Friday, October 7, 2011

Sustainable Anticipation -- Castle, Costello, Brewsters, and Me.

I watched the season premiere of Castle a couple weeks go, and found myself frustrated at something that TV shows do all the time these days: they build tension on some element (in this case, the romantic tension) until they really need to let it snap... but then, golly, the producers chicken out and decide to keep things exactly the same -- so they don't let it snap at all. They just stall.

And at first that's okay. It builds more tension, but after a while it just gets dull. The problem here is that they're making a promise. I've talked about promises before. You have to pay off on them. If you don't, then you betray your audience, and they stop trusting you to pay off, and that makes the tension go away. Then the whole thing gets dull.

So shows like Castle have a problem. The networks are right that people do tune in because of the romantic tension, but the thing that keeps them tuning in is the promise that the situation will change. So how do you change and stay the same too?

With Castle, unfortunately, they went with making bigger and more serious promises in a cliffhanger ending for last season. Like Bullwinkle "This time for SURE!" ... and then backed off and set things back to how they were. To be honest, it would have been better if they had not ramped up the tension in the cliffhanger at all. Just went with the simmer below the surface.

And yet, an awful lot of great comedies use sustained high tension all the time. What makes some kinds of tension more sustainable than others?

I think the problem here is the source of the tension. So let's take a look at some successful comedy which depends on ever-repeating, ever-increasing tension, and how it works.

For instance, no matter how hard Costello tries to get Abbott to explain who is on first, no matter how creative he gets, he will never get anywhere. (If you've never heard the original of the famous Abbott and Costello "Who's On First" radio routine, please watch the video below.)

The thing that drives the joy here is that we are not looking forward to when Costello finds out that Who is the name of the guy on first. We don't really care whether he finds out. What we're enjoying is seeing just how persistently Abbott can manage to keep him in the dark.

Another example would be Arsenic and Old Lace, a classic film I rewatched the same week as the Castle premiere. This is a film with a situation -- a dangerously, but delightfully, insane family -- which obviously must change. Society cannot countenance things like, you know, murder. And yet, no matter how hard reality tries to make a dent in the insanity, it never quite can. The Brewsters are an immovable object, and reality is simply not a fully irresistible force.

But a part of the tension here is that we like the Brewsters. (Except for Jonathan who is truly evil.) We want to see them persist and thrive and be happy -- to stay just as they are. We just don't want to see any innocent people get hurt.

And all the way through the movie we see, over and over again, innocent people are nearly killed (but then saved) the Brewsters are nearly caught (but not quite) and Jonathan nearly does horrific things (but is thwarted). And that's exactly how we want it.

So the tension ramps up each time over things we don't want to happen, and every time we're rewarded by them not happening. A new threat, a worse threat, will arise, and we don't know how they're going to get out of it this time, but... PHEW! Saved again!

Sustainable tension comes not from teasing us with things we hope for, but from fear of losing something we like.

The problem for a show like Castle is that it's teasing us with a hope for change. We want to see these two people get together. All the force of nature wants them together. The tension is unsustainable because we never get what we want, or what the characters want or what anybody wants. There is pleasure in the teasing promise, but it can't last forever. You have to pay off on it.

Now, Castle doesn't do a terrible job at this - there is progress of a sort, and though the premiere threw the promise of last season under the bus, there was a twist at the end of this episode promising a more interesting direction after all. I'm not dissatisfied, but I am at the end of my patience, and I don't want to see same old, same old, unless they give up altogether on the teasing the audience. (That is, I'm fine with the chemistry as is, so if they were to stop building big tension on it, and just let it be an "almost" relationship at status quo, fine. But that's not how they've built the show.)

Now... to my own issues as a writer.

A good, long-standing mystery series, imho, is one that makes a promise of a great status quo. You may have temporary tensions of all kinds, but what kind of situation can make two promises: that it will always be like this, and that it will also always be interesting?

I think I have found my status quo - and the built in repeatable threat to it - in the WIP. The issue is that George himself is a character desperately in search of a status quo. He needs it. But he's also a catalyst -- a force which prevents things around him from ever completely settling down.

Here's a quote from a scene I just edited:

George: I did not set the cat among the pigeons.
Co-worker: George, you ARE the cat among the pigeons. That's why Eva calls you.

