Sunday, March 29, 2009

If you want to send a message, write a bumper sticker: The Decline of 24

I've been watching, off and on, the Fox show 24 since it started. This year's episodes made me think about why what was a must-see four years ago is excruciating now-- and why starting with a message so often destroys a story.

I'm not going to worry too much about the 24 producers' politics. Yeah, this is Rupert Murdoch's network, and he's a bit of a rightwinger, but I doubt he's actually intervening a lot personally in any show. (Then again, we don't see a whole lot of nice liberal warm-and-fuzzy shows on Fox... but nice liberal probably doesn't sell well... so little conflict, huh?) And anyway, the number one political aim of most rich CEO types is... making more money, so if 24's politics antagonized a lot of viewers, I suspect the show would stop with the torture right quick.

Anyway, the first couple seasons were pretty entertaining, very fast-paced and novel. The operating premise was that all the action took place in the 24 hours of one day. Every season had a new day and a new dilemma. But somewhere along the line, this became a show about torture. Torture torture torture. Poor Jack Bauer kept having to torture people to find out where the nuclear bomb was, to find out who was going to set off the virus that would kill us all, or to decipher whatever the dilemma du jour is. The first time he resorted to torture, it was subversively thrilling-- we weren't used to the good guy doing something bad. And we couldn't escape the intriguing echo of what was actually happening in the real world-- journalists and whistleblowers revealing the US (considered the good guy at least by, uh, the US) was engaging in acts that used to be considered torture. Okay, that was provocative, timely, even groundbreaking.

But then... I don't know if the writers were just attempting to recapture that jerk of a thrill we had with that first act of torture, or if they were driven mad by 9/11, or if they wanted to support the president, or .... I think maybe that what happened is they got addicted to the torture "conflict" (I air-quote that because the story then constantly undercuts the conflict) and couldn't give it up. I know the feeling-- I went through a time when I couldn't figure out any way to end a book that didn't involve kidnapping the protagonist. And it apparently didn't hurt all that much, because 24 is still on the air, still requiring torture and superhuman effort from poor Jack Bauer, still enthralling rightwing radio hosts who seem to think that Jack is not only real, but also a great role model.

But I'm not going to evaluate the marketability of torture, rather the dangers of deciding on a theme (in the sense of a moral message) and then building the story to "prove" that.

Since "torture" became Jack's dominant mode of action, 24 seems to be designed to show that torture is not only necessary but moral, and that torturers are actually heroes. I don't want to debate this (I'm agin torture, btw :), only to use it as an example of letting the message be the medium. The story should generate the message, should create the theme. Whenever you let the theme generate the story, your story is likely to end up preachy and monochromatic.

So using 24 as an example (and I have found it intensely boring the last couple seasons, so I will probably mess up some of the details), here is my suggestion:

If you want to send a message, write a bumper sticker. Write a blog post. Write a rant. Just don't write a story. If you want to write a story, write a story. Aim for an interesting plot, intriguing characters, a credible voice. If you have something to say, it should come out in the story... without your forcing it.

Here's the danger of starting with the message:

You lose the story.

1) Instead of developing a journey or plot, you start inventing events to push the theme. In the extreme -- like 24-- the whole story becomes an excuse for the theme. This season (and last, IIRC, and I probably don't, because it was sooooo boring) theoretically has some overall story arc, but mostly the terrorist attacks are used to set up opportunities for Jack to torture someone.

2) Ideally, the theme is "one-note"-- it doesn't develop throughout as a theme should, so that only when you've finished reading the whole story do you fully get the theme. Any story where the theme is presented straight out in a scene (rather than accumulating) is going to be unsubtle. And any story where that theme is demonstrated the same way several times is going to be repetitive.

