Storytelling Techniques

I think I’ve mentioned before that I don’t watch TV. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is a matter of logistics: I live in the country, just far enough from town that cable isn’t available, and we have too many trees to our south to use satellite. It would work okay in the winter, but once the trees get their leaves, we wouldn’t have service. Every time I tell someone this, they say, “Well, cut down the trees,” which brings me to the next point: Why? I mean, there are simply too many of them to bother with, considering the quality of most TV shows these days. Besides, not all of them are on our property.

Quality is the other, and more important reason. Like I just said, most of the stuff on TV is crap. Unlike many people, I won’t watch crap just because it’s on the tube. I got better things to do with my life than waste it on yet another sitcom that I can’t tell apart from the one that was just on before it. As far as drama goes, I’ve had an opportunity to see a few episodes of Ghost Whisperer (which sounded like a dumb idea to start with), and I have to say that, except for the changing cast of guest stars with ghost problems, it was hard to tell them apart. Same old story: someone has a ghost who won’t go away and our heroine, with her special talent, manages to get the ghost to “go into the light” (and isn’t that original?). Yes, there were one or two exceptions, such as the regular cast member—the professor type—who refused to forgive his cheating wife when she passed on. Can’t say I blame him, all things considered. And I believe there may have been a ghost who refused to listen to reason, but I maybe wrong on that one. The stories were bland, the characters cut from cardboard. ’Nuff said.

And don’t even get me started on “reality” TV.

I bring this up, though, because there are exceptions, and I’ve managed to finally watch one of them: Lost. Yeah, I know: it’s been on for years. See Paragraphs 1 and 2. I borrowed the first two seasons from my cousin this past week, and I’ve watched most of the first season already. I have to say that, so far, I’m a fan. I understand the storyline gets pretty convoluted as the series goes on, but that’s okay. It means somebody actually thought about writing a real story, and that’s what I’ve seen so far.

I’m not writing this to try and convert you to the series, though. I’m sure the majority of people have made up their minds about this show by now. What I do want to bring up is the storytelling technique they use to keep you interested.

Lost is one of those shows you have to pay attention to if you want to keep up with what’s going on. Events in one episode may not have for a couple more episodes, and while they’re good at recapping relevant shows, it’s much better when you’ve watched that particular installment.

Writers will know the technique I’m talking about: it’s called a cliffhanger. The term comes from the old serial movies of the 30s and 40s, where each episode ended, quite literally, with the hero hanging from a cliff. Or burning building. That kind of thing. It’s what the movie makers used to get you to come back next Saturday.

Lost doesn’t do it quite that literally, but there are cliffhangers all through it. Some of them don’t even get answered, or haven’t yet, though they’re minor. The one I have in mind is the contest between Charlie and Jack on the golf course Hurley set up. When Jack makes his winning/losing shot, we never see the outcome. And if anyone referred back to it in a later episode, I missed it. Or haven’t seen it yet.

Some of Lost’s cliffhangers are really that, such as the episode where Claire and Charlie are kidnapped  and Jack and Kate find Charlie hanging from a tree by his neck. Even once they cut him down, there is serious doubt about him being resuscitated. Jack finally pulls it off, of course, since Charlie is one of the main characters.

Not all of the cliffhangers are so dramatic, though. I bring this up because it’s something writers need to keep in mind: you end your chapters/sections with cliffhangers, but you don’t want all of them to be so dramatic or you’ll wear out your reader. Lost does a good job of this, and some episodes end with everything on a pretty even keel. But even this is a cliffhanger of sorts, because they give hints of things yet to come, such as at the end of Outlaws, where we see Michael building his raft, and Sawyer elects not to tell Jack he met his father back in Sidney. We’re left wondering what will happen when Michael takes off on the raft, how many will go with him, and will Sawyer tell Jack that he met his father? Sounds a little like a soap opera, when you list the plot elements out like that, but isn’t that what all stories are, at heart? Maybe they aren’t as overt as the daytime soaps we’re all familiar with, but all the soaps really do is take the basic elements of plot and overdo them (sometimes they way overdo them). So, yeah, in some ways, Lost is a soap.