George is an irresistible force, bowling down everything around him and wishing everything wouldn't fall apart on him. He needs that Zen pond of water which cannot be destroyed; water reacts to the forces acting on it, and then slips right back to how it was. And he finds that in Potewa county and in Karla.

So that, I think, is the dynamic -- the rubber band -- in the story. Karla persists, like water. She is the unflappable status quo, and George is the cat among the pigeons.

But I didn't realize that at first, so that element might not be as strong in this book as it could be -- but I don't see that as a flaw. It's there, and there's room to grow with it. Plus there are some fun scenes and details I was going to edit out because they seemed to be there to entertain me, but I realize they are about that dynamic.

And all in all, I am looking forward to this season's Castle. I'll betcha they can pay off on their promises. They're just teasing me with these indications that they won't.

See you in the funny papers.


Hunter F. Goss said...

My favorite example of sustainable tension (albeit of a comic sort with plenty of tongue in cheek) are the ‘Thin Man’ movies. I always thought there was a nice tension of sorts between how Nick and Nora’s relationship evolved when played against the situations they found themselves in. Not the sort of thing that’s fashionable today, but full of well-written and rapid-fire dialogue laid over some very entertaining plots. You knew they’d prevail in the end, and you knew they’d still be sweethearts. But what caught everyone up in their adventures was just how they managed it.

A far cry from today’s way of putting tension in a relationship.

The Daring Novelist said...

Absolutely -- because they tease each other. And CASTLE does have some of that. They toy with each other, and that is the charm of the series.

Another classic series where the "under the surface" romantic tension works really well is THE AVENGERS. There's a comfort level between the characters -- just as with Nick and Nora -- which is really very very nice, and allows for a lot of play.

And that's what I'm aiming for in George and Karla. A bantering friendship first and foremost that can grow into whatever it wants to grow into.

ModWitch said...

Add me to the list of people ready to throw the remote at the TV during the Castle season premiere. And yes, my words would have been, "you PROMISED!".

I'll still watch. But I won't invest myself quite as heavily in the possibility they'll actually get together before some network nimwit cancels the show and leaves us hanging. (Firefly, anyone? I'm surprised Fillion doesn't just grab Beckett and get the job done himself, at this point).

I like the idea of sustainable tension, and thinking about my promise to my audience. Gonna noodle on that one a bit.

The Daring Novelist said...

I think what the producers have got to realize is that THEY CAN TRUST US to actually love the show and the characters. There is more to those characters than "will they or won't they?"

Hunter F. Goss said...

I seem to remember reading an article some time ago saying the entire “will they or won’t they” issue dates from the 1980’s show, ‘Moonlighting’. The characters played by Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd did several seasons of romantic tension accompanied by lots of pithy dialogue. But once they gave in to their romantic inclinations, the show tanked. Critics, along with people in the production company, blamed it on having the two characters move into a sexual relationship. And so ever since, it’s been a kind of unwritten rule to keeps romantic tension going by keeping the characters vertical.

I disagree. I think a lot can be done with a ‘fully functioning’ couple a lá Nick and Nora Charles. But maybe that’s just me.

The Daring Novelist said...

MOONLIGHTING is an interesting case, and I think the producers (and most of Hollywood) did not understand what was going on.

Here's the deal: as long as the relationship is flirty and interesting, the audience wants things to stay the same. The tension of the story ISN'T "will they or won't they." (It might be "are they or aren't they?" but we aren't expecting a change.) In this case, the characters tease each other, but the producers do NOT tease the audience.

As soon as you put the full focus on "Will they or won't they" you lose the battle -- the tension will be released one way or the other (either you release it, or the audience gets bored). Because at that point, it's no longer about the characters teasing each other, it's only about the "hand of God" teasing the audience.

And imho, Moonlighting jumped the shark on that the season before. They would have tanked either way, because they lost the dynamic when they put the emphasis on "will they or won't they?" After that point, the audience was ONLY watching for the moment when they will. The "won't" was off the radar from then on.

IF change is a part of your series, you have to build it in from the start -- the way they do on many dramas (hospital shows or cop shows). Or you have to do it without the hoopla -- don't flog the "will they or won't they?"