September 27, 2012

Why Do Some Books/TV Shows/Movies/Musical Pieces Compel Us to Finish Them in As Close to One Bite as Possible?

Posted in Writing at 9:47 am by otherdeb

My friend, writer David Bridger, recently did a vblog on how Battlestar Galactica had taken over his life.  

My comment to his entry was this:

“I’m not much of an SF series fan, but I can think of a couple of shows that have taken over my life that way: M*A*S*H, Sports Night, and The West Wing come to mind.

In M*A*S*H it was the characters, of course.  Even the characters that were not in the original book or movie were fascinating and — with the notable exception of Frank Burns — all of them “grew” over the course of the program.  There was also the tension, more about which in a few moments.

With Sports Night and The West Wing, it was much more complicated. The fascinating characters were there, but there was so much more. And, again, there was the brilliant use of tension.  But there was also Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue — the verbal badinage between the characters that perfectly caught the way we like to think people in those milieus speak and interact with each other.

Now, back to tension.   Jacqueline Lichtenberg has often noted that what drives a story is the conflict line.  This is what keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next.  Part of it, of course, is created by how much the characters engage the viewer/reader/listener (yes, this applies in music, too), but the other part – especially in tv, movies, and books – is the “conflict –>resolution–>next conflict–>next resolution” that the creator builds into the work.

This is why we cannot put some books down; why we feel we have to watch some tv shows from season beginning to season end in one sitting; why some progressive rock pieces could claim our attention for far longer than the record company producers and bigwigs ever thought was possible.

So, yes, I can believe that a book/tv show/movie/musical piece can take over our lives.  And I believe the tension and forward thrust of these works, coupled with characters that feel “real” are the reasons why they can do so.”

I’ve read a great many books over the years (I usually read between 100-200 a year), and I read not just one genre, but just about anything that doesn’t run away fast enough.  It’s not always the same thing that grabs me, but a large majority of the times a book does grab me it ‘s because the writer has combined several of the above elements.

Now, which combination of elements grabs you is an individual thing. For me:

  • Characters must feel real and ring true
  • Minor characters need to have enough flesh on them to not come off as cardboard
  • Dialogue needs to be sharp, and to not have out-of-period anachronisms
  • A character’s actions must be something that the character would do, or there must be a logical reason for them
  • With a few certain exceptions, the writing needs to be correct
  • If a character speaks in an accent or a dialect, it needs to be an accurate representation of that accent or dialect

I recently read a book that I had high expectations for.  The author’s premise was interesting:  President Lincoln survives Booth’s assassination attempt, and is facing impeachment by those who think he is not hard enough on the South.  An educated black woman joins the law firm defending him, and ends up working behind the scenes on the case, while also solving a double murder, and trying to find out her elder sister’s role in the whole mess.

Among the reasons I felt the book missed the mark:

  • The minor characters were never really fleshed out — they were very much cardboard.
  • The context the characters moved in did not feel real.  The way the characters moved through society did not jibe with what we know of the post-Civil War South.
  • The author took liberties with the timeline of actual events.
  • In a South where white society is very much hurting from losing, two major white male players in that society fall in love with the female black protagonist pretty much openly, with no repercussions from their family/friends/colleagues.

For me, these things made the book less than a compelling read, and made finishing it (I did want to see how the conflict line resolved) much more of a chore than it would have been had the writer hit the mark.

So, the upshot of this post is that yes, a book/song/tv show/game/etc. can grab you and get you to put much of your life on hold while you immerse yourself in it, and that there are certain elements that increase the likelihood of its doing so.

What has grabbed your attention to the point of taking over large chunks of your life?  How have you balanced the desire to put your life on hold while exploring something with the stuff that you must get done?



  1. Aaron Sorkin loves righteous indignation. His characters embrace an unusual level of echolalia. His shows contain blonde, straight female characters who engage in often antagonistic screwball flirting with their bosses or employees. The only thing these characters deplore more than mediocrity is not getting to talk about how much they deplore mediocrity. They like theater (especially musicals and Gilbert and Sullivan); they enjoy sports analogies; and they are frequently in search of ethical debates. The characters on The Newsroom are no exception! The show fits right in with Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 — these stories of high-minded individuals committed to rescuing television, or politics, or journalism from its sad gasps and restoring its luster, its promise, its romance, and reminding us all of the American dream, the inherent dignity of fatherhood, and that We Can Be Better. If we’re making it sound repetitive, it’s because it is. Sorkin’s grinding the same axes, repeating the same banter formulas, and sometimes even the same exact lines. Here are the most striking examples from last night’s Newsroom pilot.

    • otherdeb said,

      Welcome, Silver Account!

      While you are certainly entitled to your opinion of both Sorkin and his shows, what I was writing about is what makes a show compelling. And I have found that once one gets into the characters on a Sorkin show, the show is compelling. I have not had the opportunity to see Studio 60, but I found that Sports Night, and The West Wing always left me wanting to see more, and get deeper into the heads of the characters, no matter how neurotic they were. I suspect that the excellent acting was another thing that made the show compelling for me.

      However, your opinion is yours, and I respect that. What tv shows, books, or movies do you find compelling?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: