Tag: Narrative Technique

What Can We Steal from “Doubt,” an episode of the television program Law & Order: SVU?

Title of Work and its Form: “Doubt”, an episode of the television program Law & Order: SVU
Author: Written by Marjorie David & Paul Kolsby, directed by Ted Kotcheff
Date of Work: Originally broadcast November 23, 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The episode is on approximately four times a day in syndication and can be found on the program’s Season 6 DVD.  “Doubt” is also currently streaming on Netflix.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Creation of Suspense

Discussion:
Don’t even pretend to lie: when you’re not feeling well, you grab a tub of ice cream and sit down on the couch, stuffing your face with Cherry Garcia and your eyeballs with Law & Order.  The program is a spiritual successor to Dragnet, one of the first police procedurals and one of the most realistic.  As you well know, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit sends Detectives Benson and Stabler in search of all kinds of evil sex criminals.

One of the reasons the Law & Order franchise has been so successful is because Dick Wolf and the other producers use the least amount of serialization possible.  The episodes are about the crimes and their resolutions in the justice system.  Sure, we hear about Stabler’s wife on occasion and we wonder when Benson will find the right guy.  Further, every episode can take place in a different world.  Here’s the formula: In this episode, Benson and Stabler immerse themselves in the world of SOME FUN MILIEU  to get justice for VICTIM who has been SEX CRIME.  In this case, the story goes like this:  In this episode, Benson and Stabler immerse themselves in the world of THE UNIVERSITY ART DEPARTMENT to get justice for A YOUNG WOMAN who has been RAPED BY HER PROFESSOR.

The story is not complicated, but David and Kolsby are very shrewd in the way they create suspense in the viewer.  When you watch a crime show such as this, you’re wondering whodunit and looking for clues.  David and Kolsby change your thinking about the he said/she said story every couple minutes.  Look at some of the “story beats” in the show.

  • A student claims she was raped.  (HE’S GUILTY! —we all dislike rape.)
    A professor openly tells the detective the student will blame him.  (HE’S INNOCENT—he’s being open and honest.)
  • The student recoils at being touched.  (HE’S GUILTY—that’s what happens to rape victims.)
  • The professor points out his bruises and claims they were having consensual rough sex.  (HE’S INNOCENT—it’s hard to distinguish between the two and why should he have his life ruined?)
  • The professor’s door open to the detectives, revealing a very young and very pretty girl.  (HE’S GUILTY—he clearly likes girls who are too young!)
  • The little girl is really his loving daughter.  (HE’S INNOCENT—and we feel a little bad for thinking he’s a monster.)

The episode keeps the viewer guessing and humanizes a man who may or may not be a rapist.  By the same token, the episode humanizes a woman who may or may not have falsely accused a man of rape.  These situations are often more complicated than people give them credit for.  Should a rapist’s life be changed by the punishment he (or she) receives?  Of course.  On the other hand, what about the innocents who have suffered this same punishment?  I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t envy the judges and attorneys and officers who deal with these cases.

If you’re going to do a he said/she said, then the man and woman have to say stuff.  This episode accomplishes that exposition in an awesome way.  Instead of having a scene in which Stabler and Benson sit the guy down at a table, the viewer gets his side of the story while he’s stripping down for the medical examiner to pull evidence off of him.  We contemplate the invasion of his privacy while we hear what HE says happened.  These scenes are intercut with the she says.  The woman explains her side of the story while she’s undressing and doing a rape kit for Benson.  Not only is the exposition accomplished in a fast and efficient manner, but the writers are also given yet another opportunity to evoke sympathy and anger.  (They’re manipulating you.  I hope you realized that.)

The best turn occurs at the end.  I’ve presented this episode to my class, and many folks were not pleased.  The foreman of the jury announces that a verdict has been reached.  The piece of paper is handed to the judge.  She reads it.  The foreman gets the paper back and reads: “We, the jury, find the defendant…”

And that’s it.  It doesn’t matter what the jury (by way of the writers) thought.  It matters what you and your family think.  If you watch this episode with others, maybe a discussion will ensue.  What could be better than that?

What Can We Steal?

  • Own your status as a manipulator.  As a writer, it’s your job to lead the reader (or viewer) along.  Fake them out.  Trick them.  How do you do that?  You play with their perception of the story in order to increase the joy in their experience.
  • Compress exposition in interesting ways.  Why have two interrogation scenes when you can have just one.  Even better, you get to set the scenes in a much more dramatic way than officers and suspects on opposite sides of the same table.
  • Respect your audience enough to let them think for themselves.  The ending of “Doubt” mimics real life.  Do you think a jury member ever REALLY knows if he or she is right?  Do defense attorneys know they are sometimes unsure as to their client’s innocence?  Doubt is a part of life, friend.  The argument goes on, in the episode and in the real world.

