Criminal Minds, Storage Wars, and the thirst for narrative
My son was reading to me last night, a book called Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days, about a boy and his dog in the wintertime. They play in the snow, they enjoy Christmas Eve dinner, they sit by the fireplace with the boy's parents. It's a fine book, but perhaps not the most sophisticated piece of literature ever crafted. When he finished reading, my son said: "I wonder why there's no problem in this book? There should be a problem."
At 7 years old, thanks in part to the most awesome first-grade teacher ever and thanks in part to his own innate sense of narrative requirement, my son understands that for a story to hold our attention, there needs to be a "problem." Conflict. Tension. Without the problem, there's no reason for the story. The problem is the catalyst, the trigger, the starting place. It's what sets a piece of writing in motion. Otherwise, the writing just sits there, like a boy and his dog in front of a warm fire on a wintry eve. Which is a nice experience to have, like, in your life, but it's not especially interesting to read about.
What we want from a story is simple: Conflict, action, resolution. If we have those things, we'll forgive almost anything else. My two most recent television addictions, Storage Wars and Criminal Minds are excellent illustrations of this concept. If you watch these shows, you understand something important about storytelling.
Storage Wars, for instance, is proof that structure is king. If you build a story right, you can get us to watch anything. Junk dealers buy junk and then sort it out to see how much it's worth? Not exactly the most stirring premise, on the face of it.
But the show handles itself brilliantly. It offers central characters to root for (or against) and labels them things like The Young Gun, The Mogul, The Gambler -- even though, really, the people aren't that different from each other. They're all just junk dealers, and likable enough. Then the show pits those characters against each other (and sometimes against others) in bidding wars over abandoned storage lockers. Instant conflict, instant drama. Who will win? Will The Gambler outbid The Mogul? Will the Young Gun abandon his plan to bid no more than $1,500 for a particular locker? One episode features an outsider wearing shades and white pants furiously outspending our favorites on locker after locker -- he looks like a villain from Miami Vice, and we instantly hate him and are thrilled when Barry finally outbids him.
After the bidding wars are settled, we get to the sorting phase of the show. You wouldn't think watching people move old furniture and moldy boxes out of a storage locker would be good TV, but now we're hooked. Once you establish a mystery, your audience will pretty much always stick around to see how the mystery turns out. In this case, the mystery is: What is in the locker? How much will it turn out to be worth? Every cut to commercial in the middle of the show comes as one of the junk dealers reaches behind an old dresser and says, "Wow, look at this!" We have to wait three minutes to see if the discovery is a long-lost Picasso or a pile of soggy newspaper. Once in a while, a locker has a fancy trunk or even a safe that must be ripped open -- high drama, for sure.
Storage Wars always ends with a tallying up -- whose lockers turned out to be worth the most? Who lost money this week? The numbers are always kind of contrived, but it doesn't matter. The structure of the show demands this kind of reckoning, this resolution. Catalyst, rising action, climax, resolution. It's narrative 101. Works every time.
Speaking of works every time, there's a classic piece of advice for thriller writers: put a dead body in the first chapter, if not on the first page. The creators of Criminal Minds definitely take this to heart. Every episode starts with a killing. Usually a stalking and a killing. There are lots of shots of the outside of someone's house at night, with creepy music and shadows. Often the victim is on the phone, and we see a reflection in the sliding glass door behind her, or a ski-masked intruder slipping out of the closet. There's not one single original second in these openings -- every scene has been done before in 1,000 movies and TV shows.
Then, after that first gruesome killing (this show is almost always needlessly gruesome, and you could write a dissertation on the way women's bodies are repeatedly mutilated for our viewing pleasure), we cut to Our Heroes, the special agents in the BAU, which stands for something or other having to do with profiling. Doesn't matter exactly what the initials mean. What matters is that these are impossibly attractive, impossibly smart FBI agents who have exactly what it takes to catch a serial killer in 58 minutes, every time. They will also always, always save the very last potential victim. Oh, yes, there's always a Very Last Potential Victim™, and usually some sort of deadline. It's the narrative rules in action. There has to be something at stake. If that something is a beautiful woman who spends most of the episode begging for her freedom, so much the better.
This show is one of the most predictable things ever. Every episode is structured the same way. The outcome is always pretty much the same -- oh, sure, every once in a while the team is a few seconds too late, or the killer gets away for now, but we barely notice. There's some incidental soap-opera stuff with the lives of the team members, but that's all just window dressing for the narrative. Once again: catalyst (dead person or sometimes dead people), rising action (rush to stop killer in time to save the Very Last Potential Victim™), climax (showdown with killer), resolution (team flying back to D.C. on its fancy special-agent plane, reflecting on how smart and attractive they all are). Every time.
Admittedly, there's a lot you have to forgive if, like me, you're going to get kind of addicted to Criminal Minds. The blatant implausibility of, like, everything (the requisite tech-geek character has instant access to the most complete database in the world, and she can cross-reference anything in about three seconds, all while tracing bank accounts and cell phone calls with a few clicks of a mouse. "How many people have checked out these three movies from their local library, dropped out of high school in the 1980s, were recently laid off from a job as an electrical engineer and have a criminal record? Why it looks like five people fit that profile and one of them JUST FILLED UP AT A NEARBY GAS STATION!"). The number of times they say "unsub" (even more often than Olivia Benson says "bus"). The relentless expository dialogue. The aforementioned exploitation of the female body. Etc.
But once you get past all that, the show is fairly entertaining. It is the definition of formulaic. The thing is, the formula itself is solid. If you are a writer, I'm not saying you should be aiming at Criminal Minds as your ideal creation. In terms of realism, character development, dialogue, complexity, artistic merit, insight, wisdom -- on all these fronts, you can do better. At least, I hope you can do better. But in terms of understanding how to structure a narrative to hold your reader's attention, this show's got you covered.