3) Why does that happen? I think it's because you can't plan to develop a theme. That is, you can plan a plot, and you can plan a character-- you can outline those. But you can't outline a theme, not effectively anyway, because it should arise out of the story as a whole-- and out of you as a writer and you as a person and your worldview and your values-- and that can't be just generated. Also, the readers matter too, in effectively developing a theme (sometimes they actually come up with their own understanding of what the theme is), and you can't plan your readers. So rather than trusting the story to generate a theme, you might try to push the theme in various places-- causing repetition rather than accumulation. For example, let's say you decide you're going to write a story with the theme (I'm getting basic here :) that cocaine is bad. When you start with that as your aim, when you think about the purpose of your story as being to prove that, you are going to be wary of showing, oh, that cocaine is fun. You might start out with someone using cocaine and stumbling out into the street and getting hit by a car. (Cocaine is bad.) And the cop who comes to investigate the accident sees the little baggie of white powder fall out of the victim's pocket, and steals it and snorts it later and gets caught by his captain. (Cocaine is bad.) The captain pockets the rest of the stash and his daughter later finds it, snorts it, becomes addicted, and ends up a stripper. (You laugh, but isn't this pretty much how Reefer Madness works? And while that is a joke now, it was meant to show kids how bad reefer is... over and over.... You were never confused about the message there. The only question was-- why would anybody use this terrible drug? Oh, right, we can't ever show that drugs can be fun, because that wouldn't prove the theme in chapter 2.)

4) Events that are going to create a particular message are likely to repeat conflict, rather than developing it-- conflict starting in the beginning of the story (or TV season :), then rising in intensity and complication in the middle, and resolving in the end. Now probably terrorism as a major conflict would get repetitive anyway, especially when we cannot seriously (in this country) discuss it as anything but the embodiment of Satan, much less actually explore the motivations behind it. It becomes conflict without the purpose of change. So we end up with a conflict without any cause... just sort of free-floating evil. The motivation is: They're evil. So they do evil. And they'll always be evil and do evil because, well, they're evil. Yeah. Talk about one-dimensional villainy. But see, they have to be evil, because otherwise, we might have some qualms about Jack torturing them. In earlier seasons, a couple times Jack actually aimed his pain at innocents-- the child of an evil guy, the wife of another evil guy. But I think that might have been too morally complicated (though kind of interesting, especially when he shot the guy's wife in the knee and the guy STILL didn't give over). Better just to torture evil guys. No moral complexity then. No questions, no .... hmm. No conflict.
24 example: So far, most of the "terrorists" have been non-white, non-western-- Mexican drug runners, Muslims jihadists, African revolutionaries or whatever the heck they are this season. Now the "secret master villain" is often white, and seems to be played by Jon Voight every season (but I could be mistaken :), but the minions who do most of the dirty work are non-white. This is the show, lest we forget, that had not one but two African-American presidents before Obama, and I wonder if maybe someone got uncomfortable with the notion that we only torture non-whites/non-Christians (though I bet that's pretty close to reality). So there's usually a scene where Jack tortures some white guy-- usually one of his colleagues or a presidential aide-- just to show (well, I'm sure there's some intra-story reason :) that Jack isn't a racist. And that torture can be (even if it's not right this minute) equal-opportunity.

5) Just as the villains must needs become one-dimensional, so too the protagonist. Since the protagonist's role is sort of prescribed by the theme-- he's the "good guy", on the right side of the theme-- so his actions are required to proceed in the "right" way. So character action derives from the intended message, and the character only grows then in ways that reinforce the theme. 24 sometimes flirts with complexity, where Jack, the hero, actually tortures unsuccessfully. Once he tortured his girlfriend's charming ex-husband (so sue me... I'm a sucker for men named Paul with a British accent :), and it turned out he was wrong! Amazing! The ex was NOT the bad guy! Okay, that's interesting... Jack makes a mistake. Now this could deepen his characterization. First, we might see him realizing that torture can make anyone confess to anything... and wondering whether the other victims of his torture weren't guilty of what they confessed to. Second, we might have him wondering if he tortures because he, you know, sort of likes it, or maybe it has something to do with his need for vengeance, for 9/11 or with ex-husbands. Third, he might wonder if this whole torture thing was, you know, corrupting him, making him jaded and callous.
But no. The ex and the girlfriend both forgive him, and that's the end of that. If there's a dark night of the soul, if Jack rethinks his need to inflict pain on others, if he even wonders whether maybe he tortured Paul for some personal reason, and if so, if his judgment about who should be tortured is reliable... well, it doesn't have much effect on his actions, though he does seem to be getting progressively grumpier.

