TRACKING EXPECTATIONS - Complications Ensue
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Monday, April 04, 2005

I had a lovely interview with Melinda Hsu, a young story editor on Medium. One of the things we talked about was tracking audience expectations.

The audience is pretty well attuned to writer tricks. There was a CSI where a woman in a red dress was murdered at a dance. One of the first characters to be interviewed by the forensics guys was another woman in another red dress, who then dropped out of the story. And there was some really helpful guy who really wanted to help the investigators.

Guess what? Yes, you guessed it. The really helpful guy did it. And he hadn't meant to kill the woman in the red dress. He'd meant to kill the other woman in the other red dress.

I mean, how often do you see two red dresses by accident in a tv show?

Now the thing is, the audience is attuned to this. They've probably seen even more television than you have. After all, you're reading a blog, and they're watching television. While you write, they watch television. While you cook, they watch television.

They see two red dresses, and the exact same thing is going on in their head -- there's gonna have been some mixup between the two dresses.

How do you deal with that?

First of all, you have to decide whether you want to tip off the audience. After all, in a mystery, the audience likes to figure it out for themselves and get a little ahead of the investigators. So long as you're not too blatant with that other red dress, the ones that figure out what really happened will be tickled pink, and the ones that missed it will feel very very satisfied that a second red dress was waved in front of their faces and they didn't get it.

I think a lot of people like to get ahead of poor Jack Bauer on 24. Every time he goes somewhere, he calls for backup. Lots of it. Except when he's going to get jumped. So if he goes somewhere dangerous without backup, you know he's going to get jumped. He, apparently, doesn't. (Not after three very long days of getting jumped every other hour. Silly boy. You'd think he'd learn.)

That's one kind of storytelling. It's more cerebral -- obviously knowing more than your hero is a little alienating, in -- no -- trying to restrain myself -- can't -- can't -- "in a Brechtian sense!" -- damn. Sorry.

If you're not looking at the world with your hero's eyes, you'll feel less for the hero than you will if you are.

In that case, you have to be careful. Do you offer the audience clues in advance? Or not? Procedurals like NYPD Blue give you the information the moment the detectives beat it out of their suspects. So you never see the clues before they do. Medium is about Alison's trying to figure out what her precognitive dreams mean, so while we get the clues when she does, we too don't know what they mean, exactly.

Other detective shows give you the clues but don't hang a sign (or a red dress) on them. They have to be careful, because the audience can sniff out any but the most subtle setups.

Another way you have to track your audience's expectations is when you expect them to root for or against something. You can't hang a story on a threat to the life of a core cast member -- not unless you're willing to run one of those teaser campaigns, "One of our core cast will die tonight!" The audience knows perfectly well that Jack Bauer or Andy Sipowicz or Sydney Bristow is not going to die. So don't expect them to get their panties in a knot if you threaten their lives. If you're going to threaten someone's life, have it be a recurring cast member.

I like to think that "the audience doesn't know, but they know." Who's going to win the election on West Wing, Alan Alda or Jimmy Smits? Gee, that's not too tough, is it? Especially when Alan Alda is playing every Democrat's dream Republican -- a nice twist on Martin Sheen playing every Democrat's dream Democrat. Do you think the West Wing audience is seriously going to waste energy rooting for Jimmy Smits? I don't.

UPDATE: based on the last West Wing and reader's comments below, I'm wrong about Jimmy Smits. But you knew Hoyns wasn't going to take it, or Russell, or Baker. 'Cause they're not stars, and you can't see them headlining the cast next year. I do think that if Alan Alda wanted the job, he'd get it.

I'd be fascinated to find out what personnel changes got West Wing back on its game.

1 Comments:

Melinda Hsu was credited with writing my favorite episode of Medium, so good work on getting the interview with her.

Alan Alda has been adamant that he doesn't want to be a regular next season, and he's said he's contracted for only five episodes next season. And polls have regularly shown that viewers prefers Smits' character over Alda's for the race. So I wouldn't be so sure about the end result of the race just yet.

By Blogger Jeff, at 10:46 PM  

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