What is story telling and why does Television suck at it?

I’ve heard that good story telling requires that you answer 3 simple questions.

  1. Who is it about?
  2. What do they want?
  3. Why do I care?

This seems simplistic but it’s actually extremely telling. The who in the first question is not just a name. It’s a character, a background, and often time a faction. It’s not just Rebecca Willits. No it’s Rebecca Willits, an enchanted beggar struggling to escape the crippling clutches of poverty with her family. The audience expects you to have a firm grasp of exactly who they should be rooting for as the story develops. Not a nebulous arch-type made up of nothing but “one time I…” anecdotes whose expectations are constantly shattered with completely random tie-ins later.

Question 2 paraphrases the plot. Not the McGuffin, but the plot. Perhaps Ms. Willits strives to be a respected senator, but what she’s really after is a way to save her dad from debtors prison. The whole story she plays a political game, but in the end the city erupts into long overdue civil war and she escapes with her family to a better life outside of the city. The audience needs to know what’s important in this world, even if the main character hasn’t figured it out.

Question 3, though, is the most important. Anyone can tell a complicated story of desperation woven between a fabric of lies, but without empathy from the audience, it’s just another story. Bad stories are beloved when the audience cares about the characters. Even if they know the story is a train wreck, they care about it and want to experience every contrived plot point just to see the hero make it out on top. Without empathy, there is no intrigue, and without intrigue, you don’t have an audience.

Now this question is even more loaded than the rest. Why do I care? In this case you are not speaking to an audience, you are speaking to one reader at a time. One. Singular. Not everyone is going to be empathetic, but the right person is! That’s what you need to focus on. Maybe this hero represents my lonely memories of high school, or the governor they fight against is such a loathsome scoundrel that his demise will be a sweet taste in my mouth, or this entire story is a metaphor for the events of the US civil war told in such a way that only a history buff such as myself can appreciate it. This is it. This is that redeeming value that anyone who says: “The dialog was gut wrenching, but the saving grace was…” relates to.

So why does Television suck at story telling? More specifically, serial television, but we’ll keep the word short to TV. It’s because in every single episode, save the pilot, no more than 1 of the questions can ever be answered. It’s just the way it goes. You can never see what the hero really wants because it has to change next season. If you do, the hero has to be changed to fix some silly retcon in the season premier. If the hero stays the same, it’s only because he’s accepted a status quo that rips away the reason you cared to begin with.

It’s atrocious. It’s disgusting. It’s serial TV. No plot can ever resolve. All characters must change constantly. No theme or gimmick may last more than one season. And more important than anything else, no matter how great a threat they just thwarted, it will be overshadowed by a bigger one that purposefully undoes all the good that the heroes just accomplished.

I know it’s mostly just me. If most people agreed with me, Lost would have been canceled on the second episode and we’d never be able to make a joke about Jack Bauer using the toilet during commercial breaks. I just hold one truth above ALL ELSE when it comes to books, movies, and TV. No matter how bad the writing is, if you succeed at telling a story you have my attention. But when you sit down and think about it, it’s utterly sad that no single season, nor single episode, of the Walking Dead can answer a single one of these questions. But every single episode of Happy Days can. How sad is that?

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