Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

SF and WW; Mrs. Landingham

I was thinking about what SF writers could learn from West Wing, and one of the big ones is to trust your audience to buy into fiction itself, and do not overexplain. The big example I'm thinking of is with time. In the universe of this show, US Presidential elections occur in even-numbered years not divisible by four. And they do not explain it. There is no blundering about babbling about the Great Election Reset of 1874 or how it actually makes sense to do it this way because of the Utah Compromise of 1986 or anything like that. Because anyone who looks at this and says, "But no, I can't watch and enjoy this show, because the US President is elected in even-numbered years divisible by four," is also probably going to say, "The President isn't named Josiah Bartlett, and I've never seen this press secretary before in my CNN-watching life." There is a certain amount of buy-in you can expect for your fiction, and explaining it weakens it.

In a similar vein, they carefully do not specify Bartlett's predecessors. Is he in place of Clinton? Is he Clinton's successor? If they started trying to answer those questions, they would raise exactly the questions they do not care about, regarding why the elections are in the wrong years, rather than doing what they wanted to do with the pressures of modern national-scale politics. There are almost always questions you don't want to answer in a piece of fiction, either because they are boring or because you have no good answers for them (and ideally the latter category is not of great interest either). So what you need to do is not lead the viewers directly to these questions--I am looking at you, Battlestar Galactica. You need to give the viewers (or readers) more interesting things to think about--if you have dedicated fans, they will be asking lots of questions, and if you're doing a good job, the questions are related to what you're actually trying for, or are at least complementary (spelling important: not complimentary) to your aims rather than working at counterpurposes with them.

Last week I was watching the end of S2 of West Wing, in which Mrs. Landingham dies. She just dies. They're building up to a million other things, because this is a show with long plot arcs and a tendency to remember the things you might have thought they'd forgotten. And then wham, out of the blue, drunk driver, no more Mrs. Landingham.

I am not really in a frame of mind to deal with this sort of thing optimally. But when I have a minute to think about it, I approve of this behavior. The universe does not step back and say, "You are trying to deal with breaking a major scandal without ruining a Presidency. You are trying to keep a civil war from starting in a nearby country. You have taken on a major corporate group who will fight your agenda tooth and nail, and some people from your own party--as well as members of the other party--are going to fight alongside them, and some of them are doing so for good reasons. You also have family obligations and an entire agenda you haven't gotten to, and incidentally you have MS. So all that is really too much for one guy, so the universe will make sure you don't lose your secretary/beloved adopted big sister figure, because that would be much too much." The universe doesn't make those interventions. There is no button for "too much." And enough of the previous issues have been built from previous decisions that it's not a matter of a pile of improbable coincidences--which the universe does do. It's just...the ongoing pile of stuff. And you swallow hard and go on, or you rant and rave and then go on, depending on how you're made and how you're pushed. But you do go on. Thanks, show.
Tags: full of theories, small screen

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