In Which I Talk About How The Packaging And Presentation Can Detract From The Gift When It Ought To Increase Our Interest

I’m going to advance a theory, but first of all I want to perform a little experiment. A thought experiment, if you will. Okay, here we go: how do you react when I tell you the following?

“I’ve got a present for you – but I’m not going to tell you what it is. It’s a secret. You’ll have to wait and see.”

Now, if you’re anything like me – and if what follows is going to make any kind of sense whatsoever – you’ll have thought vaguely along the lines of ‘oooh, wonder what it is?’; which is, I think, perfectly natural and reasonable (if you didn’t react like that at all, the rest of this post will make me sound like a lunatic, which isn’t new, but it will undermine the point I’m trying to make, so you might want to bail out now before you start getting annoyed by what I have to say).

If someone tells you they’ve got you a present, I think it naturally triggers a number of questions in the mind: what is it? Where did they get it? Is it something I’ve mentioned I’d like? And so on. Arguably, receiving the present and opening it, and thus having it reduced from ‘potentially anything’ to ‘what it actually is’ can seem disappointing, as if all the possibilities have been swept away, and the present itself (no matter how exciting it is) something of a letdown. In my typically pretentious way, I think it’s rather like the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox with the various probabilities waves (or, for the purposes of my comparison, possibilities) collapsing to reveal the true state of things.

I genuinely believe that the human brain has an almost inbuilt tendency towards constructing some kind of narrative, or speculating on possible events; in the same way as we see shapes in clouds or faces in patterns on the curtains, I think that if you present people with a scenario or a set of circumstances, they’ll almost immediately start to wonder what came before or what happened afterwards. I think a lot of art relies on this – we wonder what La Giaconda is smiling at, or why she’d rather sink than call Brad for help, and even if the picture is specifically titled to let us know it’s The Lady of Shallott, the picture acts as a snapshot, a moment frozen in time from a longer narrative.

In his long-form essay Writing for Comics, Alan Moore does this brilliantly with William Holman Hunt’s painting The Hireling Shepherd, throwing out a number of ideas as to what might happen next, as if it were a frame in a film which might suddenly start rolling again. I doubt this theory could be applied to abstract art – it’s hard to imagine ‘what happens next’ in a Jackson Pollock painting – but I think that in representational art it holds true, probably due to the fact that anything depicted on a canvas is purportedly happening somewhere at some time, which inevitably leads the mind to wonder what preceded or what follows it.

Why am I thinking all this, you might wonder? Well, it’s for a typically mundane reason – I was watching Doctor Who the other night (blissfully unaware as I sat down to do so of Mr Arnopp’s cameo role) and when it got to the end of the episode, there was a ‘Next Week…’ snippet. Now, I don’t like these pseudo-trailers anyway – they seem to be fairly insulting to the writer of the episode that’s just finished as they imply that the episode hasn’t been of a sufficiently high quality to draw you back – but when the episode closes on a cliffhanger, it’s all the more daft to sneak-peek at the next episode; if you end the episode with large numbers of people in peril (as happened in DW on Saturday) and then show various people running around and shouting and so on, it’s pretty obvious that they’re not all going to die in the first ten seconds of the show, no matter what the cliffhanger suggested. It’s often called false peril, but I’d say that this is more like defused peril – and defused because someone, probably in branding and/or marketing, thinks that people need to know a bit of what’s coming next, that it’s the only way to draw them back. I disagree.

This isn’t entirely confined to fiction, as news programmes seem all too keen to tell us the key aspects of a story before going to their reporter live at the scene, who reiterates the key notes again before (if you’re lucky) adding in a detail or two and handing back to the studio. It feels like spoon-feeding, and more annoyingly it’s a waste of airtime (which may, unfortunately, be the reason for it – there are after all many minutes to fill for as little money as possible).

So, given my theory about an innate narrative tendency in the human brain, I think that the folks who ‘package’ and ‘brand’ TV shows in this way (all too often a very different job from actually making programmes) are missing the point quite dramatically. I feel people have a natural tendency to want to know what happens next, or (if they come in partway through a story) to invent ‘the story so far’ so as to catch up on what they’ve missed – if (and this is key) they’re sufficiently drawn in. Constantly reminding the viewer of what’s happened in the last few minutes (as seen in the moronic voice-overs in Dragon’s Den) or trying to keep us interested with ‘Coming Up’ stuff (especially in BBC shows where there are no ad breaks to encourage channel-hopping) actually undermines the content of the programme itself, and detracts from that which might actually attract viewers in the first place.

And it doesn’t work. I say this with a hearty chunk of confidence, because more and more of these tacky little tricks are in evidence on our TV screens all the time, and the prevalence of them is the clue; if they were drawing in and holding an audience, they wouldn’t be slapping these ‘coming up’ bits and ‘next time…’ trailers on the shows. The only programmes that I can think of which are thankfully devoid of this kind of nonsense are… any ideas? Yes, the soap operas.

Say what you like about the soaps – and after seeing last night’s episode I’d once again point to EastEnders’ enormous flaw in not having even one vaguely sympathetic character (or at least not one with a storyline at present) – they are absolutely brilliant at providing ‘the story so far’ as they go along. Sure, there are sometimes slightly clunky lines of dialogue like ‘So, how are you doing since your wife ran off with the milkman, Terry?’, but most of the time the necessary exposition is woven into the dialogue so seamlessly that it’s invisible, which is exactly as it should be. Stan Lee, co-creator of super-heroes such as Spider-Man and The X-Men, once said that every issue of a comic book is someone’s first issue, and this is true across most media; all episodes of soaps or dramas are someone’s first episode, and so the story so far, and the characters’ names and relationships, need to be established as quickly but discreetly as possible. Watch an episode of any long-running soap opera and watch out for how they do it, it’s quite instructive.

