Genrely Speaking: The Mockumentary

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking and wow it’s been a while since we did one of these. Partly because of the schedule I’ve been working on and party because the list of genres I feel qualified to talk about has been steadily shrinking. Today we’re going to look at a characteristic genre that is actually quite new in many respects.

A mockumentary is a work of fiction that takes the format of a factual documentary, “behind the scenes” making-of piece or reality TV show. While everything discussed in the mockumentary is fictional the “facts” of the story will presented as if they were just that – facts. (The “mock” in the title has less to do with insult and more refers to being an approximation of reality, although it can mean both.) While mockumentaries are almost entirely done on TV or in movies aspects of the genre can work their way into other media. In fact Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, while not a mockumentary in the truest sense, frequently quoted from a fictional galactic encyclopedia to give a perspective on events. A more recent example of a written mockumentary, one intended to serve as such, is Max Brooks’ World War Z.

The most famous mockumentary in modern pop culture is undoubtedly the sitcom The Office (in both the British and American incarnations) and people will tend to associate the term with comedy, particularly as it satirizes the easy target that is reality TV.

The highlights of a mockumentary include:

  • Interviews with experts and people who were on the scene. These may include characters who lived through the events the mockumentary is documenting, historians who have studied the characters in question a great deal or technical experts who explain the ins and outs of the way things work.
  • Ambiguous characters. A mockumentary is a genre that cares more about characters than about events, but the structure of the story naturally tends to give you a lot of contradictory information about them. Like in a mystery story – and real life – the things people say about themselves and the things other people say about them rarely mesh in a mockumentary. Part of that is differences between the way characters see themselves and each other, part of that is because some of the information you get in a documentary is bound to be false (deliberately or not) and so mockumentaries must be the same.
  • A lot of world building. There’s a lot of chances to slip in tidbits about a fictional world in a mockumentary. Was there an extinct race of elves on one continent of your world? Maybe a major character had an interest in collecting artifact from their civilization, a fact brought up during an interview with a close friend. The audience not only learns about your character’s interest in archaeology they learn the world once had elves. You can be more direct as well. In a mockumentary about deep space colonization you can have an expert on shipbuilding explain why a specific faster than light drive was chosen for an expedition and explain the “science” behind the drive at the same time. The possibilities are endless.

What are the weaknesses of a mockumentary? With ambiguous characters around every corner it can be harder to get attached to them simply because the narrators aren’t trustworthy. In most fiction the reader assumes they’re getting straight facts even if the work is written in the first person. But a mockumentary frequently introduces contradictory narratives to keep us on our toes. Even when the audience gets to see events “as they really happened” they still have to decide whether they trust the personal testimonies given after the facts. Constantly looking out for spin from fictional characters can be exhausting and too much like real life for some people

On top of that, it’s easy for mockumentaries to get caught up in the minutia and lose sight of the story. Too much time spent exploring all the viewpoints in a story, too much emphasis put on worldbuilding details instead of plot progression, and the story can fall apart. Even if the writer does a brilliant job audiences can still get fatigued with all the work needed to track it all.

In short, it’s very easy to overwork your audience with a mockumentary.

What are the strengths of a mockumentary? While characters will undoubtedly come off as ambiguous due to the way they are presented they can still be studied in much more depth in this genre than in most. A mockumentary is as much about the testimony about an event or series of events as the events themselves. What people say about something a simple as a car accident on the street can reveal a lot about who they are and what kinds of priorities they have. Done right, a mockumentary can provide powerful character studies.

I don’t think the mockumentary is ever going to “take off” and become a powerful force in the literary or entertainment worlds. They require a lot of work on the parts of both the creators and the audience, and the kinds of stories you can tell within the strictures of the genre are pretty limited. But that doesn’t mean the genre is bad – in fact, there are few other genres suited to the kinds of stories it wants to tell. The fact that without it we would have missed out on those stories is probably enough to make it a good genre.

The only real question is if it will ever be great. I can’t answer that but I have no problem with watching to see if it can.

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Show Don’t Tell: A Nuanced Discussion

I was discussing a film with a friend recently and we had a disagreement over how good it was. I felt the climax of the movie was poorly supported and came off weak. He disagreed, pointing out things that were in the film but that I felt didn’t support the climax very well, because I was told them by the movie, rather than shown. Since “show don’t tell” is such a foundational rule of writing I figured that was the end of the matter. But he asked me a question that made me think: “So does that mean every story needs to be told the same?”

The answer is no. But there are things that work well and things that don’t and long experience has given writers a pretty clear idea of what is what. When a writer says “show don’t tell” what they really mean is “showing produces a stronger reaction than telling.”

People who read this blog know that I feel the purpose of fiction is to provoke some kind of reaction – usually an emotional one – through their writing. So the best tool in the box is usually showing, because it will give you a stronger reaction than telling. But, like most generalizations, show don’t tell has a lot of nuance to it.

