Listen to Kenny Rogers, storytellers.

Know when to walk away. Know when to run.

I am a big fan of the TV show The Good Wife, and by “a big fan” I mean “a person who is behind by a full season at this point,” but that doesn’t make my enthusiasm less strong, it just means that I am physically incapable of watching broadcast and, eh, life. But I really do love this show. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. I’m looking forward to watching every episode, and when Alec visits, I am now watching every episode a second time so that I can enjoy them with him.

The network confirmed a few weeks ago what those of us who pay attention to title structure* already know: that this season, season seven, is the last season of The Good Wife. And I am glad. Because I used to be a fan of Criminal Minds, and I’m currently watching S10 of it with my workout. And uff da. Uff da. It is the shambling corpse of the show I used to love.

One of the episodes I watched yesterday tied up a plot thread that had been left from season two. And it did so in the most inane and simplistic way possible, taking all emotional complexity out of the equation, just: yep, this thing happened. We were sad. There was another person sad too. We tried to comfort him. People knew each other in the past. The end.

So it’s clearly not that people run out of plot, because there was some plot, just sitting around right there unused, and they used it. It’s something else that happens. The momentum runs out. The elastic wears out, the story needs a belt and suspenders to keep going. A lot of shows that get to be a train wreck as time goes on, it’s clear that there was plot yet to happen, they just…couldn’t wrangle it all as they tried to go and go and go.

So get in. Tell your story. And for the love of little green turtles get out again. And when a story you love ends–not when it’s cut off, but when it comes to an actual ending–be glad that it had the grace to do so, instead of becoming its own self-parody.

(I refer to the fourth Brunette Agent on Criminal Minds as O. If you name the first two Elle and Em, you cannot blame me for calling the next two N and O. Brunette women: not interchangeable! Come on, show! I hear tell that O is not long for this show. I do not look forward to P. Why am I still watching this show about how you are not safe in your home, or also if you leave your home you are not safe, and especially on the internet you are not safe? Because for as terrible as it is now, it’s still the right pace for my workouts. Sigh.)

What if people don’t like the next thing you do as well as this thing? Well. Then they don’t. That’s a risk. They also might not like this thing as well as this thing.

What if you can’t think of a next thing? Eat some strawberries (or an orange if you are allergic to strawberries; whatever). Take a walk where there are trees. Breathe.

What if people nag you and nag you and they spend the rest of your life nagging you about the thing you did that they liked so much? Remember that it is great when people like things you make, but it does not make them the boss of you, and it does not excuse them from polite behavior. And it is far better to be begged for more of your art than to be begged to stop.

Now go on. Know when to hold ’em, but err on the side of folding ’em.

*Season one of The Good Wife had one-word episode titles. Season two, two-word episode titles. And so on until season five, which had three-word episode title again, and Tim and I turned to each other and said, “Well, guess it’s a seven-season show, then. Cool.”

The stupid mistakes of smart people (are not the same)

I have talked in this space before about how I watch a bunch of cop shows, largely because I watch them while working out. This has advantages (pacing! hurrah pacing!). It also has disadvantages, because dang, are some of the things paced the way I need them to be…kind of obvious, honestly. It’s like you can see the places where they said, “[Find motivation for character here],” and then never did a search on brackets. Except that I’m not convinced that they did. I’m not convinced that in every case there was someone saying, “Uh…that motivation makes no sense.”

Here’s the thing. It’s not that smart people don’t make stupid mistakes. For whatever axis of “smart” you have decided is important in this consideration, you can come up with obvious, boneheaded mistakes that people with lots of that kind of “smarts” will make.

BUT THEY’RE NOT RANDOM MISTAKES.

If you’ve established that a character is both street-smart and good at math, having them decide to go into debt to a loan shark with no known plan of repayment is so far out of character that you have to seriously jump through hoops to justify it. (Yes, actual example.)

That same character might underestimate an opponent’s competence in a number of areas. They might rely on contacts who didn’t come through this time. They might do any of a number of “dumb” things. But for heaven’s sake, make them dumb things that fit. You only get so many foolish choices without it looking like you’re making things too convenient for yourself, or without losing sympathy for the character, or without undermining their characterization as smart. There are all sorts of failure modes here, and you don’t have to give your character perfect decision-making skills to dodge them.

Something that is helpful here: if you have an idea of what a small characteristic error looks like for your character, you can seed that to ramify into the larger ones later, so that a reader doesn’t say, “They’d never make that mistake!” But it does have to ramify throughout, or it doesn’t work.

Excitement! Suspense! Cliffhangers! Or…not.