The soaps, which attract vast numbers of viewers, seem to be immune from this ‘previously on’/’coming up’-type nonsense, and yet in their attempts to attract the kind of audience share the soaps consistently command, the people who package programmes seem to think the best way is to market shows in a way that actually detracts from the content. I’m guessing the soaps don’t mess with their format on the grounds that isn’t broken so it doesn’t need fixing, but all too many other shows seem to try to fix it by breaking it even more.

The soaps, and many other forms of entertainment media, are based on the fact that, suitably lured in, people want to know what’s going to happen next. JJ Abrams, the creator of Alias and co-creator of Lost, is obviously a man who knows something about getting the viewers and keeping them interested, and talks about the effect ‘mystery’ can have in an interview which you can view via this page. Abrams says “maybe there are times where mystery is more important than knowledge,” and I’d not only agree with that, but I’d go further and say that people are more drawn to mysteries than they are to knowledge.

Who killed Laura Palmer? Who shot JR? Will Maddie and David / Sam and Diane/ Lois and Clark/ Ross and Rachel/ Smithy and Nessa get together? Questions, and mysteries, are often the aspects of stories and entertainment which draw us in and then draw us back for more. By constantly stating what happened before what you’re seeing now, reiterating what you’ve just seen, and giving you glimpses of what’s yet to come, the experience of not knowing what’s to come is as good as lost. It’s not that I don’t want to know the answer to the questions posed in the story, it’s just that I don’t necessarily want to know them quite yet. It’s slightly perverse, perhaps, but isn’t it more perverse that, as a species, we create stories of things that never happened to people who never were in places and times which weren’t as depicted, and then break these stories (writerly pun intended) into sections deliberately designed to keep people paying attention?

Well no, I don’t think it’s perverse at all. I believe – as I’ve said above – that it’s absolutely natural. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman’s introduction to one of his Sandman volumes, being alive is very much a case of trying to catch up on what’s gone before, and as we’ll leave long before the story comes to its end, the tendency to speculate and wonder about events (be they real or imaginary) is, as good as innate in humankind; and the stories which hold our attention best are those which know how to play on this tendency and then go on to provide a satisfying resolution.

Oh, and that present I mentioned I have for you? I think you’ll like it, but I’m out of space now – I’ll have to tell you about it another time.

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6 Comments

  1. Great post John. And a curiously coincidental one for me as I was part way through writing a short piece myself on ‘Where has all the suspense gone?’ It was prompted by a visit from one of my daughters who walked in, slapped her bag down and said ‘Hey Dad – stick Emmerdale on … XXXX is going to happen tonight.’ And in her bag was one of those Heat-type magazines, the front cover emblazoned with all of the plot-lines for all of the soaps for the fortnight ahead.

    I just don’t get it.

    One of the biggest soap moments ever was when Den told Angie he was divorcing her on Christmas Day. This past year, everyone knew what the Christmas storyline was months in advance.

    As I say, I don’t get it.

    Storylines used to be protected and hidden and secretive. There were closed sets and coded ames – Star Wars was known as ‘Blue Harvest’ and Dr Who was coded with the anagram ‘Torchwood’ – a name that has now earned a show in its own right. Suspense was important – vital even – for viewing figures. So why do my daughter – and millions of others – watch these shows when all the surprise has been removed? It’s like finding out that someone’s hosting a surprise birthday party for you … and then being given the guest list, song list (for the disco) and the menu to read beforehand. The party may still be a good one but nowhere near as good as it could have been.

    I really, really do not get it.

    Can anyone explain it to me?

  2. Wish I could shed some light on it, but it bewilders me too. The shift from people watching for the story to watching to see certain ‘events’ is just odd.

    It’s not even something we can attribute to the internet and ease of information-sharing, either, as it started to happen in the UK with the soaps in the latter half of the 1980s really, especially in relation to EastEnders; it may have started as a publicity thing to get people’s attention, but now it’s standard procedure, and it strips away any sense of surprise.

    I’ll all too often refer to my favourite TV series, ‘Twin Peaks’ in this sort of discussion, but I seem to recall the listing for the episode in which they revealed who had killed Laura Palmer was listed in the Radio Times with the summary ‘The killer is revealed’, which was more than enough for me. When the identity of the murderer was revealed, the three of us who were watching all yelled in genuine surprise. Now, perhaps we were young and foolish and over-reacting, but I’m sure that if we’d known who it was a month beforehand, our incentive to watch would have been minimal, and the fun of it virtually nil.

  3. And, let’s face it, ‘Kristin shoots JR’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it …

  4. But… but now I know who did it, I don’t need to watch those tapes of Dallas which have been hanging around for so long!
    Oh, hang on, I should probably thank you for that.
    J

  5. I have a theory. Because all the soaps and other shows are in such competition now, and there is so much choice, the programme makers are desperate to guarantee an audience. Thus, suspense isn’t good enough in our society of instant gratification. I think they feel that the only way of getting the audience to watch is to TELL them what will happen, so that they know what they are getting in advance and thus will safely tune it to see a storyline they like the sound of. It’s bollocks of course, but I believe that to be the reasoning. For thing’s for certain, Hitchcock wouldn’t have approved.

  6. You may have a point – they may feel that a lot of the audience doesn’t want a surprise or plot twist which might leave them feeling they’ve wasted their time or whatever.
    Though it’s probably a case of underestimating the audience – or, at least, assuming a fairly low common denominator.
    J

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