Television as a Storytelling Medium

One of the main reasons I got into the field I’m in is because of storytelling. When I was a kid, I loved to read. I did not read because of the literary mastery the authors possessed, nor did I read because I thought it would enlighten me on any level. I read because it was the best way to get stories.

I still read for this very same reason. Some of the best stories I know come from books. I’m an English teacher, for goodness sakes, so I am contractually obligated by my chosen profession to love books. I have fallen behind this summer from the books I really wanted to read, but I still consider books to be one of the best storytelling media.

One of the best, mind you. But not the best.

I think there’s a tie between books and television.

Yes, here is where you gasp and shriek and cry blasphemy. Take your time.

Okay, you better? Excelente! (That’s Spanish for excellent.)

The reason I fell in love with books to begin with was because, like I said, they offered the best stories. TV from when I was a kid doesn’t hold a candle to what is available now, be it literary or storytelling worth. My childhood memories of TV are predominantly populated by sitcoms, with only a few shows introducing me to the precursors to the modern, serialized, hour-long dramas, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, which eventually led the way to shows in the ‘90s like The X-Files which again fed into the much-adored LOST.

In general, I wouldn’t have given TV a vote for a respectable narrative medium because of the influx of reality shows and an ever-increasing propagation of sitcoms. For a while, I pretty much swore off TV, citing that I could get more worth from books and even video games than I could the drivel on TV. There were no stories like there were in books or the games I played. I would watch fifteen random people vote one another off an island of using one another’s toothpaste, or I could see, week after week, the same stock archetypes experiencing the hardships that come when their middle child decided to TP their neighbor’s yard. Joy.

There were obviously exceptions to this here and there, but for the most part, I felt TV was seriously accelerating toward a lowest common denominator apocalypse.

When shows began being put on DVD as seasons, my opinion began to change. I was no longer at the whim of broadcast networks as to when I could watch the shows I liked, and I no longer had to put up with the garbage being aired between the programming I actually cared to see. Because of the “pick and choose” nature of DVD seasons, I began to realize that TV had some worth after all. I was no longer forced to watch the mindless shows, but I could concentrate on things I found to be entertaining, but more than that, I found shows that held legitimate literary worth.

To me, however, the literary worth of a television show is far less important than the fact that I enjoy it. I can sit down and enjoy an episode of Daisy of Love or something equally trashy now and then, but I find much more enjoyment out of shows that have a serialized narrative running through the entire series, which is why I think that TV has the potential to be just as good a storytelling medium as books.

I don’t even hold film as highly as TV. Why? Because I don’t care about the characters, most of the time, and when I do, the plot is out of focus. There are obviously exceptions to this; there are many films I hold in incredibly high regard. If the entire narrative has to be set within a certain time boundary (90-120 minutes) and something has to be trimmed, the first thing to be cut is characterization. If it’s not cut, it’s often glossed over so much that there is no real understanding of why the audience should care about the characters. Sure, there are films that don’t do that and are built entirely around character relationships, but in those films, it often happens that the plot is simpler and less complex in order to make room for the needed characterization.

In a novel, however, there are no such arbitrary limits. If the author needs eighty pages to get to the meat of the story, then he or she can take it. If the rest of the story takes 700 pages, then so be it. There are no upper limits on the length of a novel that bind the author to a certain narrative structure.

In television, there is an equal amount of freedom. Unlike film, the story no longer has to suffer because of time limits, and the characters no longer have a mere 15 minutes to establish their histories and relationships.

The way I look at it is this. Books are the highest tier of storytelling medium. They were (aside from oral histories and bardic tales) the first medium for really preserving stories. Because of that, all other storytelling media are offshoots from books. There are no limits imposed on the author or the story being told in books. They’re the freest, most creative medium available, and they will always be at the top of most storytelling lists. Sometimes, old school is the best school.

But the way I see it, the structure of a TV series is incredibly similar to a book, which makes it a tie for my favorite way to absorb stories. TV is structured like a book: each episode represents one chapter, and each season represents an individual book in a lengthy series. I can even buy full seasons/series on DVD to ingest at my speed, just like a book.

Because of this book-like structure, I think TV is perfectly equipped to pick up where film falls short as a visual medium for stories. There is time for the writers to explore character depth, and while each episode is limited to 22 or 43 minutes (depending on the show), series can opt to become wholly serialized like LOST where each individual episode blurs into the story of the whole show or utilize the dreaded To Be Continued. If neither of those options fits perfectly, the series can utilize sub-plots to develop characters and mythology, like Star Trek: The Next Generation or The X-Files did.

The extended length of TV shows, generally around 12 or 22 episodes per season, gives creators much more room to actually explore their series through serialization. Shows like LOST are taking the length given to them by the network executives (six seasons) to craft a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Even sitcoms are cashing in on the serialization cash-cow. With shows like How I Met Your Mother being atypical sitcom fare (there’s a long-running story behind each week’s situational hilarity), the door is open to other sitcoms to become more than what their forbearers were.