What Can We Steal From Les Charles, Glen Charles and James Burrows’s “Give Me a Ring Sometime”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Give Me a Ring Sometime,” an episode of the television program Cheers
Authors: Written by Les Charles and Glen Charles, Directed by James Burrows
Date of Work: Originally broadcast September 30, 1982
Where the Work Can Be Found: This is the pilot episode of Cheers, one of the most popular and financially lucrative programs of all time.  As of this writing, the program can be viewed on the streaming services and the series’ full run is available on DVD.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:
Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Glen and Les Charles, having already established themselves as sitcom titans with their work on Taxi and The Bob Newhart Show, teamed with director James Burrows to create a new program.  They decided to set their new program in a bar: a felicitous choice for many reasons: bars are often populated by people with big problems, alcohol loosens the tongue, bartenders hear a lot of exposition…I could go on.  The pilot episode begins as Cheers is opening for the day and Sam Malone, its owner, is preparing for his customers.  In walks Diane and Sumner, a couple who are about to elope in the Caribbean.  All is not well between the two; Sumner insists upon visiting his ex-wife to get his grandmother’s ring so he can give it to Diane.  Sam, a prolific ladies’ man, is happy to keep an eye on Diane.  The other employees and barflies trickle in, and the Charles’ script teaches us about each of them.  Surprise, surprise…Sumner is not going to marry Diane, who is in denial until Sam hits her with the truth: “That goof is probably gonna be on a beach in Barbados tomorrow morning rubbing suntan oil on his ex-wife.”  Diane has nowhere else to go and takes a waitress job at the bar.

The script makes so many smart choices.  Isn’t it a good idea to begin the episode at the beginning of The Day Diane Arrives.  (A day that will change the lives of everyone in the bar.)  After all, our days start at the beginning, too.  Diane is a fish-out-of-water, allowing the writers graceful ways of doling out exposition.  It’s perfectly natural for Diane to ask questions about the people around her and it’s equally natural for the barflies to ask questions about her.  Carla and Coach are introduced and characterized with admirable quickness; Coach’s endearing absentmindedness and Carla’s hotheadedness are instantly on display.

The episode, for the most part, adheres to the Aristotelian Unities.  Unlike most contemporary TV shows, the Cheers pilot really could be the script of a play.  The action takes place on one set. Sure, there are breaks in the action, but that’s perfectly natural.  Who wants to sit around during the entire 90 minutes Sumner is away?  So the Charleses just fade the lights and then bring them back up when the story is interesting again.  And how can the viewer tell that time has passed?  Oh, the Charleses don’t tell you…they SHOW you time has passed because there are more people in the bar and dirty glasses everywhere.  The tone mixes comedy and tragedy in a way that Aristotle may not have appreciated, but the tone is very consistent.  Each of the characters has their own problems and they try to deal with them with some modicum of good humor.

In the Cheers pilot, no line is wasted.  Every single one has a distinct purpose: exposition, characterization or simply serving as a punchline.  It’s not easy to do, but the jokes are stacked one after the other and often grow right out of the characters.

What Should We Steal?

  • Answer questions before the audience has a chance to ask them. When Carla enters, the audience is likely to wonder who she is.  Before they get a chance to wonder, she burns through an angry rant about her miserable life and her excuses for being late for work.  In only a few seconds, we learn everything we need to know about Carla.  The silent reactions given to us by Sam and Coach also tell us a lot about how they feel about her.  No clunky exposition needed.
  • Employ great contrast between your characters.  Okay, the people who populate the bar have a lot in common.  Most love beer, most love sports, most aren’t as successful as they would like to be.  But a Norm line is very easily distinguishable from a Carla line because each character has great individuality.  Carla can provide the anger needed in a scene.  Sam’s recovery from alcoholism complicates his work and his life.  Coach misunderstands a lot of things, allowing for an awful lot of punchlines.  This contrast is particularly important because the story takes place on the one set.

What Can We Steal from Julie Otsuka’s “Diem Perdidi”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Diem Perdidi,” short story
Author: Julie Otsuka
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in Issue 117 of Granta.  The story was subsequently reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2012, edited by Tom Perrotta.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Technique

Discussion:
“Diem perdidi” is a Latin phrase that means “I have lost a day” or “another day wasted.” (“Perdidi,” you see, means “ to ruin, destroy or waste.” Isn’t translation fun?) Julie Otsuka’s first-person narrator is speaking to the daughter of a woman who suffers from a degenerative condition such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. (The effect is much the same as that of a second person story.)  In a structure somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Keyes’s short story “Flowers for Algernon,” the narrator utilizes vignettes to describe her mother’s loss of memory and increasing disconnection from reality. As editor Tom Perrotta notes, the story is haunting. The structure of the piece has a lot to do with that.

