Violence and story, part 2

Photography of Lascaux animal painting {| cell...

In writing my last blog post and reading all of your thoughtful comments, I feel that there is a lot more to explore about this topic.

For me, the question isn’t whether or not there should be violence in stories. It has been a part of story since the beginning. Looking at ancient cave paintings like those at Lascaux, I could imagine that some of the first stories ever told probably involved hunting animals and killing them.

Even children, left to their own devices, add a lot of violence to their imagined tales. In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall cites a scholar who studied children’s play patterns. He found that “the typical actions in orally told stories by young children include being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.  In their stories they portray a world of great flux, anarchy, and disaster.”

So if violence is somehow a part of our human nature, and inherent in our stories, the question for me is “why?”

“Fiction is usually seen as escapist entertainment,” writes Mr. Gottschall. But as he goes on to point out, if that were the case, “we’d expect stories to be mainly about pleasurable wish fulfillment” where nothing would go wrong.  That, of course, is not the case, as most of the popular “escapist entertainment” is full of violent acts. And if there were a story without any difficulty or struggle for the hero, it would not interest the reader (or viewer) because nothing would have happened.  “If there is no knotty problem, there is no story,” says Gottschall.

Stories are about trouble — trouble that happens to a character. And we vicariously live through that character and root for him or her to overcome those troubles and find success. This is the “happily ever after” part of the story. But if that happy ending isn’t earned, if the hero hasn’t suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet said, then the audience won’t enjoy the story.

There are a lot of books about how to write screenplays and novels. I’ve read my fair share. Some have been helpful, some not so much. But the one thing they all seem to agree on is that conflict is necessary in a story. If there’s no conflict, the hero has no way to be tested. No test, and the hero hasn’t earned their success or happiness.

As Lisa Cron writes in Wired for Story, “Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict.” In our everyday life, we usually go out of our way to avoid change and conflict. They’re uncomfortable and difficult, and “In real life we want conflict to resolve right now, this very minute; in a story we want conflict to drag out, ratcheting ever upward, for as deliciously long as humanly possible.”

And what’s the one, sure-fire way to show conflict? Something violent happening to someone. Certainly this isn’t the only way. There are plenty of books and movies where characters don’t go to the extreme of shooting guns, or stabbing, or killing. But I would argue that even in the most innocent of stories, there are allusions to violence or death. Even in Elf, the absurd Will Ferrell Christmas flick, there is a scene where Buddy stands on a bridge, contemplating suicide.

So perhaps the violence issue can be reframed. I don’t think it’s possible or necessary to rid violence from stories. And what’s acceptable or not will always be debatable, depending on the venue in which the story is presented. But I do think storytellers have a responsibility to keep their intended audience in mind when they add violence to stories and know when to say enough is enough. Or to make sure the violence and conflict serves the purpose of the story and isn’t just there for amusement.

But no matter who the audience is, we all want the heros of our stories to show us what it means to suffer and persevere, so that we can be inspired to overcome conflict in our own lives.

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Violence and story

Following the Aurora shooting, Gangster Squad’s release was delayed and a scene in which a shooting occurred in a movie theater was altered.

After the Newtown tragedy, Paramount delayed the premiere of Jack Reacher; and Showtime put warnings in front of Dexter and Homeland that warned: “In light of the tragedy that has occurred in Connecticut, the following program contains images that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”

And now, in the wake of the horrible Boston bombing, NBC cancelled a particularly violent episode of the new show Hannibal.

I find it encouraging, actually, that TV and movie studios are sensitive to the public’s psyche after these kinds of terrible events. But I keep wondering, where is that sensitivity the rest of the time? Why is showing a violent show or movie two weeks after a shooting any better than showing it two days after?

I’m the last person who thinks there should be censorship in media. But sensitivity and restraint is another matter. Clearly, when studios hold back episodes and put up warnings on the most violent of their shows, it proves they are conscious that the material may be upsetting to viewers during the days following a tragedy. But what’s the cutoff? Can they really say that after a week or two, the public is back to normal and ready for a heaping dose of violence?

Because while these three events are among the most extreme and publicized in recent memory, shootings and violence and tragedy occur in our society every day. So shouldn’t the studios be sensitive to our collective psyche year-round?

I’m not advocating for banning violence from TV and the movies. I watch Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, both of which feature plenty of violent imagery which can often be disturbing. And I enjoy a good action movie as much as the next guy.

And I’m not just a consumer, I’m on the other side as well, making shows for TV. And both A:TLA and Korra depict or allude to very violent acts, such as genocide, child abuse, and a murder/suicide. These are heavy themes in an animated kid’s show, but they serve to tell a more uplifting story of love, sacrifice, and overcoming adversity. And in writing and drawing the show we are always sensitive to the fact that kids are watching.

