Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Narrative Clarity

Ah, the joys of script reading. Script after script after script, report after report after report. As soon as you get into the reading routine, you begin to yearn for engaging opening sequences, a simple set-up and/or a good flow. Even better, the protagonist and secondary characters are easily identified, and the premise is quickly established. You look for a script with narrative clarity, basically.

Yet, surprise surprise, a lot of scripts muddle their first thirty pages, never mind their first ten, so you're left none the wiser about who's who, what's what and why a reader should give a damn. There's a lot of talk about the first ten pages, and how important they are in engaging a reader's interest, but the first thirty or forty pages are arguably more important as the reader settles down into the pace of your story, and is eager to find out what happens next rather than wondering what the hell is going on.

So, putting aside the importance of the first ten pages, let's look at the first thirty or forty pages instead. Or act one, if you prefer. The script has probably introduced the protagonist and secondary characters, and established the overall premise of the film. But as we move into page thirty and beyond, has the script developed a fixed momentum regarding the story's main source of conflict? Or is it still setting up subplots or tying up the loose ends of the overall premise? Or, god forbid, the protagonist hasn't emerged yet?

Imagine you're in a cinema. You've just sat down to watch the latest release. The lights go down, the film begins. You begin to figure out who's who and what's what. However, after about twenty minutes in, you still haven't settled in to the flow of the story. You shift in your seat. You struggle to follow what's going on. Thirty or forty minutes in, and you have a slim interest in the characters or story (and that's only 'cos you've paid entry). The acting's fine, the directing's fine, it all looks good. But the story doesn't excite or engage. It's a bit slow and/or confusing. It lacks narrative clarity.

There is a downside to a script reader's 'easy read' demands. It means stories end up being told the same way, only to make the reader or exec's life easier. We get scripts boiled down to a 'quest narrative' so that the protagonist's objective is clear, and spurs a neat course of action for act two. Generally, it's all good advice but not all stories should be told this way. Some are more challenging or discerning, and demand a bit more time and attention from the reader. Ensemble pieces, multi-story strands, interweaving plots, a non-linear structure, that kind of thing. But readers actually LOVE all that stuff. If it's done well. If it doesn't push them too much. The problems occur when a reader has to flick back a few pages to check a character's name, or to find out what's going on, or remember who said what, or re-read a whole page to remind themselves about the plot.

A couple of recent viewing examples that made me think of narrative clarity were BBC3's new teen horror series 'Harper's Island', and an Italian mafia drama, 'Gomorrah' (on DVD). Harper's Island begins by introducing ALL of the main characters, establishing their key traits and relationships. It's a difficult task, especially as we're all-too-quick to pounce on an expositional line of dialogue and declare the writing rubbish. However, Harper's Island just about gets away with it. The exposition was pretty much OK, plus the first killing wasn't too far away and ensured a good pace/flow to the proceedings. You might have seen Harper's Island and thought it a load of rot, but if you're an aspiring writer, ask yourself: what would you have done in that opening sequence? How would you have started the story, and ensured that the characters and premise were quickly established? So far, the series seems like undemanding fun, a weird combo of a trashy soap and a slasher flick, with Ireland's own Elaine Cassidy leading the way.

Gomorrah, on the other hand, is a modern Italian mafia tale. Gritty and realistic, it follows an ensemble cast, from kids to drug kings, as they find their way in the mean streets of Naples. The acting's impressive, the directing's fine, it all looks good, but it lacks narrative clarity. Forty minutes in and we still don't know characters' names or the main thrust of the key characters' storylines (or at least, I didn't). It's hinted at here and there, and there are good moments but some interest is lost, and the story begins to disappoint. My criticisms here are based on the screen, not the script, so I'm unaware of the writer and director's approach (it is based on a book, though). Nevertheless, it's safe to say that it left me a little detached.

