Murdering Reality

In a recent post on her livejournal, fellow producer Niko Ford was complaining that she was having trouble writing a murder mystery story because she couldn’t think of many situations where the cops wouldn’t just come in and take over and leave our heros with pretty much nothing to do. While modern technology and forensic techniques have definitely improved our safety by keeping us in touch and tracking down the bad guys in a more definitive way, they certainly have been eating into the genre of the murder mystery.

I’m reminded of a story my 99 year old great aunt (who passed away recently) once told me as we drove along the waterfront in the city of Hamilton, Ontario. Born and raised in Hamilton she reminised about her family renting a beach house one summer there on the beachfront, and how it was such a huge event and a fun time in their lives. At first, it seemed strange to me because the place we were was only perhaps 15km from the house she was born and raised, but then it occured to yours truely that this was in an age before cars became common and people pretty much had to walk everywhere. 15km was a big deal for people who had to walk that distance, and that’s one of the reasons it had meant to much to her. My point being that once upon a time people were damn isolated, even in a city. We take things like electric steetlights, cars, telephones and even busses for granted, but for most to of human history and part of the 20th century they were visions of the future.

In such a state of isolation it would be relatively easy to murder someone and for help to be unavailable for even hours depending on how far away the nearest police station was. This left a lot of time for the participants to ponder who did it, and created an idea situation for murder mysteries which countless authors explored. This something that has been stripped away as we’ve all gotten more and more connected, and while it’s mostly for the better, it does leave the writers of murder mysteries in something of a lurch as they try to make their scenarios believable by the audience. As a result, as in most genres, they often have to bend reality a bit to make their stories work.

Let me give you an example- in 11 or so years of stumbling across murders, how many times did Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher not fail to show up the police on her series? She was generally a step ahead of them at every turn, and despite them being hardened detectives who knew the beat like the backs of their hands she would almost always leave them hanging around while she plowed through everything. Why did their IQ’s seem to drop 50 points the moment they got within a mile of her? (I feel sorry for the Sheriff who lived close to her her whole life, no wonder he was a slow thinking idiot…Poor guy. He might have been a genius if he’d only been born in other town!) Of course the reason is that if the writers didn’t do this, then there’d be no story for their hero to solve! Was it realistic? Probably not, but it’s a part of the mystery genre that unless the heros are police, the police who may or may not show up are ineffectual and/or idiots so we accept it with a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief.

It’s funny, really. Many people will dismiss a genre they don’t like because it’s “unrealistic”, but the truth is almost every genre has unrealistic elements in it that make it work. Do relationships really happen like they do in romance novels? Can we really go faster than life like in a Sci-Fi book? Is there really magic and unicorns? Did cowboys really act and talk like that? Are there really vampires? We criticize other genres, but almost never look harshly at the ones we love.

So my advice to Niko’s ponderings about the subject was just to lighten up and not worry about it. The cops will just be unavailable or ineffectual, just like nobody ever notices that Clark Kent is Superman with a pair of wireframe glasses on- it’s just part of the story. Get over it and get on with telling a good tale.


A Cast of Thousands

Recently I listened to a show called Beta Flight from BrokenSea Productions, and while it was extremely well done on the technical side, on the writing side it fell a little short. The most major problem with it was it’s cast, of which there were far far too many, or as I put it in a forum post:

That said, while I really (really) wanted to like this I have to say it pretty much lost me about 2/3rds of the way through and I can’t say for sure I’ll be back to listen to more.

The reason is really simple- too many characters. It was an exercise in character overload, and that was before the villains showed up. By the time the fight started I cared so little about any of the nearly nameless voices that not only couldn’t I follow the fight I was pretty much lost as to what I was listening to.

If this was a superhero comic, or cartoon, it would be no problem because superheros were created for a visual medium and are visual creatures. I’d be able to easily recognize everyone from their handy colour coding no matter how many characters were thrown at me. But, this is audio, and humans are visual animals, we can only learn and remember so many disembodied voices and characters at a time and then keep events straight on top of that. (I say this as someone who has been so immersed in superheros and superhero gaming for 27 years I could instantly picture each of the heros as they named themselves and their powers. If I was confused, god help your average non-geek listener.)

In the end the only story I was really able to follow (or care about) was that Arc guy who stowed away and his side-story, the rest of events might as well not have happened as far as I was concerned.

I make no secret that I’m a minimalist- I believe in using the absolute minimum number of characters in a story to tell the story accurately and well. To me, the greatest mistake an audio producer can make is confusing their audience by throwing too much at them too fast. While I have no doubts that the following episodes will expand on the team and their characters I think the writers went too far, to fast with the opener in an effort to make it spectacular and it lost coherency as a result.

If the writers really pull back with the second episode and give us more of a chance to settle in and know the team and the situation I think it can still be a good series. The characters are fine, and they’ve obviously thought a lot about this story and where it’s going. The only issue is the cast size and the limitations of the medium need to be considered better. Superhero comics can do stories like this from the get-go, but superhero audio is another medium and has it’s own rules. This felt more like a comic than an audio drama, and it suffered for it.

Audio drama in general (as with most things) actually benefits greatly from a small cast. It’s actually quite rare for most of the Old Time Radio (OTR) audio dramas to have more than Six major characters in their casts, and quite often they only use 3 or 4. Part of that is of course the limits of time, since they often had only 22 minutes to tell a story and could only pack so many people in there, but there’s more to it than that, as a friend commented in a recent e-mail while were discussing the above review…

Rob: With Team Iron Angel I made a conscious decision to limit my cast to 4 heros, and I’m glad I did since I think more than 5 is incredibly awkward in a single story. Of course it can be done, but you have to very slowly build up to it. Twin Stars Episode 8 (the season finale) will have a massive cast, probably bigger than Beta Flights. However, I will have spent 7 previous episodes working up to that show and getting the audience familiar with the cast in very small pieces. It’s a technique I learned from the Japanese comics I read, who make a point of starting small and then slowly working out as a way to ensuring clarity to their readership.

Friend: It makes a lot of sense. I can’t remember where it came from, but a great theatre practitioner once said that the golden rule to introducing new characters to an existing scene was to make sure they came in individually & had their chance to imprint on the audience. Even if they were a couple arriving together, ideally one should be delayed for some reason: parking the car, getting bags, stubbing out a cigarette, etc. A lot of the great playwrights did just that.
Definitely something to think about. Introducing characters in stages gives the audience a chance to get used to them before throwing the next one at them, increasing the chances they’ll be remembered and recognized. Nowhere is this more important than in audio, where the listener already has a hard enough time remembering who is who due to the way human beings are wired.