Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Genre / Medium / Mood / Length part 2/2

It's Wednesday again...

... And this is the continuation of a previous blog entry.

In the earlier blog entry, I talked about genre, medium and mood. This entry will talk about length, and perhaps return to talk a bit more about genre, medium or mood.

Length is the least important of these four classification elements, I claimed earlier, but I'm not really sure if that is true, because I seriously don't like reading short stories. A few are actually good, but most often when I've trudged through a short story, I sit there asking myself what the point was? Why I had wasted my time? There's no time for anything except the plot, in a short story, and plots don't float my boat. Not really.

I like worlds, and I like characters too to some extent, or perhaps it is simply that I like characters who are influenced by the way in which the world they live in differs from the world I or the author lives in, and a short story has time neither for world nor for characters. Plot, plot, plot, plot and more plot. Yaaaawn. And I've tried, I really have. I was in a sort of reading circle for a couple of years (or was it just one year? It felt like forever)  and we did mostly short stories and a few novellas (that at best were so much like short stories that they failed to realize their potential2). It was always the same: No time for anything. The material was often skilfully written, but there was never any time for anything except plot, plot and more plot. Yaaaawn.

So, fantasy and science fiction in written medium form can come in perhaps four lengths: Short stories (these actually sub-divided into a billion tiny little pointless sub-categories), novellas, novels, and series of novels.

What about audiovisual works? Well, there's movies, series of movies, mini-series, and TV shows. Four meaningful length categories, again.

In a way, I'm somewhat inclined to say that length doesn't matter and that a longer story is just a story that is longer, but that's not actually true. For instance, movies have movie-shaped excitement curves3, things get more and more exciting and important, and then you get the climax. So that's a movie of usually 70 to 180 minutes (sometimes more, rarely less). A mini-series might last as little as 150 minutes, often somewhat more (I like more), but it doesn't have the same kind of predictable excitement curve. It's more varied, (and there is time for more), but it is also less intense. I can see why that - less predictable or less intense, or both - might be a turn-off for some.

Likewise in an episodic TV show, you know when it's going to end. I like "House" a lot, it's a really great show in many ways, but it's a medical mystery show (a bit like "Medical Investigations"4 which is also good, although it's less good, and in a different way - it's got more of a thrill mood, while there is not much thrill in "House"), and I can tell, by looking at the clock/timer, whether Dr. House and his team are close to solving the medical mystery or if they're not there yet and are still working on a wrong hypothesis. That's not optimal. It would be better and more exciting if I could not know that. If episodes had wildly varying lengths. Due to the way TV shows work, commercial-driven, sold to commercial TV channels, distributed via broadcasting, there are only two ways to work around this problem, and to the best of my knowledge only one is ever used: Spread the "story" over two episodes, or occasionally three: End with a "to be continued".

The other possible solution is to have two different stories in a single episode, so that the first mystery is solved about (but it can't be exactly) half-way into the episode, and then there's a new mystery. This way at least the solution timing for the first mystery is exciting. I can vaguely see why this one has never been tried, though. (Notice that having two parallel mysteries will not solve the excitement problem, as you can still know that one will be solved at about the 40 minute mark and the other a very few minutes before that. They have to be in serial.)

(And actually after I wrote the above, I encountered a third way, having purchased the first season of "Leverage" and the first season of "Burn Notice" on DVD. I'm not linking to them yet, after having watched three episodes of "Leverage" and six of "Burn Notice", but when I've watched it all, I probably will. So far I like them both, even though claims that "Leverage" is better than "Hustle" are profoundly heretical. Anyway, the very first episode of both shows is extra-long, because they were shown with no commercial breaks on USAn television, thus instead of the usual 40 minutes they're about 57 minutes long. So there is a third solution, which is to have a few episodes with fewer or no commercial breaks so that there is more time for the story. Capitalistic concerns aside, it's not a very good solution, though, because as soon as the first commercial break is skipped, the viewer will know that this episode is going to be at least somewhat longer. Doing this in a few mid-series episodes can still achieve a little, though. After watching 3 seasons of House, I've internalized its pacing and excitement curve. I know what "shape" a normal 40 minute episode has, and I've watched one or two double-length episodes so I know them too. So a 57 minute one, this being an intermediate length (almost exactly halfway between 40 and 80 minutes), would throw a curveball to my "House"-watching instincts. Also, as far as I know, both these shows, "Leverage" and "Burn Notice", only did that once, each with their first episode.)

TV shows are also weak on continuity. My favourite ones always have some (and I don't think that's a coincidence), but there's rarely a progressing story. They're built very much - biblically - to accomodate people who sometimes skip episodes. Even the one TV show, among my favourites, with the most "story progress", Cracker5, didn't have much. Fitz will sleep with Panhandle. Wifey will become upset, and she will move out. She might move back in. Fitz will - inevitably - say something to offend Panhandle. And so it starts over again. There's so much back-and-forth that it would make Freud happy.

It's still very good, mind you. Don't get me wrong.

