Friday, February 17, 2006

Story arcs and television: at odds with ends

Story arcs are older than Homer, of course, but it's difficult to think of a single writer who exploited them more fully. The scene from the Odyssey depicted in this picture is a perfect example: we see Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, having his feet washed by the old nurse who had cared for him as a boy. It's in this scene that she sees the scars on Odysseus' feet that had resulted from a wild boar's attacking him; much as a typical episode of Lost does, Homer leaves the main action of the poem and recounts the story of the boar attack. That main action, of course, is the story's arc, which consists of Odysseus' 10-year journey back from Troy to Ithaca. It seems like a digression, but it is really a moment of potential crisis: Odysseus, as you know, must reclaim his household, reassert his authority, and it is via the scars on his legs that the nurse recognizes him. If she reveals him to the suitors in this moment, it robs him of his revealing himself to the suitors the next day via the stringing of the bow. Instead, she keeps his secret and becomes his ally in the coming slaughter of the suitors. When the story continues along the arc's trajectory, then, it is not merely resumed but strengthened, enriched . . . and so also is our interest in the story.

These past few days, I've been thinking about story arcs in television shows. As soon as last Wednesday's episode of Lost ended, Mrs. Meridian turned to me and said, "I wonder how long a story arc this show has?" She was remembering, I think, that I had told her that the creators of the late, long-lamented HBO series Carnivale, which was cancelled after two seasons, had envisioned a six-season story arc. But who knows? And, given Lost's popularity, I suspect it's not necessarily in the producers' and writers' interests to tip their hand. Just yet. But they have to tip it some time, if they know what's good for them.

Personally, I want to reach the end, but I like not knowing where that end is--I'm right there with Alkinoos, the king of the Phaikians. When Odysseus, having related to the king's court his adventures with the Lotus-Eaters and Cyclops and Lestrygonians and Aeolos' bag of winds--and he's not done yet, tries to beg off from telling more so he can get some sleep, Alkinoos insists:
"Here is
a night that is very long, it is endless. It is not time yet
to sleep in the palace. But go on telling your wonderful story.
I myself could hold out until the bright dawn, if only
you could bear to tell me, here in the palace, of your sufferings." (IX.372-376)

And, of course, the story arc is what creates and allows that suspension of time. Though the story of Odysseus' wanderings is quite episodic, what unites them all is the arc that is his return to Ithaca. I'm quite content to listen/read/watch a story develop on its own terms.

But. It is not just the suspension that keeps us intrigued; it is the promise of an end. That is, of course, implicit in Mrs. M.'s question, too. And she is the sort of watcher/reader who likes to try to anticipate that end. She occasionally visits some of the websites that theorize about Lost's many mysteries. She showed me one site where a post-er had quite an elaborate explanation for what's going on (s/he not only noticed that everyone on the island wears long pants, s/he had an explanation for THAT, too); to my mind, though, it just feels too early in the narrative to draw those sorts of conclusions. I don't know when Lost will end, so what do I know about the merits of puzzling out these things?

But as I said, such speculation springs from an unspoken desire--that is, a hope--that Lost will (eventually) resolve, that it not suffer the same fate that Twin Peaks did. Given that wish, some people in the land of Lost were understandably nervous when this article in Variety appeared last fall. I think it's cool that a trace of this fictional show appear in our bookstores, thus becoming a physical as well as electronic presence in the lives of those caught up in this show. The revealing of new mysteries and the deepening of older ones holds our interest. But some have wondered if this novel was somehow a sign that ALL the show's creators are doing is revealing and deepening . . . and not resolving mysteries. They fear that Lost might not have its end worked out. Another way of putting this: just where are we on the arc of this particular story? It's that uncertainty, midway through the 2nd season, that makes some people nervous.

"Every story is over before it begins," Michael Roemer declares at the opening of his book on narrative theory, Telling Stories. Just so. And more: stories must work their way toward their end without appearing in a hurry to do so. But do those rules work against the fundamental nature of the television series? If the show is episodic in nature--and 24 fits here as well--then No. But shows like Carnivale and Lost, whose narratives are designed to take, literally, years to unspool, pose real challenges to the writers and the viewer. The writers must sustain interest by creating a sense of movement toward resolution yet not giving too much away in the process. The viewer doesn't have the advantage, as s/he does with a novel or a movie, of having some rough idea when the end will come; thus, that sense of movement is crucial.

In TV-time, the night is not endless.

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Raminagrobis said...

The problem with Lost is precisely that they're making it up as they go along. There is no predetermined story arc - there can't be, because the number of episodes/seasons is determined purely by the networks, on the strength of ratings and advertising revenue. I hold out absolutely no hope for a satisfying resolution to the story.

Mind you, the bronze-age storytellers we know collectively as 'Homer' were making it up as they went along, too...

D-Day said...

I think it's funny that now when people are getting into shows long Desperate Housewives, Lost, Prison Break, 24, which have season-long and multi-season story arcs, the networks are trying to develop Spanish-style telenovelas for primetime - I wonder if people will turn to these much shorter-arc'd stories as an antidote to Lost if it gets anymore byzantine (a la X-Files). I'm interested to see what comes out next fall.