Dave Morris: To Ragnarok and no further

Dave Morris: To Ragnarok and no further

Editor's Note: As with so many devices and approaches tied to marketing, the expectation of serials can begin quickly to feel like the "logic" of serials, as if some sweet science invisible to earlier eras had been revealed to us and now must be accepted as fact. In his essay for us today — and this may have special relevance for folks who experience trade shows as serials in their careers — regular FutureBook contributor Dave Morris looks at the trend of stories told beyond whats good for them. And he dares question the imperative of the crowd, and answer it: "The fans. Are they an unstoppable force? Should you surrender?" Read him and find out. — Porter Anderson

Give me a child until he is seven… No truer word, only in my case it wasn’t the Jesuits, it was serial storytelling. My first memory of the public library is of lugging home a volume of Norse myths as heavy as a thunder-god’s hammer. A red-bearded bruiser with a laugh like the sky splitting. A silver-tongued schemer who can’t help brewing mischief. Together, they fight giants. I was hooked right out of the gate.

Soon after that Doctor Who’s cliffhangers held a generation of children spellbound week after week. James Bond felt like he’d go on forever. (Funny, that.) And the British comic TV Century 21 wrapped all those now-classic Gerry Anderson puppet shows into one shared universe. It all fed the notion that stories don’t ever have to end.

And that’s fine when we’re kids. The Norse myths mirror the high dramas of childhood, where massive fallings-out and reconciliations can happen in the space of a summer’s afternoon and we don’t mind that every morning is a chance to reset the games and interests of the day before.

As we get older, we demand stories that go somewhere. Things must change. And that’s where they can go wrong, because if you’re going to have change you must also have an ending. When a story is forcibly kept going beyond its natural life, the shark is out there circling and one day you are going to jump it. And then your audience is left wondering what we even saw in that setting and those characters in the first place.

Breaking Bad and The Shield were planned right from the start so that their narrative trajectory would come down in a blaze of fireworks. Likewise Harry Potter. On the other hand, The Sopranos was conceived as a feature film and should have ended after 13 episodes with Tony killing his mom – and presumably saving a bullet for Uncle Ju too, if all that Freud talk was ever meant to go anywhere. But commercial success demanded a jolt of monkey glands for the show and some get-out-of-jail-free cards for the characters. Myself, I’d rather we’d had one perfect blinding season and then darkness.

What goes wrong with an indefinite run? It’s the necessity to keep upping the voltage of dramatic twists.

Take Cracker, Jimmy McGovern’s seminal ’90s TV drama that started so well. After a time, story logic demanded that the danger Fitz and his colleagues tackled would have to strike close to home. But after we’d seen the team sprint to Fitz’s front door for one nail-biting climax, the next shock twist had to be bigger. One police officer raped another, and thought he could atone (the Jesuits had got to him too) by jumping off a roof. Fitz’s family began to be threatened on a regular basis, until finally his son was targeted by a serial killer who strapped him to a bedstead wired up to the mains. He was saved from electrocution in the nick of time. Shocking, positively shocking. If the show had continued, the only place left to go would have been strapping a bomb to the baby’s pram.

Storytelling isn’t an Escher staircase. You can’t keep escalating the threat ad infinitum. But once you succumb to the understandable urge to stun the reader or viewer with an anagnoristical body-slam, where else can you go? Every season the Doctor has to save mankind, if not indeed the whole cosmos, and it has to be from a bigger and badder threat, and the personal revelations concocted have to be ever more profound, ever more world-shattering. It’s like taking a hit of heroin. At first it’s all sunshine and sangria in the park, but the doses get bigger and eventually you’re doomed to OD.

Just as destructive to storytelling as ever-mounting threat is the self-consciousness that must creep into the writing on any long-running series. The third or fourth time Fu Manchu returns, miraculous though his indestructibility is, it would be still more far-fetched if Maynard Smith failed to make a quip about it. And so we’re on the scree slope into narrowcasting, as each instalment calls back to events that only the diehard fans remember and the characters’ obvious awareness turns it all into pantomime.

Write to an end. It’s easy to say. Who the hell wants those characters to come back, go through the same old motions, parrot their catch phrases for ever and ever? Demos, that’s who. The fans. Are they an unstoppable force? Should you surrender? No. You’re the writer, and them – they don’t know what they want. They say, “Bring back Walt and Jesse,” but show them the origin story of Saul Goodman instead and they’ll purr all the louder.

Not that I’m condoning prequels necessarily. We all lived through The Phantom Menace.

But if you must pacify the mob – a good problem for a writer to have, by the way – don’t pander to them. Be a leader. And by that I mean, lead them someplace new.

Main image - Pixabay: tpsdave