17 February 2010

Serialization and Stories with No End

As long as I’m talking about not knowing when stories end, I’ll discuss the two types of mass-entertainment stories that usually don’t offer an end these days. One comes to us in comics form, including monthly comic books and some daily newspaper strips. The other comes to us in televised form: dramas with overarching plots (e.g., The Sopranos, Lost) and even some situation comedies.

In every other narrative entertainment medium I can think of, we expect a full story with an ending in each unit that we consume: novel, movie, play. Sure, the story might leave room for a sequel, and a very large book might need to be split into volumes for physical reasons (I’m talking about you, Lord of the Rings). But the storytellers have a clear ending from the start, and know when it’s supposed to arrive. They’re not improvising according to market response.

The situation used to be reversed. Novels would reach the public first as magazine serials, sometimes with authors still struggling to finish (e.g., Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island). A trip to the movies included a short serial for the kids.

On the other hand, comic books offered complete adventures, at one point three or four in each magazine. And most television episodes had a beginning, middle, and end (soap operas being the notable exception). In fact, in most early sitcoms, the “sit” barely changed; we don’t have to watch episodes of Our Miss Brooks in any particular order because the characters and relationships are the same.

Dennis O’Neil saw the shift happen in superhero comics as a reader, writer, and eventually editor of the most respected Batman crossover events in the 1990s. He described it in a conversation for The Comics Journal:

For the first 25 years of my life, every story that I experienced had a beginning, middle and end.

Sure, there were continuing characters all over the place. But it was Boston Blackie solving this crime in this movie. Not Boston Blackie getting a start on solving this crime but you have to see his next movie to find out whodunit. Same way with radio shows.

So I think I knew about structure before I had a vocabulary to express the concept, because that’s the stories that I grew up experiencing. The major change [in comic books], I think, in the last 50 years is going into a predominately serialized narrative form. . . .

TV has learned from us about structure. Seems to me, the predominant structure on narrative TV is: The protagonist has an ongoing problem. Just like Burn Notice; he’s gotta find out who sabotaged his life. But, in the meantime, he has a problem that’ll be solved in the next 50 minutes. In order to make money, or to help out his mother or something like that — he has a set of problems, he solves them, but he still doesn’t know who screwed him up and he’s gotta keep working to find that out.

Almost every major television show has some of that element. They have the same problems that comic-book people do. Continuing characters. They need to figure out a way to deliver your $2.50’s worth of entertainment and still give you a reason to come back. We’ve all solved it the same way.
O’Neil’s approach, detailed in his DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, was much as he describes Burn Notice above: small adventures, each with its own beginning, middle, and end, strung together like links in the chain that defines the larger narrative.

In the last decade, however, the American superhero comics industry has adopted “decompressed” storytelling with bigger panels and more reaction shots for emotions. That means stories are spread out over arcs of four, six, or twelve issues, with no story resolution until the last. The most buzzed-about TV dramas take that approach as well. And that seems to produce a whole new set of emotions among the people consuming that entertainment, waiting with increased expectations and impatience for an ending.

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