So very late. So very, very sorry. Thanks for your patience.
By the way, just hold that there and press. If you don’t, it’s going to keep oozing.
Hey, speaking of medicine...
A friend of mine is a med student and she’s joked with me a couple times about the television show House. Believe it or not, House was a very unrealistic view of medicine. But it was unrealistic on a level most folks don’t consider. On the show, tests that would take days were often run in hours. Treatments showed results in minutes instead of days. Even his revival rate was amazing. Said friend told me the odds of actually reviving someone who crashes in the real world—well, they’re not good. CPR saves lives, but nowhere near as many as you’d like to think. But on House they pulled it off at least every other episode.
There’s a concept you may have heard of (or some variation of) that we’ll call compressed storytelling. Very simply put, it’s the idea that we can skim over a lot of time and events without it affecting our story. As the name implies, certain events are compressed so I can spend more time with others.
Most short-form stories—movies, episodic television, and short stories—are usually compressed to some degree or another. Alfred Hitchcock—director, storyteller, partner of the Three Investigators—once said that drama is real life with all the boring parts cut out. That’s also a good way to sum up compressed storytelling.
Compressing the story often builds tension and knocks the stakes up a bit. Silly as it may sound, compressing the story builds pressure. If my villain plants a bomb in the city that’s going to go off in two months, that’s not a lot of pressure on the hero. If it’s going to explode in twenty minutes... that’s a bit more urgent. Likewise, if my hero (or heroine) has eight semesters to tell Phoebe his true feelings for her, he’s got a while to think about it. If she leaves in two weeks for a year abroad with Steve Carlsburg (man, that guy’s such a jerk)... well, our protagonist needs to get his or her act together now..
Now, the flipside of this is decompressed storytelling. It’s the idea that I should take my time and include everything. And I mean everything. Every single detail and nuance and fact, whether they’re relevant to the story I’m telling or not. If we’re going to believe Hitchcock (and the man did know a few things about storytelling), this is when we add all the boring parts back in. Supposedly also in the name of drama.
Y’see, Timmy, decompressing the story takes the pressure off my characters. If they have time to sit in a diner talking about the movie they saw last week or their intense feelings about Miracle Whip, there really can’t be anything else urgent going on in their life. Yeah, good characters might have an occasional conversational segue, but it’s the difference between randomly commenting that I don’t like ketchup and telling the half hour story about the scarring childhood event that made sure I never touched the stuff again.
Here’s an even better example. I could tell you that I woke up this morning and sat down to write this week’s post (a few days late)...
Or I could tell you that I woke up, rolled over, folded my pillow in half, and went back to sleep for ten minutes. Then my girlfriend got up and I looked at the clock and realized I really needed to get up because I have a deadline coming up, but first I tried to remember some bits of a dream I had. Then I wandered into the bathroom, did my morning business, so to speak (we’ll skip over details there for the sake of politeness), washed my hands, dried them on the tan towel that doesn’t match the rest of the bathroom because I could only get one in the correct color, and then spent a minute playing with my hair. I’m thinking about trying a new style, something like the brushed-forward cut Jonny Lee Miller has on Elementary. We’ve got similar hairlines, so I think it could work for me.
Anyway, then it was off to the kitchen for my morning yogurt drink and a bit of grumbling at the fridge when I realized I drank the last of the Diet Pepsi last night. Which is clearly the fridge’s fault and not mine. I checked Facebook and Tumblr and even Google+, even though I’m honestly thinking of dumping G+ and going back to MySpace, just so I feel like I’m getting a better use of my time. It just doesn’t get the response that either Facebook or Tumblr does. My friend Bo put it in a good way, that Google+ just never hit that critical mass where a site really takes off.
Then my girlfriend and I debated when we should go to the grocery store, because I needed Diet Pepsi and we also needed cat litter. But we were hoping the new Star Trek: Attack Wing ships will come out today because we love the game and we want that Borg tactical cube. If we were going out later for that, it’d be much more time-efficient to do all our shopping at once. But we didn’t know if the ships were definitely coming out today or not, which would also affect dinner plans because if we went over to Game Empire we’d probably grab a slice of pizza at Mamas and Papas and call that dinner.
Then there was a minor panic attack after an email with my editor. Turns out I had that deadline wrong and I was really freaking out before he calmed me down and assured me I could work for another two ort three weeks and it wouldn’t change a thing on his end. So I took a few deep breaths, made a joke about how this just feeds into my drinking problem, poured myself a drink, and then sat down to write today’s ranty blog.
Which, as a reminder after all that, is about how I don’t need to include every single detail and nuance and fact.
And, man, I did not have time for all that. I’m on a deadline...
In my experience, some writers fall back on decompressed storytelling when they don’t actually have much story to tell. I can’t make my novel lean and tight because if I did it’d only be three chapters long. So I fill it up with segues and character moments and drawn out descriptions.
The common excuse for this is that I’m being “literary.” I’m raising the bar and writing at a higher level than the rest of you. All you people who keep skimming over those character moments and beautiful details and exquisite language in favor of things like “plot” and “action”... you’re the ones responsible for the dumbing down of America.
I think a lot of this mindset is a function of something I’ve mentioned before—the very special episode syndrome. If you’re not familiar with it, the very special episode is when a series does something a bit out of character. Sitcoms do a serious story about abuse or racism. Dramas do an all-musical episode. Superhero comics spend an issue dwelling on the nature of mental health and suicide. These decompressed stories tend to get a lot of notice and praise because they’re daring to push the envelope a bit and do something that radically contrasts their usual material. I’m sure anyone reading this can come up with dozens of examples of such things.
Something to take note of, though, is part of the reason the very special episode works is because of that contrast. When we see a story where Spider-Man deals with one of his regular foes going kind of crazy and eventually killing himself, it has a lot more punch than if we read about a similar story in a psychiatric textbook. Its rareness makes it special. It’d be interesting to see what James Bond or Freddy Krueger do when they’ve got an absolutely free day, but it’s also going to wear pretty thin by the end of the first act.
This is the big mistake I think people make with VSE (my new abbreviation), and it’s something else I’ve talked about before. It’s when I look at the rare exception and assume that’s the rule. It’s when I think the one aberration is what we should all be following. If one story about Spider-Man dealing with mental health does well, we should do five! Or ten! Hell, why would we do anything except mental health issues?
This is why the last four seasons of Scrubs were all about people dying from cancer and drug overdoses, by the way...
Now, as I often say, there is a place for both of these things. I am a very big proponent of the idea that if you want to succeed in this business (the business of selling stories for money), then less is more. But to automatically declare either method “wrong” is... well, just wrong.
If everything I’m writing is all one or all the other, though... maybe I should stop for a moment and reconsider. Do I actually have a story and plot? Are my characters dynamic and trying to resolve a conflict? Or am I using decompressed storytelling to hide the lack of these things behind a lot of flowery language and drawn out, irrelevant dialogue?
Are my characters fleshed out? Is my setting well established? Or am I skimming past plot points as fast as I can so nobody will notice I don’t have these things?
Maybe it’s time to adjust the pressure a bit.
Speaking of which, next time, there’s an idea I’d like to impress upon you...
Until then, go write.