Friday, November 13, 2009

So close...

I had the strange experience today of giving up on a book 20 pages from the end. It was a harmless enough book, The Execution Channel, a thriller about a series of terrorist attacks in Britain - or are they in fact the start of World War Three? It's billed as science fiction, but it's not really what I generally think of as SF. It's in a slightly alternate universe (Gore won), but otherwise it's just technically literate: these people communicate via blogs, understand the net, and so on. Anyway, that's not the point.

I read some of it last night, and then carried on this morning. About an hour before starting work, I got up to make coffee, and by the time I got back to bed, I realised I didn't actually care about what happened in the end, and couldn't be bothered to read the last 20 pages. That's a really odd feeling. I mean, having got that close to the end, why not finish? Or if I really wasn't enjoying it, why didn't I give up earlier and read one of the other dozen library books by the side of the bed?

I'm actually very intrigued by what it is that makes us decide to give up. How long do we persist with a book or a movie before we decide it's not worth going on? What is the trigger point that causes us to make that decision? If you quit too early, you miss out on all those experiences where the start's a bit slow or a bit lame, but once you get into the characters or the story, it's a thoroughly enjoyable experience. And what about those acquired tastes - movies or pieces of music that you don't much like at first, but gradually grow on you - how many times are you prepared to sit through something you don't like in the hope that it'll start to become enjoyable? (Like Shostakovich string quartets or 1950s French movies.)

This is hugely important for what's happening with TV. Many shows take a while to get into. The first few episodes of a new show are often slow, while you're getting into the characters. Firefly and Dollhouse were both good examples. So you watch 4 or 5 eps, it's looking OK but nothing great - do you continue? You've just spent 4 hours on this show, and you're not really enjoying it. That's a big investment of time, and logic says give up. So you give up. Viewing figures drop, and the network immediately respond by canceling the show. Meanwhile, the hardcore continue, and then the word of mouth starts to go out that it's worth persevering, because by ep 7 it gets brilliant, but it's too late, and you kick yourself for not sticking with it, and everyone screams at the dumb network for canning such a superb show. Well, that's scenario 1. Scenario 2 is where it doesn't get any better, and you mentally file it under Shit I've watched on TV when bored out of my skull.

TV networks are desperately chasing ad money, and that means having to respond very fast to audience figures. If people stop watching a show, they'll can it within weeks. With so much available at the click of a mouse these days, you only have to lose your audience for a few moments and they're gone elsewhere. That's a harsh world to be in. So, for a writer, or anyone else creating entertainment, it's critical to understand what it is that makes us decide not to watch the next episode, or not to turn the next page. I don't think anyone's figured that out yet, except perhaps the teams behind X Factor and the like. Part of their secret is that they're working live, so they can judge the audience on a day by day basis, and adjust their show to fit the audience's mood. Mind you, the audience eventually turned on Big Brother, so reality TV doesn't have all the answers. I sure as hell don't.

Oh, and by the way, it wasn't a bad book. I'm sure if I hadn't got up for that coffee, I'd have finished it quite happily. It was more like that feeling of getting up to answer the phone near the end of a meal, and when you get back to the table, you just can't be arsed with the last couple of mouthfuls.


Dave Morris said...

Funny you should mention this, because I was wondering just yesterday whether to persevere with the French cop show Engrenages having watched 5 episodes.

Part of me thought, "Well, I've stuck it out this far so I might as well finish." But that isn't logical. The time already spent is a sunk cost, and if I don't care about the characters after 4 hours that's not going to change now.

The problem in Engrenages is that there's nobody to whom the outcome really matters. The victim is dead. The cops would like to catch the killer - but if they don't, nothing will change. The "Only connect!" ingredient is missing - and so, why should I care enough to keep watching?

Matt Kelland said...

That's a nice point. A couple of people on twitter replied "give up when you stop caring about the characters and plot". However, that doesn't work. You start off not caring, because it's all new. The author/writer has to make you care before you can stop caring. How long do you give it before you decide you're never going to care?

Dave Morris said...

If the writer hasn't done something to make the main characters interesting the very first time we meet them, it's a fair bet that he/she is going to muck it up throughout.

