seen, watched or even heard of Broadchurch - proof that hits in one medium don't always penetrate the collective psyche of another, in this case the world of gaming.]

Broadchurch tackled a subject that is every parent's worst nightmare - the loss of a child. It borrowed elements from The Killing playbook, some might say. But the story told in Broadchurch is sadly always timely - witness the case of Madeleine McCan, the Soham murders, the Moors murders.

But I believe there are two reasons why Broadchurch chimed with so many viewers, why it sucked people in so effectively, why it had such an emotional impact: mystery and suspense.

Mystery in storytelling sets the audience an intellectual challenge - can you figure out this puzzle before we tell you the answer? that helps to immerse an audience, make them commit to keep watching. The audience and most of the characters have the same level of knowledge.

Suspense in storytelling is about engaging the audience's emotions. Often the audience knows more than the characters - essentially, they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. This state of superior knowledge generates a wealth of dramatic irony, as the audience anticipates how the characters will react to the truth when it emerges, whatever that truth might be.

So, mystery = inteelectual immersion. Suspense = emotional tension. Get both of these operating simultaneously, it's a powerful story cocktail.

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