So the next time someone tells you that TV has no worth or that it rots your brain, point out that there are a good many shows which tell quality stories in the medium, using tools and mechanisms that make people look to books in the first place. In this age of new media sensations, it was only a matter of time until TV evolved into something greater than most people expected. It’s still a toss up for me whether I sit down with a good book before bed or slot a half-hour or so to watch an episode of Stargate: Atlantis, but either way, I get the bedtime story I want.

Comments

  1. pHonta

    Lo! Just found your blog a couple articles ago, through the series you made that was also hosted on World of Matticus. Just wanted to say that I've been loving your writing up till now, the honesty to yourself in Harry Potter reviews was admiring. In any case, I got Ulduar raid in 5 mins, so just wanted to say that Excellent in spanish got just one L, hehe… Excelente! 🙂

    Keep it up!

    PD: Promise to read the whole thing later, the topic seems interesting enough

  2. Beej

    Haha, I'll be sure to fix that. That's what I get for trying to make a joke based on a language I haven't studied since I was a junior in high school. 😉

  3. We Fly Spitfires

    Excellent post! Really enjoyed it.

    I agree with your comments about books being a more free medium and allow the storyteller the scope to do what they want. I find often TV (and now films) too formulaic, trying to appeal to every audience possible and cover ever base. Although some books are effected by this it's still largely untainted ground.

    You should definitely watch The Wire 🙂

  4. Tesh

    Mmm… Stargate on DVD. (SG-1 is my flavor, though.)

    I love books. Reading is still my favorite activity. Storytelling is important to the human condition; it's how we learn from other people in ways that dry recounting of facts (or opinions) can never touch.

    It's why I work in games. I'm trained to do Pixar-level film storytelling, but I prefer games and their potential for interactivity. More than once, I've thought that games are closer to the storyteller experience of bygone eras, since it's possible to have a sort of dialogue with the storyteller. Games are a bit like a campfire story mixed with a Choose Your Own Adventure book with a dash of speculative fiction thrown in. They are a way of exploring the "what if?" question in safe ways, all under a fictional framework that can sometimes be far more educational than memorizing a list of names and dates.

    Stories are important. Fiction is important. TV and games are useful mediums for telling stories.

    That said, I do think that for the most part, that potential is being abused or completely ignored for cheap thrills, titillation, voyeurism and power fantasies. It's disappointing, since I think that a LOT more could be done. TV on DVD is great to help sift the chaff somewhat.

  5. restedbonus

    An intriguing comparison between books and television. I can't help but agree. However, books were hardly the first medium for preserving stories. Perhaps it's semantics but I think this post is all about novels specifically, and books generally. The idea of the novel is much more recent than most people would expect (Victorian times, unless you count some of Lucian's work) and 'books' have only been around since movable type and Gutenberg.

    However, books certainly ushered in an 'information age' where ideas and stories could be communicated on a mass scale. TV, the internet, blogs, films – these all owe their basis for communication to the printed word and the fictional imaginings of countless authors.

    @Tesh: I have always been fascinated by games as 'texts': the stories they tell and the way that they are used as a storytelling medium. It must be difficult for games to not be reduced to a branching storyline where the player is pushed from cutscene to cutscene, a la 'choose your own adventure' novel. It is interesting to watch the way people like Peter Molyneux struggle with this strict interpretation, and seek to rebel against it. Ultimately, I think that many games are fettered by a too-strict adherence to communication via a D-Pad + A, B, X, Y buttons.

  6. Beej

    @Tesh: SG-1 is my flavor, too. I do eagerly await Universe this fall, though.

    During high school and lots of college, I thought that games were the next big thing in storytelling. And to an extent, I was right. Developers have taken leaps and bounds to make the interactive narrative worthwhile. Games like KOTOR and the Final Fantasy series, specifically made me come to this conclusion; their respective stories are deeper than lots of films, books, and TV shows I know.

    I think we've seen a slow-down lately in it, though, because since DOOM3, gaming narrative hasn't taken any huge steps in my eyes. Half-Life 2 and Bioshock are two of the most touted narrative games, and they only improved what DOOM3 did, in my opinion.

    @restedbonus: Yeah, a lot of what I am talking about does deal with novels specifically as a genre, but the medium of the written word has been around far longer than the Gutenberg press. It certainly helped the proliferation, without a doubt, but there were collections like The Canterbury Tales and even Beowulf that were divided into sections that worked like chapters long before its introduction.

    You're right in that I feel the novel and the serialized TV series are probably a better comparison, the novel itself is a genre of printed media, but even hand-lettered books preserved stories long before the novel itself came into style.

    And, restedbonus, you might also check out the PS2 game "Shadow of the Colossus" if you want a game that tells a story outside of the traditional D-Pad + A, B, X, Y and cutscene style.