Narrative clarity. Doesn't matter if a story is complex and multi-stranded, it still should have a clear line of understanding and involvement. Check out the long opening sequence of The Godfather, and how the characters are set-up, and then (** SPOILER **) there's an assassination attempt (** END SPOILER **), and 'click': the story gels and unfolds beautifully. Julian Fellowes also does it well in Gosford Park (but of course, script coverage at the time said it was unfocused and confusing!).


Iain Coleman said...

Another example is the first episode of The Wire. Now there's a complex, multi-threaded narrative with a large ensemble cast if ever there was one, and indeed a lot of what we see in the first episode is ambiguous or mysterious. But the episode's story snaps into place early, when Bunk says to McNulty "There you go, giving a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck" - that's McNulty's basic drive, and it immediately brings him into conflict with his superiors. We can follow and enjoy this conflict quite easily, and let the larger-scale story build up in the background.

Neil said...

Interestingly, this is the reason I never watched past ep 1 of HEROES. So many characters were introduced in that episode. We knew a little bit about each of them but not enough to care.

There was nothing about any character that stood out as unique or different (than any other characters in a show such as that). For example, we have a hot, blonde cheerleader who is invulnerable. And she has parent issues. That's all we learnt. Ok, so she's a poor man's Buffy. What else? Oh.....ok, now we're on someone else. Ah, a paramedic who hears thoughts. So he is....oh, a new person....

See what I mean? For me, it was all too little for each character. I would have much preferred to have been shown just two or three characters tops in that first episode, then the rest in ep 2.

Just my humble opinion, of course.

Lucy V said...

Danny - Agreed, narrative clarity is SO underrated and so infrequent in the slush pile and unfortunately makes it into production as well like with GOMORRAH (though I haven't seen it yet) - and as you say, you defo can't win in this biz!! I think part of it is down to the knee-jerk "structure is too formulaic" battle cry: we've all heard it on forums, blogs, etc. And as you rightly point out, sometimes it means stories can be told the same way. With this in mind then, I think of structure less as a "formula" than a "measuring stick", ie. "by this point, would my reader/audience know *whatever is important at this stage*?" It's not a perfect system but it means I can break away from the traditional three acts and use other elements like non-linearity.

Neil - I personally thought HEROES was pretty easy to understand 'cos we'd seen it all before superhero-wise, just not all lumped together - which IMHO *had* to be the selling point of the show and good luck to them, it had a solid fanbase and I was never gonna be in its target audience. But as Helen points out, I think it was the expositional dialogue that really ruined this one. Apparently it got better by episode 4 or 5 but that's up to 5 HOURS IN. Blimey! Seems to me we forgive TV so much because it carries on, week on week, but don't offer the same reprieve to film: "Oh well, it's only an hour and a half, can't blame it really, can you?" Not that I'm actually saying we should, I think TV should set up series better sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Currently writing a TV pilot ep and our models are certainly all those great US shows - The Shield, Sopranos, Dexter, The Wire, Friday Night Lights, True Blood, Sons Of Anarchy, Heroes (incidentally I'd argue that Peter Petrelli is clearly the protagonist - we start with him, end with him, he gets the most screen time and the biggest story; yes there's a bunch of them, but that's kind of the point)... but the Americans do this better than we do time and time again. Okay they have bigger budgets, but even the UK shows that splash the cash a bit more like Spooks and Dr Who still suffer from very conventional directing and leaden characterisation. And as for the rest, like Holby, I just don't understand why anyone would waste their time watching them when you can rent/buy/download all those US shows above.

mrswing said...

I wouldn't exactly call Dr Who's characterization 'leaden', certainly not that of the good Doctor himself, who is probably one of the most unique protagonists ever on TV.

When I saw the first episode of The Wire, I was frankly overwhelmed. Too much info, too many characters in complex relationships to each other, very little expositional dialogue (a good thing, but in this case it didn't help to make matters more clear). This show is really perfect for DVD, because from the second episode on, everything started to become much clearer.

Anonymous said...

Personally I'd say that Dr Who is very good family light entertainment. But if you want DRAMA, right now you have to look to the States.

Danny Stack said...