The story is driven by a constant refrain; Otsuka begins most of her sentences with some variation of “she remembers” or “she does not remember.” The idea seems strange on its face, doesn’t it? To tell a story primarily through these kinds of sentences? Otsuka’s structure, however, gets right to the heart of the drama. The narrator is indeed focused on what her mother does and doesn’t remember. Some memories are sad, some gaps in memory are painful to consider.

The repetition also manipulates the reader in an interesting way, immersing him or her in the story. There isn’t a lot of dramatic present to consider and there aren’t too many different settings to understand, so the reader can simply relax into the litany that Otsuka provides. This repetition can often be found in poetry. Think of “Annabel Lee.” Edgar Allan Poe repeats the titular woman’s name repeatedly…why? (Because it rhymes with a bunch of stuff.) T.S. Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday” repeats the phrase “Because I do not” several times.

What Should We Steal?

  • Avoid the difficulties of the dramatic present by using repetition. In less skillful hands (mine), the same material may be treated like a “standard” short story in which the narrator does a lot of work describing scenes and surroundings. Instead, Otsuka gets to spend her time describing the narrator’s pain and her relationship with her mother.
  • Break into the toolbox commonly used by writers of other genres. When writing fiction, feel free to use techniques commonly used by poets. When you’re writing a screenplay, think about the way a nonfiction writer condensed his or her story in a fortuitous manner. At the moment, I’m thinking of the film made from Tom Perrotta’s novel Little Children. It’s not odd for a film to have a narrator, but the narration in the film goes much further than most narrators, becoming a character in the same way that the narrator is a character in a novel.

What Can We Steal From Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Casey at the Bat,” poem
Author: Ernest Lawrence Thayer
Date of Work: 1888
Where the Work Can Be Found: Thanks to public domain, the poem can be found in many anthologies and even on the Internet.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Technique

Discussion:
“The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day…” So begins “Casey at the Bat,” a narrative poem that is written on the hearts of all baseball fans and all Americans. Baseball fans can relate to the heartbreak felt by the Mudville supporters. (As a lifelong Tiger fan, you must believe that I know my share of heartbreak. The Bengals were terrible for a decade, lost 119 games in 2003 and threw away the World Series in 2006 on bad fielding by their pitchers.) The poem is more universal, however, as we can all understand how it feels to hope for deliverance that doesn’t come. Thayer published the poem in 1888 and it didn’t quite take off for a while. Then De Wolf Hopper, a vaudeville performer, started performing it in his act. He subsequently recited the poem about eleventy trillion times. (Can you imagine a person reading a poem being a big-time act in the United States?)

It also bears mentioning that “Casey” has a personal significance to me. I’ve had the incredible fortune to present at the scholarly conference held in Cooperstown each year and I have seen Tim Wiles, Director of Research for the Hall, recite the poem in full Mudville regalia. I highly recommend you check out his performance if you have the opportunity.

One of the many ways that Thayer draws the reader into the narrative is through the use of poetic meter. The rhythm of the words attracts your attention, doesn’t it?

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

If you are interested in writing poetry, you should learn the mechanics of poetic meter. (Don’t worry; it’s not that hard.) Lines are made up of poetic feet. The number of feet and their rhythm determine the kind of meter the poem is using. Shakespeare (and other Renaissance playwrights) employed iambic pentameter. “Iambic” means that the feet have a weak syllable and then a strong one. “Penta-” means that there are five feet. (The Pentagon has five sides.)

In order to figure out the meter, let’s take a line and break it down into strong and weak syllables. (Strong syllables will be in ALL CAPS.)

“The OUTlook WASn’t BRILLiant FOR the MUDville NINE that DAY.”

Can you feel that rhythm? There are seven “weak-strong” feet, so it’s iambic heptameter.

The rhythm of the lines keeps you listening. We’re pattern-seeking animals, after all, so we enjoy the regularity of the syllables. The use of meter and rhyme create suspense in the listener. We know what the rhyme will sound like, but we don’t know what it will be! Even if you’re not a fan of rap music, you can often find that the best rappers do very interesting things with meter and rhyme. (I happen to think folks such as Jay-Z and Eminem are worth examining.) Even if you’re not writing a poem, using these techniques can help you get the most out of your prose. Perhaps you will use rhyme and meter to create a memorable line at the end of a chapter.

Thayer also employs a technique that isn’t as common as I would like: the sad ending. When you watch a sports movie, you can tell very quickly whether or not the main characters will ultimately prevail. As Dante from Clerks points out, life is a series of down endings. The Mudville fans (and Casey himself) will probably learn a lot more from failure than from success.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Use the poet’s toolbox, no matter the genre in which you’re working. Poets are particularly good at condensing big concepts into few words. They’re also skilled at creating memorable sentences. Take advantage of what they have to offer you!
  • Allow yourself the freedom to let things end badly. Writers (including myself) get wrapped up in the characters, wanting them to succeed. We shouldn’t let our personal connection to the characters prevent us from creating stories that resemble life. A sad ending can also help us to create a work that is unexpected.