But there's not a lot of continuity. And most TV shows have none at all. As a child, back in the 1980s, I watched the TV show spin-off of John Carpenter's Starman (and no, the Starman is not played by Jeff Bridges in the spin-off).

In it, the Starman and his son would keep looking for the son's mother, the character played by Karen Allen in the movie version, and they'd keep looking and looking, and never find her. There was no progress whatsoever. Now, what does that remind me of6?

So, what are the ways to get a longer audiovisual story? Well, you can make a really long movie split into three parts, then remove almost half the material and put it into cinemas in three successive years, then release it on DVD, and then release it on DVD once more with all the cut-out material put back in again. And still do violence to the Professor's original work7.

You can make a mini-series. Shogun was actually a quite good "filmatization" of Clavell's novel8.

I imagine you can make an anime too. I haven't watched much anime, really, since back in my childhood (as talked about in a previous blog entry), but I get the impression that they often have much more continuity than Western-syle TV shows (and by Western-style TV shows I primary mean USAn ones). The Avater series isn't really anime, but it's supposed to be kinda like it, and I've heard a lot of good about it, and once I've bought it and watched it I'll no doubt talk about it in a future blog entry, and return back to this one and spam-link to it. But I do not link to material whose quality I cannot vouch for.

Or you can make something like 24, which is perhaps best described as one very long movie, although with a tension curve engineered to cut it into 24 nice 40-or-so-minute chunks, to be friendly for commercial-interrupted television broadcasting. I have the first one (I don't want to use the term "season") on DVD but have only watched the first 3 or so episodes, so I can't vouch for it.

So those are the possibilities, in this very capitalistic9 reality we live in.

This isn't really about length, but I have a bit more to say about tension curves:

Notice how the excitement curve differs, between the cinema edition of Peter Jackson't fantasy movie trilogy (allegedly based on Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" novel) and the Extended Edition? The cinema version is much more tightly paced.

The same goes for Hustle. I watched it originally on Danish TV (on TV3, a channel I almost never watch, although back in 2006 they did show both Hustle and the first season of Rome), where it was the 45-or-so-minutes cut-down-for-commercial-interruptions version, and I watched five of the six episodes of the first season twice (it was - and is - that good), and then less than a year later I bought the show on DVD, and on the Region 2 release each episode is almost 60 minutes long.

So what was missing on the TV cut? No plot, certainly. The longer versions, with all the cut-out material added back in, let us get to know the characters better, but the excitement curve might actually suffer a bit (Hustle is so good, in terms of pushing most of the right buttons for me, I wouldn't be able to tell, though).

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

2. Someone once said that the novella was the ideal length for science fiction (I don't know who said it; if you know, tell me). I imagine that person's desire was to explore an idea, but even for exploring something much more interesting than an idea - a world - I think the novella (or a series of novellas) is a very good length for fantasy, as well as for science fiction.

3. Excitement curve, "spændingskurve", is a very well established term in Danish, even to the point of being used in primary school lessons, but as far as I can see there's no equivalent term in English (thanks to Klaus for help with this, and to Alma for help and commiseration). So, as it turns out that James Nicoll isn't always right, I'm going to have to explain the concept:

Envision the level of excitement of a movie as a graph, with the movie starting at the left side and ending at the right, the horizontal X axis is the time (e.g. 20 minutes into the movie, or 85 minutes into it), and the vertical Y axis as the level of excitement at that point in its duration. Visualize any action or thriller or crime movie you've watched recently, or which for some other reason you remember reasonably well (because it impressed you, or because you've watched it multiple times). Try to, mentally, draw its excitement curve as a graph. Then visualize a mini-series, perhaps Shogun (which I'm sure you've watched). Try to draw its excitement curve. If they're not obviously different, you're doing it wrong.

4. I'd have linked to it, but Amazon doesn't have it. Neither does Amazon UK. Odd... It is much less amazingly briliant than House, but it's still worth watching. I hope it comes out on DVD eventually, but if it doesn't, you might want to watch it in re-run.

5. Yes, I know it's expensive, but its well worth it, and no you do not want the "American" remake. You want the original Robbie Coltrane version. Trust me on this one.

6. Disclaimer: I have only read the first 10 novels, and the 12th (the 11th is told from the point of view of a terrestrial woman. John Norman alread did that once, in the 7th novel, and once was plenty, thank you very much!), and most of one of the later one. It is possible that something intersting actually happens in the last two thirds of the series. But if I were a betting man, I'd put my money on "no progress".

7. And no, I'm not pining for Tom Bombadil, nor for a tiny gang of little people doing some clean-up work back home after the real story is well and truly over. But Peter Jackson screwed over a few of the characters, badly, and misrepresented Aragorn (I have no complaints about Gandalf, though. Wizards do indeed always arrive precisely when they mean to; it's just that The Professor forgot to mention it in his text).

8. While reading (or re-reading) "Shogun", contemplate my previous - and future - blog entries on delta World. Or while watching the mini-series.

9. And when I write "capitalistic" I mean obsessively and mindlessly oriented towards the lowest common denominator.

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