Friday, 5 November 2010

The writer's great hope - TV

I started living without TV ten years ago. One result was that I spent more time in front of the monolithic grey box of my computer monitor. Another was that I made a lot of stuff. This was mostly wine, so possibly I cancelled out the 'good' I perceived I did in freeing myself from TV slavery.

 A decade later I occasionally use iplayer, 4od or Youtube when I get a trusted recommendation, or out of curiosity. With these channels always available, I find it hard to imagine ever sitting down to watch 'whatever's on,' instead of choosing to engage with something that suits my mood or level of knackeredness.

I have no real perspective on how TV owners now use these devices, so I can hardly wax analytical about modern relationships with TV, the function of TV as replacement hearth or the usual opium-to-the-masses arguments. However, I can have perspective on the content of TV itself. Like an out-of-touch Auntie exclaiming, "But haven't you grown!" on each encounter with her embarrassed nephews, I am often amazed by the nature of new TV. I have not been carried along on the tide of incremental change, so instead of dismissing it I stop and stare. When a year passes between events that involve proper, ‘whatever’s on’ viewing, there’s time to disengage to the extent that elements of broadcast can really shock.

This, I confess, elicited some smugness, especially when compounded by derision in the press of reality TV – some of it so scrupulously staged and edited that many U.S. shows now have on-screen small print to this effect. Condemnation of a culture of entertainment by humiliation, freak show mentality, manipulation of the vulnerable and fame-hungry, and the deleterious effect on the aspirations of 21st century children only heightened the self-righteousness.

I think now that I have been missing a large part of the point. Television tells us stories. I failed to see this function behind all those unrecognisable celebrities haunting jungles and hot-tubs, but really it’s blindingly obvious. It’s why TV producers have to edit their real subjects until they appear in arcs of goal, tension, jeopardy and resolution that barely resemble the experiences they were actually having at the time of filming.

A writer pointed out to me recently that while coincidences really do happen in real life, we cannot use them in fiction to move our plots along. The readers feel cheated; “that was too easy,” they object. Likewise but vice versa, real lives, or sections of them, rarely exhibit such strong patterns of tension and resolution as seem to make for page-turning novels. Written narratives that fail in this regard can be dull, or if not rely on some other aspect of the writing to keep us gripped.

I bring this up because stories on television, whether pure fiction or created from real lives, provide a lesson for writers struggling with plot, especially when these shows are not using gorgeous or surprising methods of depiction to distract us (In the Mood for Love is a good example of a film where I don’t really mind what happens because every shot is like a painting). Character, dialogue and drama of various kinds are the key devices. A few moments of wallowing in the insignificant, or material that does not contribute to the story, means the viewer will switch over.

A really good TV show can be a tutorial in plot development, not least by noticing what can be omitted. I therefore plan to knuckle down with my notepad in front of iplayer and begin learning. I’m wondering when the next batch of forgotten stars will be posted off to a doomed rainforest somewhere…

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