Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Are "stories" still important?

A lot of Millineals say no. They point out that webisodes are very popular and a recent survey claimed that 2:26 is the optimum length. So who needs to kill themselves coming up with stories? They’re a royal pain in the ass to concoct and audiences prefer their entertainment in bite-sized portions. Who needs an ingenious beginning, middle, and end when you can show a cat trying to climb a greased pole?

Here’s the problem with that theory (besides the fact that it’s incredibly lazy) – two minute webisodes are like pieces of candy. There’s no real nourishment, nothing really satisfying or long lasting about them. You watch, you maybe chuckle, and you move on. It’s a little novelty. You never get really invested in the characters.

And that’s the key. Once you care about a character the interest level goes way up. And you need time to create that connection between the character and the viewer.

There have been myriads of entertainment forms down through the ages – from live theater to literature to filmed works of various lengths designed for various screens. But the principle of good drama remains the same. People want to be engrossed, surprised, delighted, taken to new worlds,  scared shitless, aroused, and involved. They want the subject matter to resonate, they want to maybe learn a thing or two along the way, and they want a certain amount of complexity. You can’t live on a diet of mini-Snickers bars (although I am this week directing INSTANT MOM) .

And two-minute programs may happily exist on websites, but networks, movie studios, and premium streaming delivery systems have way more time than two-minute blips to fill.

We live in a world where audiences watch two-minute shows and binge-watch others for six hours at a time.  People binge-watch because they want to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.   That's the result of story

Like I ranted about yesterday in my MAN FROM UNCLE pan, good drama is storytelling and the foundation of storytelling has not changed in thousands of years. Like I said, it’s a bitch to break stories. You hit roadblocks, you wrestle with logic, you fight the temptation to do something familiar or clich├ęd, you search for ways to hide exposition, you constantly question whether the stakes are high enough, the turns are surprising enough, and whether you’ve chosen the correct length to tell the story. And if it’s a comedy, how to do all that and still have the show be funny. Yes, it’s a tall order.

But it’s worth it.

Webisodes are the new thing, yet there’s still room for classic dramatic structure – or, as the ancient Greeks used to call it – old school.

18 comments:

Bill Avena said...

What's going to teach the young folks about narrative when they grow up watching TV shows that go to commercial after ONE MINUTE? In my youth I had to memorize Longfellow and Beowulf. Come to think of it I hate narrative. I also remember I didn't have to memorize Beowulf. But I remember when "epic" was a long narrative, not a Doritos flavor. Smoking pot destroys one's sense of narrative. Hardly a man is now alive...

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Bill: it's worse than that, since so much media consumption among kids today takes place on their phones in little gaps in doing other things - or on multiple screens. The loss of long form thought is a big issue generally.

However, I would remind Ken that one of the first movies - as William Goldman has often written - was two girls having a pillow fight. Webisodes will develop in unexpected and interesting ways. And you can tell a longer story in two and a half minute chunks, too.

wg

blogward said...

Well said, Ken. Is it OK to mention Breaking Bad? What they got absolutely right was continuous SUSPENSE. Because we cared about the characters Walt and Jesse (and Mike - maybe not Skylar), whatever jeopardy they were in engaged us every time. It must be possible to achieve something like that sort of engagement in 2½ minutes if you do it right. And Vince Gilligan shuffled the suspense - a cliffhanger at the end of one episode wasn't resolved next episode, instead they piled on another one. Character AND suspense.

A. L. Crivaro said...

Is God dead? Wait, that's a different article...

Yes, story is still important. No, it's not going anywhere. To worry that people are getting to a point where they no longer require story is like worrying that people are getting to a point where they no longer require sleep or oxygen. They aren't. They can't. Because stories or not optional to our existence. They're inherent to it. While, yes, there may always be a spate of empty-calorie, bite-sized entertainment for people to gobble up (youtube videos, tumblr posts, tumblr posts copied and pasted to facebook, Tosh.0, Robot Chicken, Family Guy, et cetera, et cetera...) and while, yes, there may always be a large segment of the population content to waste hours clicking, scrolling, and/or watching away, it never lasts. It can't last. Despite all the snickers bars available at the supermarket, potato farmers are still in business. In a thousand years, storytellers will be too.

McAlvie said...

Webisodes (really, that's a thing?) might be 'trendy' but trendy by definition means fluid, changing. Story, however, has been around since we lived in caves. I don't think it's going anywhere.