Interesting how Sopranos, West Wing, Wire, Six Feet Under etc hardly get watched over here at all, viewing figure wise.

It's always easy to 'look to the States' and be impressed but we've got some cracking stuff, too. The Tudors, Dr Who, Spooks, Hustle, Red Riding, Waking the Dead, Moses Jones, Ashes to Ashes, Life on Mars, Being Human, Bleak House, Cranford, Candleford, Desperate Romantics, Five Days, The Street, Torchwood, recent BBC4 one-offs, and probably a few more besides. Not a bad line-up at all.

Lucy V said...

I think a lot of this debate is "grass is greener" stuff... We only see the good stuff that gets bought in from the US, no doubt there's loads of crap churned out there too.

Also, when it comes to various programmes like soap opera or "marmite" progs like Dr Who: just because you don't like a programme doesn't necessarily mean it's BAD. End of the day it's having lots of money spent on it, getting made and getting watched by a LOT of people. It must be doing *something* right.

Anonymous said...

Okay, not to harp on (!), but... like I said Dr. Who v good at what it's trying to do and Spooks and Hustle are both slick and entertaining. But don't tell me you'd watch them over The Wire, The Shield, The West Wing, Sopranos etc etc. Yes these US shows often don't get big ratings over here, but that's because they're scheduled at 11:40 on BBC2 three years after they've been made and anyone with any sense has bought the boxset already. Alright, we still make some good costume dramas, though not as many as we used to. And some of the one-offs aren't bad - Criminal Justice is one you didn't mention. But Waking The Dead? Huh? Ashes To Ashes? Seriously? You'd watch those over Dexter or Battlestar Galactica? I'm not knocking UK drama for the sake of it, I WANT it to be better and more imaginative and ambitious, but lets face facts comrades, it's not in great shape at the moment. So yes the grass IS greener in the States. It's bright dazzling well-crafted, exciting, compelling glow in the dark grass and we would do well to learn some lessons from it as we tend our own rather weedy, patchy brown lawns. Why's it so hard to admit that the Americans IN GENERAL do some things much better than we do. Like TV drama. Anyway, thanks for the interesting and vigorous debate!

JJ said...

Hey guys

Lucy's right, there's hordes of muddled dramas on the air here in America! Don't be so hard on yourselves--without the BBC inventing the season-length multi-character drama we Yanks would still consider The Beverly Hillbillies and Grizzly Adams the height of television art. : )

Regarding narrative clarity: I've always thought one film that did an amazing job keeping a lot of characters straight and the plot very clear was THE BOUNTY, written by Robert Bolt. Part of it is the casting (did any 80s film have a better ensemble?) but it's also quite astonishing how he manages to set up a good fifteen or twenty characters or so in the first act and almost effortlessly make them all differant and distinct, AND do it all in the context of the story.

Danny Stack said...

America makes terrific drama, no question. But so do we. Sometimes it's better than the US, sometimes it isn't. We don't have the same economy or culture as the US (e.g imagine a UK version of Harper's Island?) but we do the stuff we do well.

I don't agree that poor viewing figures is down to scheduling, although it saddens me that ITV2 continues to push Entourage deeper into the night. It's not even on this week for crying out loud.

Lucy V said...


I've never really watched The Wire, Shield, Sopranos or the West Wing. I'm certain I would enjoy all of them from the adverts but it's just never happened for one reason or another - perhaps something else was on at the same time or perhaps I was in bed cos I'm old and have to be asleep before ten! ; )

But that's not to say I don't watch US drama at all; I adore CSI, NCIS, The Mentalist, The Unit and House. But that doesn't negate my love for Waking The Dead, Trial and Retribution, Waterloo Road, etc. Why does it have to be either/or?

I think UK drama is in "great shape" (creatively speaking, anyway) - just ten years ago it was ALL kitchen sink, medical or crime generally, with the odd high concept show like Ultra Violet. Now look what high concept shows we have! Too many to count. And it's in addition to stella kitchen sink drama like The Street & Moving On; solid medical shows like Holby and more outlandish ones like Bodies and the aforementioned crime shows like Waking The Dead.