Further in my watching of ten gajillion cop shows with my workouts, I have noticed an alarming tendency to try to add suspense in all the wrong places. Not every season has to end with a cliffhanger. If people like your show, they will keep watching your show.

I repeat: NOT EVER SEASON HAS TO END WITH A CLIFFHANGER.

But if you do choose to end your season (chapter, whatever piece of your narrative arc) with a cliffhanger, for the love of Pete can you make it one that actually…cliffhangs? Competently?

For example: “Will this be the end for the group of people this story focuses on?” No. No it will not. Everyone knows it will not. Exactly zero cop shows ever have completely disbanded their unit after that kind of cliffhanger, and the ones that have sort of disbanded it (The Wire S1 into S2) did not make it a cliffhanger. They just said: yup, now we are shifting these characters around to do something different. “Will [only female character] perish in a watery grave?” I’m just going to guess no there. “Will [main protagonist] spend his life in jail for a murder he didn’t commit?” Also going with no.

And okay, yes, if you’re doing it right, the suspense is not whether they will get out of something but how–but in the cases above, the “how” looks pretty obvious. How will [only female character] not perish in a watery grave? Well, by swimming or by having one of the others pick her up in a boat, I’m guessing. Haven’t seen that one yet, so we’ll see. And how will [main protag] get out of jail for a murder he didn’t commit? In a cop show–except for The Wire pretty much universally invested in the system working–I’m going to guess exonerating evidence. Wheee. So could you please stop pretending that we don’t know these things?

Putting a secondary character in peril is more effective than putting a protag in peril if you have established a reason for us to be interested in the secondary character–and if we actually believe you’d carry through with it. By the time you’ve watched a season of a show (read several chapters of the book, etc.), you have some idea whether it’s the sort of show that would let a bad guy murder a 4-year-old. That kind of show has to signal its turns pretty early on, or they will put off the people who are watching it to unwind of an evening with a little light mystery. We live in a narrative-savvy age. You have to roll with it.

Also more effective: putting a protag in non-mortal peril of a kind you’d carry through with. Fiction does horrible things to series protags as long as it lets them keep protagging. “Maybe their spouse will leave them or die!” Yep, unless the spouse is seriously major in the show (El in White Collar, for example), that can happen. “Maybe they will be demoted but still able to do the stuff we thought was interesting about them!” Yep. “Maybe they will have an injury they will have to work through in implausible PT episodes!” Wait, that’s a different gripe. (LEGEND OF KORRA PT FAIL ARGH.) You can make them sad. You can make them lonely. You can make them injured. We know these things happen to protags, so we can actually worry that they will happen this time.

Tim and I had a beautiful alternate universe Criminal Minds for the season in which there was an SUV explosion and it was strongly implied one of the team members was in the SUV at the time. In the time between seasons, we lovingly detailed the adventures of Aaron Hotchner after he had recovered from his massive burns and was dealing with trying to run the BAU from a wheelchair while doing actual rehab so the scar tissue wouldn’t cripple his fine motor control and still raise his son. But we knew they would never, ever do it. The question for the beginning of that season was “how will they cheat,” not “who will be killed or maimed.” And really, “how will they cheat” is pretty much always less satisfying suspense. It’s got the viewer/reader thinking about the creator, not the characters. Not what we want.

Things I Learned From Watching Cop Shows

1. If someone close to you is brutally murdered and you feel the urge to ask the police, “Do I need a lawyer?”, YOU NEED A LAWYER. Possibly even if they are gently murdered.

2. All people in the British Isles get their exercise by running very close to the edge of cliffs. Nobody in the UK or Ireland goes to the gym or runs on pavement or in a forest or something. Always a cliff, usually with no guard rail.

3. It is totally normal for a very recent widow or widower to make sexual advances to a police officer or other investigating detective. No one finds this suspicious. They should, of course, because it nearly always turns out to be relevant to the case. But apparently there are tons of cases we don’t see in which, “My spouse died this morning, helloooooo Officer Friendly!” is one of the stages of grief that Kubler-Ross missed, because no one ever goes, “hmm, that’s weird, possibly I should consider why this is happening other than my incredible personal magnetism.”

4. When people say that poker is a game that relies on skill and the better player will win in the long-term, they mean that ten to twenty hands should do it. It’s best if you form an elaborate plan for catching murderers (or other criminals!) that relies on someone on your investigative team winning one particular hand at one particular moment, with no way to cheat with the deck or dealer. That should be fine.

5. Boxing, on the other hand, is something that boxers don’t spend years training to do well. You can throw a random tough person at boxing and have them win at a crucial moment to catch a bad guy. Tracking down evidence is usually secondary to this.

