No, not for Farscape. In case anyone still cares (why?), I’m spoiling Lost season 6.
(WTF is this? Remember, like, last year when I talked about learning writing from Farscape? Yeah, this is that.)
Farscape had something. Somewhere between the wild sci-fi element–the blue skin and the tentacles and the wormholes and the microbes in the brainstem and the sexy leather coats–it had something.
It’s easy to say it was one of the best shows on TV. It’s harder to say why.
It’s true awesomeness was an elusive quality, a synthesis of work coming together to make something much, much greater than each individual piece, something no one will ever be able to capture again. Not the Jim Henson puppeteering, not the quirky writing, not the just-post-9/11 politics of outer space. Not all together anyway.
But a recent Farscape re-re-re-re-watch with an eye to storytelling illuminated some more easily identifiable qualities, qualities that just may be within reach for us lowly storytelling aspirants. (Oh, and in case anyone’s interested in a communal re-watch, Big Damn Heroes blog is in the middle of one now.)
Some of these qualities are more easily identifiable for what they didn’t do. For instance:
1) Farscape didn’t abuse suspense.
Once upon a time, the abuse of suspense was relegated to soap operas. You know the drill: not much happens episode to episode, until *gasp* the shocker at the end of the season, but you’ve got to wait till next season to see how that plays out! But somebody **cough, cough** Lost **cough, cough** brought this formula to primetime, and others (ahem I’m looking at you Supernatural) followed.
It’s the carrot-on-the-stick philosophy.
These shows share one thing: the promise that next time there will be more. Next time will be better. Next time something big will happen.
Problem is, that’s not really suspense.
No. When you abuse it beyond recognition, it becomes something else.
When you see the shadow around the corner or the one-sided phone conversation or the mysterious box for the fifth time it’s no longer suspenseful. By the fifth time around you either don’t care anymore or you’ve already figured out the surprise. And with no surprise around the corner, there’s no suspense.
Remember the mysterious casket-shaped box in Lost Season 6? The one getting hauled around when they got back to the island? We already knew what was in there. You know why? Because it’s a frelling casket! Nobody besides John Locke was put in a casket all season. So they could carry around a “mysterious” casket-sized box all day and by the end, even the dimmest of viewers would know John Locke’s body is inside. **Yawn.** Now, if they hadn’t have tried to be all sneaky about it and just BOOM–flash to the body at the end, there would have been this massive Oh shit! moment. But there wasn’t. We got it. Long before Lost did, we got it.
Here’s the thing: nobody really likes carrots. And we sure don’t like chasing something down only to find out it’s a carrot.
Farscape didn’t do this. That’s not to say there wasn’t suspense – there sure as hell was, but it was because each episode, each scene, each story arc raised questions that we, the viewers, couldn’t answer. What’s going to happen on the command carrier? What’s wrong with Aeryn? Why does our money have legs? Instead of dropping bomb-sized hints, they just let things play out naturally, so that when the big scary finally hit, it hit hard.
And this leads to…..
2. Farscape didn’t decapitate its own stories.
Now, anyone who’s seen this show knows Farscape knew how to do cliffhangers. (And for those who haven’t seen the show, may I ask why not?) But things also came to an end. There was satisfaction. The beautifully crafted plots came to nice dramatic climaxes in an appropriate 22 episode window with time to spare.
The opposite of this seems to be what the popular carrot-on-a-stick formula leads to: the moment where the action just stops mid-battle, mid event, mid-plot, and leaves you going Whaaaaaa-? There’s no satisfaction, there’s no resolution. Just a wave and a tune-in-next-year! Stargate did this with its mid-battle cutoffs, which is one of the reasons I preferred Farscape. Of course, Stargate had redeeming qualities that would take me on a serious tangent… Anyway.
Again, Farscape had their cliffhangers. But the Whaaaaa– moment came after the epic finish that the season had been building up to.
Each season gave you something. And I’m not just talking about season finales. I’m talking about each episode, each season. With the exception of a handful of two- and three-part eps, it didn’t just say “something really cool is going to happen… tune in next time!” They give you some sort of resolution.
This was satisfying, but also strategic. While we were so wrapped up in thinking about the currently-resolving subplot, the cliff hangers at the end took us totally by surprise.
What does this all mean?
It means that Farscape, a cancelled and obscure sci-fi show, had that elusive thing the literary folk are always seeking: pacing. Farscape had pacing. It’s that slippery, unquantifiable skill of telling a story at the optimal speed, drawing in, captivating, satisfying. It’s that skill that demands rapt attention, and rewards it with excitement, surprise, and the full force of a truly powerful story. A powerful story is not enough by itself. A powerful story needs to be told right, otherwise it loses its power.
What does this all mean for me?
Like all writers, I need pacing. Two of my current projects are series and I need to understand how to engage for every chapter, for every book, for the whole series without resorting to cheap tricks and without letting readers down. The Farscape approach was, and is to this day, one of the most successful storytelling models I’ve seen. As I consider questions of plot and pacing –Do I end each book on a cliffhanger? Do I resolve the action? Where do I end? What counts as a cheap trick? – it’s this show I’ll be looking to.
I am far, far from having it all figured out. But Moya and crew are helping.