But there are other elements of the show that they keep hanging in the background. Such as, why are there polar bears on this tropical island? And what’s the monster that we haven’t seen yet? I know, if you’re a fan and you’ve seen the show to its conclusion, you probably know all this. And, I have to say, I’m glad I didn’t have to wait a week in between episodes like you people did. Assuming all these questions are answered, you know what the hatch is, what the deal is with the French woman, who kidnapped Claire and all the other questions that get raised along the way.

Lost has to make these things a little more overt to keep their audience. And besides, one of the people responsible for the show is JJ Abrams, who is known for this kind of stuff. He made his mark, evidently, with this series, and I have to say his reboot of Star Trek is the best thing to come out of the Trek universe in a long time. You can tell Abrams is a fan, and yet he has ideas on how to improve the show. (This makes Locke’s joke about Kirk being a crappy captain in Lost even more funny, to me.)

The less overt flipside of this is the book Young Junius (you thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?). Junius is the story of a young man in Cambridge in 1987. When the story opens, his brother has been killed and he’s gone to the local gang leader to get a gun and avenge his brother’s death. It’s ironic that he gets the gun at the funeral home where his brother is. He has a good idea of who killed his brother, and the basic idea of the plot is that he’s seeking revenge.

This is set against the backdrop of the invasion of crack and its debilitating effects on the black community at large. It’s just starting to make itself known. It’s evident that Seth Harwood, who grew up in Cambridge, remembers the era well or did some extensive research, or both (I’m betting on the latter).

The place Junius ends up having to go is a complex of three twenty-two story towers, numbered 410 through 412, that are actually outside his set’s territory. He is after Rock, the man who runs two of the towers. Rock, a former Marine, rides around in a chauffeured Lincoln with his Doberman named Bonnie, and lives on the top floor of building 412. He also controls 411. The woman who runs 410, whose name I sadly can’t remember, resists selling crack because she can see what it does to people. Rock is pushing her to go to war, so she pushes back, sending Junius after Rock.

Young Junius takes place in a period of less than forty-eight hours but, like  Lost, concerns itself with more than one character. Junius is the protagonist, but along the way we meet characters such as Junius’s best friend, Little Elf, the crack-smoking C Dub, his enemy Roughneck, Rock’s two lieutenants, Black Jesus and Hammer, and so on. At one point or another, we’re given a view of events from all these characters and more. We see their motivations, and Harwood uses the stairwells and elevators of the building as plot devices. What’s on the next floor? What happens when Junius makes it to floor twenty-two? Does he even make it?

What I really like about Young Junius is that we have sympathetic characters. Seth Harwood is white, and yet he writes a very convincing group of black characters. I have a feeling he’s writing about people he grew up with, that he understands because there wasn’t a lot of difference between black and white in his childhood. All of these characters, on the surface, are stereotypes: black gangstas, dealing drugs in the projects and fighting amongst themselves all the while.

But Harwood takes us past the stereotypes and into the people behind them. Junius, we learn, is fourteen, even though he stands over six feet tall. He has a very mature way of viewing the world, which tells me he didn’t have a childhood to speak of. At the same time, there are references to playing in summer baseball leagues and him occasionally wishing he could go back to those times, before him and Little Elf started smoking pot and their big worries were winning the next game. This is contrasted with Junius’s love of Black Belt Theater movies. All through the story, he tries to move like the Hong Kong heroes do, always aware of his surroundings, ready to take it to the enemy all alone. He learns that real life doesn’t work that way, and, in the end, has to be happy with surviving.

I won’t give away the entire ending, but Junius does live through it, as does his friend Little Elf. But he comes out of it a changed person and, in some ways, still a bit naïve about things. I’ll leave it at that.

Both Lost and Young Junius are good stories, even though they do not share genres. When you get deep into it, though, what genre we write in is the window dressing. I don’t care if you’re writing about cowboys or vampires (or cowboys and vampires), the basic elements of storytelling have to be in place or no one will care. The cliffhanger is one of those elements, and both these stories show how to use it very well. Check out Young Junius, and if you’ve watched  Lost, I hope maybe I’ve given you a new appreciation of it.




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