6. If you worry enough about doing the right thing, no one will care that you never actually do it.

PT/OT, TV

Last week I was watching yet another murder mystery on television with my workout–really, on any given day, it’s a good bet that I will be watching at least one murder mystery on television with my workout, sometimes two depending on how long they are–and this time it featured a character who had been seriously injured and could not walk. And whenever I see that, I wince, because I know that they’re more than 50% likely to do dodgy PT/OT on screen, and in fact they did.

See, on TV, PT and OT are the same thing. Here is what they both consist of: there are the two parallel bars at armpit height, and the person who cannot walk is supposed to walk between them, and the PT/OT/random relative of the person who cannot walk yells at them to walk. And mostly they eventually do. Isn’t that easy? Isn’t that great? Why can’t everybody walk unassisted by now! How straightforward it all is! And why do people bother to go to school to learn to do PT or OT when anyone–the janitor, the hospital administrator, in fact the random relative of the person who cannot walk–could quite easily do this task?

SIGH.

And I know that the actors who play these characters who cannot walk are usually themselves able-bodied. But the PT/OT characters never do anything like, for example, making sure the characters they are supposed to be helping are stepping down on the correct part of their foot, by which I mean the bottom. I know that gait problems are one of the things the able-bodied can see when they watch someone with assistive devices walking, but they’re also one of the things that therapy will be working to correct, and they don’t show up out of nowhere. “I was in a car accident, and now I walk on the sides of my feet for no reason!” No, and also no. There’s a reason you don’t see people with visible gait problems walking around without assistive devices very often: incurable gait problems make it very hard to walk without them. So if you’re aiming for unassisted walking, you’re going to try to correct the gait if at all possible. A therapist worth their salt will notice that you are setting your feet down sideways and will stop you and work to correct it. They may remove you from the Parallel Bars of Doom and set you to doing different exercises somewhere else.

But that can’t be right, because being shouted at to walk is the only therapy anyone who cannot walk needs, right?

Another thing that never happens: nobody on TV ever needs to be told to slow down and take a rest, because we always need to be yelled at to do more and try harder. So no physical therapist ever says, “You’re not doing yourself any more good here, you’re just wearing yourself out.” Even though in people close to me alone, I can think of four physical therapy examples where the therapist said, “Now for heaven’s sake don’t do more than X amount, because it won’t help and might hurt you.” But on TV, no. Never.

(Yes, I know that sometimes you do PT and are told to just do it for as much as you can stand, until you drop, etc. It’s just that this is the only mode I see represented on TV.)

This is just sloppy, and I’m very tired of it. Physical therapy and occupational therapy are not the same thing, and between them they cover all kinds of activities to rehabilitate all kinds of body systems. If you’re someone who writes fiction, please think about portraying something different for your PT or OT. If you don’t know what that might include, do some research. There are physical therapists and occupational therapists and lots and lots of people who have been through one or both, and I bet you can easily find boatloads of us who are willing to talk about our experiences and the details that do not involve walking on the sides of your feet between two bars and being yelled at.

Oh, wait. I’m being unfair. Sometimes people who can’t walk also get to go swimming for their PT/OT. Nothing much happens there except they go swimming. Well. I take it all back, then. I was very, very wrong.

Seriously, if you have some examples of PT/OT on TV done better than this, please recommend them to me in the comments.

Small screen suggestions?

I watch a bunch of TV to get me through my workouts, and right now I don’t have a default thing of the right length that I’ve got momentum on, so I thought I would take the opportunity to ask for recommendations. I’ll list a bunch of things I’m in some sense “currently in the middle of,” and you can either suggest other stuff you think I might like or else ask what I like about the things I’ve listed. I am not current on anything: I watch DVDs or Netflix, so “current season” stuff will be spoilers for me.

Oh, and: I am a tough sell for sexual violence. It’s not a hard, fast line for me–for example, I watch Criminal Minds–but it’s pretty easy to hit my “this is no fun any more and I’m taking my marbles and going home” threshold on things like a certain popular soapy historical drama this season.

Shows I’m watching: Arrow, Avatar: The Legend of Korra, The Bletchley Circle, Elementary, The Good Wife, House of Cards, Inspector Lewis, The Killing, The Mentalist, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Ripper Street, Scandal, Sherlock, White Collar.

I am not at all limited to English language stuff, but the pacing of 22-minute episodes has to hit me right–some anime does and some doesn’t. Almost no live-action English-language stuff does. 55-minute shows can work, but they frustrate me because they’re pretty much exactly the wrong length for what I need for workouts. 40-to-44 are great, as are the 80-to-90 blocks.

