Identifying the differences between stories that build up and stories that burst brightly
I have an issue with some stories that I don’t have with others, even when the pieces of media are relatively similar in aesthetic or narrative scope. I wondered about it on and off for years, trying to figure out the “X factor” that switched the paths in my brain between “I’m thoroughly engaged in this” and “I can’t figure out if I’m only watching this ironically now”. And while my analysis is far from complete, I feel confident enough in my results to write this post, which I’m hoping will be the first in a series of thoughtpieces on this topic.
(NOTA BENE: From here on out, I’m going to be using the term “show” and its corresponding terminology in order to verbally compress my argument. However, know that this concept I’m explaining can apply to any piece of narrative media, be it prose, comics, music, radio dramas, etc)
To get at the heart of the matter, there are some shows I watch in which I almost always understand what’s happening, even if I’ve just been introduced to a world or a set of characters. I can often see the tropes at work and make educated guesses at what twists are coming up, and sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised when I’m wrong. I’m along for a ride that I can enjoy in both the climatic moments of action and in the scenery where I recognize meaning in symbols that have been placed with purpose.
And, to contrast. There are some shows that no matter how deep I dive into, I feel like I never understand a fucking thing that’s supposed to be going on. The characters feel overblown and melodramatic, with their personalities and their motives being way too heavy-handed without any actual narrative weight on them. Just when I think I grasp a thread of a plot, it leads absolutely nowhere and I turn around and there’s some newly-introduced jackass wearing a whole sweater of stitched-together contrivances and deus-ex-machina. With these shows, I rarely feel confident in my understanding of anything, and am thus disengaged from whatever the show is trying to push into my face.
Until I started thinking about it more, I used to just sort these two types of shows into “good” and “bad”, respectively. However, I kept seeing shows like the latter being made and becoming popular and beloved, and it fucking baffled me. I kept feeling like I was missing something, but whenever I tried to find that something I just kept reaffirming my observations of a poorly-written plot, flat characters and lack of care for any world-building. It was like they weren’t even trying.
World-building is in bold up there because that’s what sparked this idea. I love stories with a fleshed-out world brimming with small, carefully-planned details that often tell you more than the exposition of the main plot does. These settings feel alive, and immersive, and inviting to enjoy. What’s more, a well-designed world is a great help in keeping the audience oriented in the plot; it can provide cues and hints that take little more than a single frame to trigger an emotional reaction from a viewer. Oh shit, the princess is wearing the same ring her brother gave her the night he died! And the rose crest it bears is the symbol of the old empire, indicating an unbroken loyalty to a banished crown! Those are the moments when you find your breath caught, your skin prickling, or depending on your level of reaction, freaking the fuck out loud enough to assure your roommates/parents/pets that you are a fucking weirdo.
So what about shows that don’t care about world-building?
Because, in my theory, that’s a defining feature of those other shows, the ones I don’t like, or just don’t get. Maybe they have other priorities than establishing a wellspring of small details and layers of fiction. And maybe there’s an audience that is totally on-board with that. I think they care more about the flash and the glamour, the intensity of the moment, the raw emotion and meaning that is born when “the rule of cool” is law. Who the fuck cares if the hero’s best friend just came back to life for no discernible reason, and now has the same powers as the villain, even though the villain’s abilities were gained through a lost bloodline that only people from the moon can have. THEY’RE GONNA PUNCH EACH OTHER IN THE FACE AT THE SAME TIME AND IT’S GONNA BE SO FUCKING RAD and oh now they’re both dying but hey at least the best friend can give a full monologue before he kicks it for the second time in 17 minutes
ANYWAY. Once I was faced with the concept that these two different kinds of shows may, in fact, be two entirely different genres of storytelling, rather than points of quality on one scale, I figured I needed terminology to talk about them. I ended up calling the first example a “castle” show; a story whose engagement comes through detail, continuity and world-building. The narrative benefits from a solid structure that builds itself into something great over time, like a castle. The second is a “fireworks” show; the engagement comes from the apexes of intensity and dramatic flair, and everything leading up to those moments are instruments of this build-up, with no inherent meaning in themselves. They don’t make coherent sense because they aren’t written to hold any. That’s not the point; the number of steps on a staircase isn’t of consequence in this house, they’re just used to get to the view up top. The value of this show is to be shiny and loud and pretty to look at, just like fireworks.
As I said before, this is still a nascent idea, and writing posts like this is part of the process of me figuring it all out. If the idea does do some service in reflecting how our media is constructed, then the truth will be self-evident as we put it to the test. In future posts, I hope to dive into the details of how each type works by pointing out examples in two comparable shows, one a “castle” and the other a “fireworks” show. And I’ll be exploring my own tastes, in how subjective my preference is for one and not the other. I am very interested to hear other folks’ thoughts on the matter, particularly if their preferences are in strong opposition to mine. (I would just ask you to phrase it more eloquently than the average youtube comment, please. Only so many ways you can imply you fuck someone’s mother before it gets gauche).