6) Shorn of the need to change that is brought on by a more organic story, the protagonist tends also to become a victim or a symbol or a martyr or a saint or whatever is best going to push the message-- a role, not a character. He becomes a flat character because he can't change much or the message might not get through (the ability to change is what makes a character "round" in Frye's terms). In fact, in 24, making Jack a victim (of torture, of kidnap, of imprisonment, of disgrace... and it's never his fault :) becomes subtextually rather interesting as it becomes clearer that he's supposed to represent the United States. Perhaps the US is like that, insisting that it is the victim when it is holding the instruments of torture, as poor depressed Jack is the victim of these evildoers who, for reasons unexplored, force him to hurt them.

In a story, it is usually actions and reactions that are the criteria for judging a character or the plot-- for plausibility, for morality, for power. But when the message dominates, action and reaction lose their centrality to whatever event serves the plot. If a "terrorist" does it, or "a traitor," it's perforce bad. But the same sort of action by the protagonist is regarded in a different light. The terrorist's torturing is unmitigated evil, and is needed to be regarded so to allow the protagonist to fulfill the demands of the message. So when Jack shoots an innocent woman in the kneecap, that's regrettable but moral. But when a revolutionary threatens to cut out the eye of the president's daughter (he doesn't actually do it), that is proof that he's evil. That is, the upshot is that it's not the action but the perpetrator that determines the moral content. This seems to me a dangerous ethical presumption, but it's really damaging to the story (though the "essentialist vs. existentialist" dilemma can be profitably explored in fiction, as the Buffy show demonstrates). The reader is actually discouraged from using her own judgment and value system-- what's good and bad is preordained when these characters were born (and woe to him who is not born in the United States!) If the protagonist's actions don't matter to how the reader is supposed to judge him, then the story is very likely going to be static-- everyone maintains the moral status held in the beginning. Essence cannot change unless action matters.

So... this is a lesson to us all. Don't write a lesson. Write a story. Write about situations and conflicts and people which interest you, doing things that change the plot and the world of the story. Trust that the theme, your message, whatever you think is important, will arise out of the story. Don't force it, or the whole story will be forced.


Anonymous said...

Another interesting comparison is Star Trek: The Next Generation. Gene Roddenberry wanted to show that everyone got along in the future, so that was his message.

Problem: The writers couldn't create conflict among the regulars because everyone was supposed to get along. They'd have to bring in a guest star who could create the conflict.

I wonder if the writers of 24 have run out of material and that's why they've slipped into into a problem area. I've seen a lot of writers of book series run into trouble at a certain point (usually around seven books) and then the book quality suddenly goes downhill very fast.

Edittorrent said...

Garridon, I always liked Deep Space 9 more (they were running at about the same time, or at least TNG ended as DS9 started?). The space station seemed to have more conflict, because the show was more about the process of getting along than the message that we should all, you know, get along. :)

And Dr. Bashear showed up (looking hardly older!) in 24 a few seasons ago! Being a handsome young Arab actor sure didn't hurt his career (though I think the "handsome" part was the determiner :). He was also in Battlestar Galactica, wasn't he?


Riley Murphy said...

You say:
It becomes conflict without the purpose of change.

For me, this sums it up beautifully. I mean, why develop a conflict without causing change to happen?

And um, I’m against torture too, that’s why I was calling for the cancellation of 24 two seasons ago! UGH! There is no believability, no accountability - it’s like other stories/shows where the protagonist is ‘normally’ right (I’m thinking Medium here) and yet the District Attorney is always skeptical. Even if she were right only 30% of the time I’d be checking out everything she told me, you know? I’ve been known to go off on a mini rant and mention this to my family who are all quick to point out: ‘but she was wrong last week.’ “Ah, so okay, she’s wrong once and now after saving umpteen people and solving a gazillion crimes, she’s wrong this time therefore we have to doubt her forever?!” Give me a break!