Thoughts?

Bad movies: doing just one thing at a time

I have had a long string of days with no specific time commitments earlier than late afternoon (because things are quite frankly pretty really difficult right now with the vertigo and the meds). As a result, I have the flexibility to try out movies that are in my Netflix queue on an “oh why not, let’s see how it goes” basis, because if they run over the amount of time I need for my workout, or if I have to stop one because it’s no good and move on to another, it won’t screw up the rest of the schedule. I have this theory that if I never run into bad movies (or TV or books or music or restaurants or or or or), I am not casting the net wide enough and am probably missing things I would like that don’t look like things I would definitely totally like.

Lordy there are a lot of bad movies out there. It is hard work to make a movie, and the sheer quantity of terrible ones out there–just the ones on Netflix–just the ones on Netflix that do not immediately trigger the “no, that one will be terrible, do not watch” buttons–is staggering.

One of the things that’s come up a lot about movies that have talented actors in them and come out terrible anyway is that a lot of them start out only trying to do one thing at once. They are doing setting. Not even setting plus gorgeous camerawork, which I could forgive. But look! Here is a solid seven minutes of setting! We are in this particular location! It has buildings! Sometimes a tree or two! (If there are lots of trees I am also more forgiving. Me and trees, you know. Also water. But no, mostly buildings.) Here are some people who are not shot in such a way that you could possibly get to know them, so: still setting! Yep! Setting! No theme here! No characters! Just setting! Seeeeeeettinnnnnng!

Don’t do this.

Or character: here is this guy doing stuff! Boy, is he doing stuff! He is folding his laundry! Hee, what a quirky guy, with the way he folds his laundry! It is what we call stage business, the laundry folding! And this can be great. This can be really good, the stage business, the introducing us to the character. But you can’t let it drag. Because if your actor is talented enough to show us who he is with the folding of his laundry, he’s talented enough to show us who he is with the folding of his laundry in a few minutes. And then more of it…is not actually giving us more backstory of who he is and who his Uncle Carlo is and what his Uncle Carlo did in the war and all that. Not just with the laundry. You have to give us another character, you have to give us more setting, you have to give us something more than just the one thing.

I’m not saying everything has to be fast-paced. I’m saying that even in leisurely pacing, even in a loving slow and gentle buildup like you often get with the hour and a half BBC mysteries, you’re generally doing more than one thing at once…and if you’re not, you lose audience attention, because you have to earn it, you don’t get to just call names when it slips away.

Competence porn, character expectations, and the Houses of Cards

Spoilers for the first season of House of Cards in UK and US versions. I don’t know how to do a cut-tag on my wordpress journal if in fact such a thing is possible. So seriously. Spoilers. If you care, back away from the post.

Francis Urquhart and Frank Underwood have some key things in common, due to the one series being based on the other. The main thing is that they are both consummate backroom politicians–wheeler-dealers, hip-deep in machinations, people who use the secrets and foibles and relationships of others to achieve their own ends. This is sometimes horrible and generally fun to watch, in no small part because they are so good at it. It’s a form of competence porn: it’s very satisfying to watch people do difficult things they’re good at.

And then. And then partway through each version’s first season, the main character FU kills someone who is being inconvenient.

And gets away with it.

When I was talking about this with Timprov, the metaphor he came up with was that it was as though you had set up Sherlock Holmes and suddenly had him torture a confession out of a suspect. It’s not what makes Sherlock Holmes interesting–in fact, it’s the opposite of it. In some fundamental sense it’s not what Sherlock Holmes is for. It’s a crude solution from someone whose entire point is subtlety, and as such it’s terribly unsatisfying. If you want me to watch someone kill people, and wince and marvel, give me Omar, give me Brother Mouzone, but do not give me Sherlock Holmes with a baseball bat, and do not give me Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood. The early episodes of each show us that FU is someone who exploits other people’s weaknesses, and the victims in question each have plenty of weaknesses. So having FU just decide to kill them is an annoying waste of the character’s skills, which are what I like to watch in the first place, in favor of a skillset neither FU has ever demonstrated in the first place.

I’ve started watching the second series (what we would call the second season) of the British version, and it has some lovely moments, but generally the killing thing is totally unsatisfactory to me, and the handling of it has not improved. Timprov pointed out that the show may not have been made as competence porn at all, it may have been made mostly as a poke at the Tories, and I can see that–it’s visible from space–but it’s a great deal less interesting to me, and I think would be even if it was poking at politicians in my own country and my own timeline. Schemers are fascinating. Unsubtle digs and implausible deaths less so.