That doesn't have to be a "save the cat" moment. Could just be that the characters are introduced in a dramatic way. (Jack in Lost: wakes up in an island paradise and thirty seconds later he's hauling folks out of a wrecked plane.)

When the story isn't going to have high and personal stakes for the hero, the hero needs to be somebody whose personality we find fascinating. That's why most detectives in ongoing series are so colorful and larger-than-life. If the crime in Engrenages was being investigated by Walter Bishop from Fringe, you can bet I'd stay to the end.

Oh, just realized I'm having a "rules" day. That won't be good for creativity ;-)

Matt Kelland said...

So... why did you give it 4 hours before deciding you weren't going to care? How come you didn't figure that out after 20-odd minutes?

AngriBuddhist said...

Why is it about when to give up?

The situation, especially relating to television, should be about changing the expectations.

As an audience, we expect to be completely sucked in after 4 hours. Really? 4 out of, what, 70, and we're already claiming that it sucks.

As for the television studios, I believe that even when a show hits the rock bottom, you know, 2 million viewers, you can still make a good deal of money off of advertisements, just not enough for the execs to keep making their multi-million dollar bonuses.

dirtywhitecandy said...

I really like this point - 'You start off not caring, because it's all new. The author/writer has to make you care before you can stop' - That's possibly the most important thing a writer has to do!

But I'd disagree that many shows don't get going until well into the first season. Often I find the pilot is terrific, then the actual show jettisons all the interesting character friction (which makes you care about people's individual agendas) to get on with routine problem-solving (eg Fringe).

Matt Kelland said...

It very much depends on the show. I found the start of Bones fairly dull, but a number of my friends assured me it gets really good later as the relationship between the two main characters develops. Dollhouse had a slow start as they were setting up the world and the premise, but once we were through the backstory, it got really interesting.

Dave Morris said...

Matt - why did give it 4 hours? I was on autopilot. I'd seen 3 episodes back to back, then when I went back for the fourth I started to realize that it just hadn't hooked me.

AngriBuddhist - why is it about when to give up? Opportunity cost - plenty of entertainment can be compelling right from the start, so why waste time on the stuff that isn't? If a TV writer can't pull off the basic feat of hooking me after four. whole. hours. of storytelling, they're incompetent and there's no reason to expect that it's going to improve.

Dave Morris said...

Btw I'm not ruling out a show with a slow start. Dollhouse took time to build. But no way could you look at it after even 1 hour and say, "I'm not interested or engaged by any of the characters."

Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...

I guess writers don't set out to be boring. I wonder if some of this is about getting the live feedback from seeing actors bring the characters to life, seeing what works and what does not..remember the first series of Blackadder?
What about Frasier, in the first few episodes David Hyde Pierce (Niles) gets no space to be funny, in later episodes his silent reaction shots make for some of the best comedy moments. How could a writer have anticipated that?
I think there needs to be talent on all sides, but there's something about the chemistry that happens on set which makes or breaks a series.

liquidcross said...

The title of the book alone reminded me of a George Carlin bit, where he proposed a 24-hour suicide television channel, and how incredibly popular it would be. (Given the sad state of the TV-watchin' public, I'm forced to agree.)

Matt Kelland said...

I'm starting to wonder - at least in TV - how much this is affected by the difference between US & UK TV scheduling. In the US, you expect 10-20 episodes per season. In the UK, 6 or fewer is normal. Shows like Morse only ran 2 or 3 at a time.

In the UK, that gives the writers a chance to see what works and adjust accordingly. In the US, you're set on a long course, and cancellation is easier than change. On the flip side, that's why US shows can do long arcs and run to 100+ eps, where a UK show is lucky to make it to 20.

Dave Morris said...

And on that topic of US compared to UK story arcs:

- especially interesting for the subplot diagram. Of course, I do love diagrams :-)

Matt Kelland said...

I've just started playing Dragon Age, and after three hours, I feel like I'm getting nowhere, just wandering around vaguely, talking to people to pick up lots of fragmentary back story, and doing a few silly quests. (Get the rod to open the door, get the piece of paper signed to get the rod, blah blah.)

I'm persevering only because (1) lots of people have assured me it gets really good and (2) it's not cheap. I'd give up otherwise.