But then I stop and look at my husband’s enthralled face lit up by the light of the television screen while he watches ‘old Jack Bauer’ doing what I’m sure I saw him doing in last weeks episode, and I realize that not all of us are frustrated with the pat, repetitive drivel that is fed to us on a daily basis. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and I try to aspire to a higher level which makes my reader/watcher expectations all the more heightened? I don’t know. The way I see it? Life is a journey, a story is a journey and a lesson is just one of the things we will learn along the way. If you have an audience and a lesson is all you have to offer them, then you’ve missed the opportunity to share many ‘other things’ of value you may have to impart. Things that might not be so grand as your ultimate message but worthy and humanizing all the same. These ‘other things’ I think of as the dots that can be ultimately connected to make up the whole picture (that is the theme).

I also think the idea of deciding on a ‘moral message’ other than the most obvious and generally accepted ones (as in the case of 24) could be dangerous to any writer. If you build a whole story around the one message/theme you have chosen - who’s to say that your audience is going to agree with you? Not that they always have to be accepting but if you have a character, who’s actions are purely based on furthering a message that a reader doesn’t subscribe to why are they going to read/watch/listen? So when you say: 'Essence cannot change unless action matters.' I really get that. It’s a great line and certainly something to think about.

Edittorrent said...

Murph, yeah, and I think that if you write a great story, one that draws the reader in and makes him/her care, maybe they'll come up with the message anyway. I'm thinking of an elderly rightish-wing couple I know who went to see-- they probably thought it was a Western-- Brokeback Mountain. At the end, the husband was sniffling and actually said that maybe gay couples should be allowed to marry because "we shouldn't be telling people not to love."

Hey... the message got through, without forcing it! And probably if the message was too obvious,they would have actively resisted it.

All we have is story, but that's pretty powerful.

Riley Murphy said...

I agree. I also think that this is a great post that needs to be read carefully. There are a lot of good bits and pieces to take away from it.:)

Edittorrent said...

This is a big part of the reason I don't watch tv much. All that wheel spinning.


Edittorrent said...

I keep thinking about one of my favorite quotes about writing, but hesitated to post it because I can't remember the source or the exact wording. It's something like, "If you start with the story's theme, the characters work for the author. But good characters should be self-employed."


Grace Tyler said...

It seems to me there is more conflict if you show, for example, that drugs are fun AND they kill you. Without conflict, who wants to read a story?

Your example of how Jack could have grown through torturing an innocent and finding out that confession can come from any source if you torture enough--that would have been compelling TV. Though you couldn't have solved the problem in 24 hours. So it doesn't fit with the show, does it?

Babs said...

This is the reason I like this blog. The information and the following comments are always interesting.
Alicia is right about not forcing a story.
I agree with Garridon about bringing in new characters to create conflict. This gets tedious in a series.
I also agree with Murphy about a story being a journey. I have always tried to look at my work like a collection of parts that make up a whole.

Wes said...

I don't plan on querying for several months until I finish a major rewrite, but when I do would you advise for or against including a statement to the effect of "A major theme is the failure of Spanish colonial policies and their effects on New Mexicans"? The failed policies are too numerous to mention here, but they can be grouped into social, economic, military, and religious. None are pounded into the reader, but each affects the story and the characters.

em said...

Murphy, are you saying you don't like 24?:( Even with all the torture and similar story lines I think it's a great show. The theme being tied into torture is believable. they are government agents after all.
Sorry, but I feel I have to defend.

Julie Harrington said...

I always find it interesting when political views or agenda bleed into entertainment for what appear to be, or could be construed as, propoganda. It's an age old ploy, of course. Everybody throughout history has done it in one form or another.

Regardless of what political stance you take (or the stance on the issue of torture), the last few years have been an interesting case study of watching a political machine "sell" (for lack of a better term) or "wag the dog" a real political issue/message (you can do whatever you want as long as you're doing it for the safety of your country/in the name of your country/don't question the president) in mainstream culture. It's happened before, obviously, with a dozen other presidents in a billion other countries, but the last presidency really rang the bell.

