Saturday, November 26, 2011

Balancing Act

I watch too much TV. But it is not a total loss, because I can see how a lot of stories come together and see what works and what does not work. I include "reality tv" and historical documentaries among the stories I see. One key element to storytelling I've discovered is "balance."

I read a lot of blogs. Another guilty admission. Some are hyperventilating about the clear and present danger presented to the republic by the democrats. Or by threat to democracy by the republicans. For the purposes of this note, they're interchangeable. Here's another domain where "balance" makes the difference between success and failure.

We see balance in Ferris Beuller's Day Off when Ben Stein is giving one of the economics lectures from his days as a professor. The lecture is pure info dump. It's dry. It's boring. Ben Stein works it perfectly in his deadpan voice. We all instantly remember being in a class we disliked and think, "Mr. Herrin was never this boring." There is not the slightest hint of humor or humanity in the presentation. It is completely out of balance with too much "info." That's how they made it boring on purpose.

I'm suggesting that anyone who writes must balance competing forces and hold them in tension. Lose balance, and you become a dull lecturer, or you become a wild-eyed fanatic--like the guy at the gun show who claims Obama is a Keynesian. You have to balance the info with some aspect of humanity.

At the opposite side of balance is the Discovery Channel's Gold Rush or USA Network's Psych.  In the former, there's a lot of eye-rolling drama and precious little information about gold mining. I am interested in that show to learn how to find gold-bearing ore, how to separate it, and so on. But I have to put up with drama about these guys who couldn't find their shadow on a sunny day as they flail about. This is OK. Everybody's human and a few mistakes are to be expected. But if I want that much drama, I should be watching Cheaters instead. Even Cheaters has some useful information about how surveillance ops work. The ratio of info to drama has a different balance point on Gold Rush than it does on Cheaters. Similarly, Psych is a detective show about a character Shawn who solves crimes and clowns around while everyone on the set rolls their eyes. Here the balance to monitor is between crime-solving and clowning around. If he clowns around too much, the show becomes as intolerable as Ben Stein's economics lecture.

When writing something, you have to gauge where the balance point is. Writing a story about the Holocaust? There's no space for clowning around, even if you're Jerry Lewis. You can use a little dark humor to evoke a wan smile, but not laughter.

The vital difference is balance. Approach your story asking what aspects are held in tension. Then ask what sort of story your readers are expecting. In a large enough marketplace there are a few sick individuals who laugh at the Holocaust, but the majority are revolted. Some aspects of your story will be radioactive and you'll want to avoid them at all costs. More likely, your story will reach a broad spectrum of tastes ranging from boffins who want to hear more of Ben Stein's lecture to goofs who aren't interested in anything but the next train wreck.

We have to know our audience and what balance point will best resonate with them.

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