More to the point, those Millennials won't be 20something forever, and it just seems silly to chase a trend that will be over before the next commercial break (Okay, that's actually quite a lot of time, given current standards. One might even wonder if there is more commercial than show; but you know what I mean)

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I say that yes, story is important, and when I started out producing my series of Steve D'Monster webvideos for YouTube back in 2007, I'll admit that story wasn't much of a concern in the beginning, each episode was more along the lines of those old Ernest P. Worrell (the late Jim Varney) commercials, in that usually Steve would do something stupid, odd, or even comment on something happening and address the viewers while doing so; and yes, those episodes rarely, if ever, were longer than, say, three minutes. By the time the last couple of seasons came into play, I did start putting more emphasis on story, episodes became more plot-driven, and increased in time to usually anywhere between four and six minutes (especially the final season), mainly because I felt the older routine had kind of grown stale and formulaic, and I really wanted Steve to do something. By then, however, my audiences and views took quite a nose-dive, but that's mainly because YouTube likes to screw over us smaller channels and creators any way they can, and it turns out a lot of my subscribers weren't even aware there were still new episodes being uploaded by the end.

I guess it all depends on different factors, such as the kind of content a creator wants to produce and put out there, and what the subscribers and audience want to see. But from my own personal experience, I find that there's really not much room for originality on the internet, and most people simply want to see what they've already seen, either because it's not on TV anymore, or not on DVD.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Cool. Perfect.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right. If you love characters, you'll watch a show regardless of what happens. Ultimately though, it's the story that is told that will determine whether you keep watching.

I've never watched a webisode so don't know enough about them but is it fair to describe a "cat climbing a greasy pole" as a webisode? That's more like viral fluff. It was my understanding that webisodes are just like TV shows but hosted on the internet. Maybe shorter, like 10-15 minutes, but I recall Jane Espenson - a writer I really admire - wrote a series of webisodes that included a lot of top actors so while I've not watched it myself, I'll assume it had a beginning, middle and an end!

Peter said...

I trust you'll be putting your Fellini touches in the Instant Mom episode you're directing.

D. McEwan said...

Novels are over. If you can't tell it all in two sentences, you're over-writing. And I'm not talking 10-word sentences. Three words are all you need for a sentence. Novels should only be their titles.

God, I've been on this comment for three minutes. I am so BORED!

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Dr, Who started the webisode phenomenon as a stop gap between seasons, particularly during Christmas.

MikeK.Pa. said...

"You can’t live on a diet of mini-Snickers bars (although I am this week directing INSTANT MOM)."

Amazing you're doing that and this at the same time. Multi-tasking to nth degree.

DrBOP said...

Hey, it's the Off-Topic Kid again.....check out this Gothamist article about an alternative ending for Friends, but more to this blog's concerns, check out Jamie McDonald's comment about the article involving Wings:

http://gothamist.com/2015/08/26/alt_friends_ending.php?utm_source=Gothamist+Daily&utm_campaign=25867a2bd4-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_73240544d8-25867a2bd4-276573

Jabroniville said...

I see a few things targeted at children use webisodes, which may be ideal for the "Shill the Toys" concept for Monster High and Ever After High or something like that, with more narrowly defined characters.

But even THOSE use longer episodes for important stories that actually matter.

Roger Owen Green said...

I think it's the culture. Oddly related, USA postpones 'Mr. Robot' finale due to parallels to Virginia murders. Until NEXT week, because we will have forgotten all about those murders by then; new murders will have taken their place in our consciousness.

Barry Traylor said...

Good Grief. Are some of the Millineals that dim witted?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

If you've never seen a Webisode, try Jane Espenson's HUSBANDS, readily available online at www.husbandstheseries.com.

The first traditional-length episode was posted as something like 13 webisodes. They all add up perfectly well and yet are watchable on their own. Lisa Kudrow's WEB THERAPY also started as webisodes. There was a sitcom in the UK years ago called THE SMOKING ROOM, centered on the room companies had where employees could go to smoke (since they were barred from smoking elsewhere). The writer originally conceived each episode as ten minutes long - the length of an average smoking break. The BBC doesn't have ten-minute slots. Eventually, he realized he could make half-hour shows by allowing characters to come and go. The concept did work as a series, but it might have worked just as well, though differently, as the original ten-minute episodes he envisioned. The way TV is currently scheduled, there is no way to experiment with new formats and lengths.

Yes, story always matters. But dismissing web experiments now, as they're just beginning, is as absurd as if you were watching that first film with the two little girls having a pillow fight and said, "Well, see, that's never going to amount to anything. There's no *story* there." Or "The acting will never be compelling - they can't react to the audience." Or any one of dozens of complaints based on the media you're already used to. First, you have to develop some understanding of the medium through experimentation. Then, you figure out what it can do that other media can't. *Then* you find out if it's any good.

Also don't forget: this is a generation for whom story has often been defined by increasingly elaborate computer games. I grew up reading books and watching TV. That's got to make a difference, too.

blogward: Maybe explain to me why Skylar isn't worth caring about. I never understood the hate for this character, who is trapped in a truly awful situation and does her best to cope with it.

wg

Mike said...

In the UK throughout the '60s & '70s, the BBC transmitted a five-minute childrens' programme every weekday before the 6pm news. Self-contained episodes with proper stories of such beloved classics as The Magic Roundabout and Hector's House (both originally French) before importing surreal stuff from Czechoslovakia. No problem.
And webisodes? Nothing new under the sun.