The question of How far can you and should you go to fight "evil" and when do you BECOME that "evil" by going that far has always been a fascinating issue for me. I'm a sucker for a good philosophical debate on Good vs. Evil and Right vs. Wrong.

The funny thing is, when all this started, one of my favorite lines to quote came from TV show "Law & Order." I'll slaughter it now because I can't remember the exact phrasing, but it was something like, when given a choice between freedom and safety, people always choose safety. The only thing is... they end up with neither.


Edittorrent said...

Wes, I think I'd probably say, "A major FOCUS" rather than "theme," as there are several different definitions for theme (and only mine is right-- just kidding!).

Em, actually, I used to like 24 a lot, but I do find it intensely tedious now because of the emphasis not on torture but on excusing torture. It's not the politics, really, but rather what I see as the loss of story. Every episode seems mostly the same now. That's not to say it's not as viscerally exciting as ever, but I'm missing the moral component, the examination of relationship issues, the personal sacrifices.

But it still has its moments. And I like the woman president, though I'd for sure put that sullen daughter of her into a 4 year time out. Daughters on this show are usually horrible!

Edittorrent said...

JT, I think it's all been really confused for a while now-- I'm kind of glad we're forced to go back to basics. Have you noticed how commercials are suddenly all about saving money and recovering from the crisis and helping each other? I guess I prefer that to the "buy buy buy!" though of course they're saying, "If you want to save, buy. If your want to recover, buy. If you want to help others, buy!"

Julie Harrington said...


I have noticed and I really like that shift in perspective. I was so tired of the divide and both sides (politically speaking) of constantly widening that at a time when the country should have been banding together and working together as one in the wake of 9/11. I think what everyone witnessed during that tragedy - America pulling together regardless of skin color, age, ethnicity, etc - was awe inspiring. It still gives me goosebumps when I look back on it.

Now the country is faced with another disaster and the spirit of pulling together, working together, and that we're all in this mess and can't get out of it unless we set everything aside and work as a team is really uplifting. I tend to be of that mindset anyway. I guess that comes with the territory of having a mother in that infamous baby boomer generation.


Wes said...

Good advice to me, Alicia. I work that in easily, and it sounds less bookish.

Riley Murphy said...


If it makes you feel any better, I could have used any one of a number of different TV shows to make my point about 'pat, repetitive drivel'.:) Really, I wasn't just picking on '24' - it's the falling down of the story that bothers me. I thought that 24 was only one example of a fundamental problem that faces a reader/viewer today - and maybe if we thought about that, we'd be one step ahead of not doing it ourselves when we create.

Also, you never have to defend anything to me - I'm an 'agree to disagree' kind of a gal. So, whatever floats your boat...personally I'd rather slam my fingers in a car door than have to watch some of the shows they are producing lately...which suits me just fine. More time for writing and reading. ;D

em said...

Hi Alicia!
I sort of feel the same way about how old the show is getting but I keep hoping for better. Thanks.

LOL Murphy. Yes, it makes me feel better. Thanks for clarifying all this for me, I think?

Anonymous said...

I'm way late on this one, but hopefully not tooooo late :-) Not sure who the daughter is as we are seeing the series with the African [Somalia like?] dictator. It's on very late which translates to bad ratings, but I record it and can at least get through it in 40 minutes.

I reckon the whole series took a bad turn when Sutherland took it over. I would imagine that these are also not the original writers. It was also better when Jack had a personal investment with members of his family and love interests involved. That's missing in this series. They all seem to be dead now.

Re building a story around theme, I'm with you. I don't like to be preached to. I'd rather see the messiness of life in unusual stories or at least with unique characters at some level. As they tell us, even villains have good things about them and heros can do bad things. The Jack Bauer character seems to have accepted that his lot in life is the moral dilemma -- all the time! And yes, that is boring.

Edittorrent said...

Jwhit, yeah, conflict is more intense, I think, when it's personal. Now he's alienated from about everyone... it's hard for any really personal feelings to come up to cause internal conflict.