In an interview following Newtown, Time Magazine TV critic James Poniewozik told NPR: “If something is actually inappropriate, then we should treat it as if it’s inappropriate at all times, not just inappropriate for two weeks and then suddenly becomes okay again.”

Absolutely. Of course, that’s where things get a little tricky. Inappropriate for whom? And who deems what is inappropriate and what’s not? My girlfriend is much more sensitive to on screen violence than I am, so I usually watch the more intense shows and movies on my own or with friends. It’s different for everybody. But as I’ve explored in some of my other posts, I do believe that what we read and watch affects our brains, so it can’t hurt to tone down the violence in TV and movies if we want to find a little more peace. At the very least, we can begin to explore how these violent stories affect us as people and as a culture. Just saying that on screen violence doesn’t affect us is no longer a valid argument. And based on the actions of the studios following these tragedies, they know it’s true too.

On a side note, welcome to the readers who have found this blog through the Freshly Pressed link. I’m still new to this whole blogging thing, so having WordPress spotlight the Zuko’s Mom post was a nice surprise. I appreciate everyone’s comments and feedback. Thanks for reading!

The story behind Breaking Bad

Breaking bad

This past Saturday I went to a great panel at the television academy for Breaking Bad. Hosted by Conan O’Brien (who it turns out is a huge fan and confessed to watching the episodes multiple times) the panel included creator Vince Gilligan and the actors who play Walt, Hank, Marie, Walt Jr., Saul, and Mike.

It was cool to sit in the audience and hear about one of my favorite show’s creative process from some of the people who make it. When I found out Conan was going to host it, I figured he’d try to steal the spotlight, but he was actually a great moderator. He asked a lot of interesting questions and added just the right amount of joking around.

When asked if he had the whole arc of the series mapped out from the start, Vince gave an answer that really resonated with me and it applies to both A:TLA and Korra so I thought it was worth mentioning. He said he had a general idea of where the character was headed from the start — following Walt as he goes from “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” But he was very clear that he didn’t have it all figured out at the start and that the collaboration he has with the writers, actors, and directors added a lot to the show. Other people helped him come up with ideas he never would have thought of.

Same goes with Korra. Bryan and I knew we wanted to take Korra from brash warrior to a spiritual being over the course of her story, but we didn’t know if that would be one season or more. Unlike The Last Airbender, we wanted to make the seasons (or books) more standalone, with one main threat per book. However, we don’t just hit the reset button with each book. Everything Korra does and learns in one book definitely carries over to the next and ties into her overall spiritual path. It’s great to have multiple books to tell her story, as we can dig deeper into the spiritual side of the Avatar and the world.

But there’s no way Bryan and I could have come up with all of this by ourselves. We have an amazing team of producers, writers, directors, and designers all of whom add to the world in surprising, cool ways.

I think there’s a misconception (or a belief) that a TV series or a series of novels should have every piece of the story precisely plotted out from the start. Like Vince said, he didn’t know if Breaking Bad was going to be one season or several. It’s not only presumptuous to assume your show is going to go on for years and years, it’s very impractical. You just couldn’t write all the scripts before production had to start. I think if the foundation of the show is solid — you have a compelling main character (or characters) and you have a vision for what kind of show it will be and the direction its headed, then you can build off of that, episode by episode. (I’m totally oversimplifying the process here, I admit…)

Vince also talked about how Breaking Bad all started with the character of Walt and his story — why would a good guy do something really bad? He gave a similar answers as in this interview from the Guardian:

“I wondered why someone like us, which is to say a basically law-abiding citizen, would suddenly do such a thing. Why would someone make such a radical change in their lives if they were basically a good person, a non-criminal? I think of Breaking Bad as a bit of character study. It’s really about this one man and this one particular set of circumstances, the fact he makes decisions that most of us, myself included, would not. We are telling a story of transformation in which a previously good man, through sheer force of will, decides to become a bad man.”

Everything that has happened in Breaking Bad has stemmed from that character transformation and is part of why people love the show so much. For myself, I do sometimes wonder why I’m cheering for Walt to get away. There’s part of me that hopes he isn’t caught, that he saves his marriage and his family. And I realized that what I’m really rooting for is for Walt to save his soul. I think I (the audience) wants to see Walt realize the error in his ways and become good again, even though I know he’s done so much bad it’s next to impossible.

Any Breaking Bad fans out there? Why do you root for Walt? (If you do at all.)