Actually for me, I'd rather have the kitchen sink, medical or crime but there is no doubt in my mind a much wider UK audience are catered for. And this can only be a good thing I reckon.

Dharmesh said...

The Street has impressed me, but my main focus is on the U.S. shows - they look larger than life. We could do with pumping more money into location work, because, quite frankly, it looks way too cheap. We have great writers but not the backing to decorate it at times.

I dislike Gomorrah because the narrative was unclear. I didn't really care about anyone. Godfather is just way more entertaining and something I could relate to.

PK said...

I know there's been lots of criticism of UK TV drama in recent months, but I prefer to see it as one big melting pot. Different dramas cater for different audiences, and on the whole UK drama is still brilliantly crafted, and a lot of love and care goes into making it, whether it's Holby, Who or The Street.
I also adore US drama. It is what it is because of the culture it springs from. Likewise with UK drama. You can't really make a fair comparison. US drama has huge resources, and UK drama does a damn fine job with what it has.

One other thing, is it just me or is True Blood just a tedious load of old cobblers? I watched it for the first time recently and was disappointed. And I love Alan Ball's other stuff.

Danny Stack said...

True Blood starts off slow, then gets better, then gets worse, then gets a bit better. Sookie's a pain in the ass but sticking around for Lafayette & Tara & Jason.

David Lemon said...

I think the question of narrative clarity comes down to intention. If you're aiming to drop the audience into the middle of a story and deliberately confuse them for a bit then that has to come across both on the page and on the screen.
If it's just muddled, disorganised storytelling then it shows (and I'm totally with you on Gomorrah- it left me cold too).

I think that 'hook 'em in the first 10 minutes' rule really applies to people reading your script. Most of us are prepared to wait a little longer if we've paid to go out for the evening.

Oh and congrats on 'Roy'. A cracking series.

Richard Burke-Ward said...

Hi folks - new here...

Two things going on here: narrative clarity (totally with you, Danny), and a spin-off into what shows are successful when they screen. Obviously the two are linked, we all get that. BUT...

There's a key issue that I would argue links all the shows that various of you have cited as successful - and that is branding. This is the common thread between narrative clarity and a successful show, no?

You switch onto episode 1 of (say) The Wire because you buy the concept and you want to know more. (I didn't, because I don't.) So, now you're watching - and what you are looking for is a hook - could be a character, could be a situation, could be a world view - but what you are looking for is the identity of that programme. If it was on a supermarket shelf, we'd call that looking for the brand.

And what (I think) turns us *off* from a series is when it fails to deliver on its own initial brand-promise. "Lost" was well written, acted and directed - but it became totally clear after a few episodes that this was sex with no orgasm. There was never going to be a moment when you could roll back, light up and think it was all over (at least for you!). "BattleStar Galactica" - same, only personally, I might have kept going simply because I enjoyed the world - until I realised that my sad old ears were only getting one word in ten, and series-by-series that ratio was all going in the wrong direction. It became incomprehensible for purely aural reasons.

Oops - got drawn into ranting. Sorry. Here's my point:

There are kinds of TV that we identify with as viewers. We want more of it, and we'll commit to it more that to a genre / brand that doesn't turn us on. But let's say we've committed:

*Then* narrative clarity comes into play. You buy the world, you switched on specially - and then you are landed in a heap of unfocussed mush... For me, when that happens, that show is off the series link immediately. But if the world, or the concept, or a character, *or* the narrative line is sufficiently compelling, I might just give it one more week...

That's how I got hooked on Heroes (then hugely annoyed by it). It's how I got hooked on True Blood. I bought *enough* about those shows that I wanted more.

And *then* narrative clarity became important.

As a viewer, you look at *brand* before you even switch on the TV. You buy into episode 1 on the trailers.

Narrative clarity is definitely a key to success - but it won't make people switch on - it's more that the lack of it will make people switch off.

All the best,

Richard BW