Let’s break this down by looking at the way this idea is applied in the first season of the CW’s show The Flash, particularly in the first season (and a few episodes of Arrow). The showrunners behind The Flash have done a great job with using show and telling to emphasize the important bits of their story. Let’s look the ways this principle plays out. Be warned – there’s going to be spoilers.

The show begins with a flashback to Barry’s youth where we see the night Barry’s mother died. This is the defining moment in Barry’s life and the most important plot point in the first season of the TV show. The climax of the season hinges on the impact this moment had on his life and character. It’s only natural that we see it, so that our impression of the moment is as powerful as possible.

The night Barry’s mother was murdered comes up in the series several times between the beginning and ending of the series’ first season, each time when the emotional impact of the event on Barry’s life will play a pivotal part on the way the episode unfolds. These flashbacks serve to put the incident back in our minds in a powerful way and make us ready to understand the new nuances of Barry and The Flash which the episode’s challenges will tease out, or to keep us in the zone as the mystery of Sarah Allen’s murder is pushed forward. Since the incident is important the show shows us to keep it fresh in our minds.

However, there are two times when Sarah Allen’s murder is brought up without a flashback but the memory is still important to what is happening. Not on The Flash, but on the CW’s other superhero show, Arrow. You see, Barry Allen was introduced on Arrow, and Oliver Queen, Arrow’s protagonist, was initially suspicious of him. Barry explaining his backstory and his reasons for being in Starling, his quest to find impossible things in the hopes he could one day explain his mother’s murder, are part of how Barry earns Oliver’s trust.

A season later, when Barry is a full fledged superhero and he pays Oliver another visit, the two men clash over methods. The still unresolved death of Barry’s mother is brought up again to show that Barry’s no stranger to the hardships of life. In both cases, the showrunners chose to tell, rather than show.

Why? Because these moments were about the conflict between the characters over things in the present, not about how the past shaped them. Yes, Barry’s past was relevant to the choices he was making and he had to explain himself, but the emphasis wasn’t on the events that shaped him. It was on the situation he was in and how people would relate to it. A strong reference to the past would have overshadowed the situation in the present, as the two were not directly connected.

There’s another time The Flash’s showrunners chose to tell rather than show – in the first season Joe West had suspicions about Harrison Wells and the Reverse Flash. They meet for drinks and exchange barbs. At the end Wells gives Joe a name to look up. Later they meet again and Joe tells Wells what he learned – that Harrison Wells’ fiance died in a car accident. Again, there’s no flashback to the death because the point of the moment isn’t to show us how the Reverse Flash took over the life of Harrison Wells or to elicit some kind of understanding of the Reverse Flash.

Rather, the point is to build the mystery around the character and keep us guessing as to his exact motivations and methods. A mystery is hard to maintain when the facts are being presented in the strongest way and the motivations of a character are put full front, so the showrunners chose to tell rather than show, to keep the strength of the presentation from undoing the desired effect.

In the end there are many reasons you may decide to tell, rather than show. But they will almost always boil down to one – you tell instead of showing when showing would create a reaction contrary to the one you desire. A good story is a tightly woven web and it doesn’t have enough space to give everything full voice. The impact of some threads of the story may need to be reduced in order to allow the climax of the story to shine. In those cases by all means tell and don’t show. But make no mistake, the rule to show rather than tell exists for a reason. When you show your story makes the strongest impact. A story that focuses on telling, not showing can work, if mystery is a major theme for example, but that kind of story is going to be fairly unique in its structure and content, not suited to the majority of topics.

Not every story has to be the same in the way it’s told. But if you’re trying to tell a normal story with an emotional climax, with no gimmicks to support the notion of telling rather than showing, then stick with showing. Or be prepared to be regarded as an underwhelming story.

The Hero’s Journey and The Lord of the Rings

Periodically when I’m writing something I find a need to do some research and, since the hero’s journey was going to be a plot point – albeit a small one – during The Antisocial Network I figured I should read up on it some. One of the things people kept emphasizing as I read about it was that the two biggest movie franchises of the 20th/21st century, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, were perfect distillations of the formula. I can buy this with Star Wars. But it’s laughably inaccurate with Lord of the Rings (less so with The Hobbit, but that’s not what we’re looking at).

The basic hero’s journey consists of several basic stages, most of which the Lord of the Rings doesn’t adhere to or entirely subverts. Let’s take a look at them one by one, shall we?

  1. Establishing an ordinary world. Of course Tolkien and the Jackson films do this but that’s not surprising. Every story give some exposition and establishes the status quo before we get into the action. Nothing to see here.
  2. The call to adventure. This is the only part of the monomyth or hero’s journey that I find convincingly echoed in Lord of the Rings. Frodo does learn shocking facts about himself and the world around him that spurs him to take action. He learns about the nature of the ring he’s been left and the threat it poses and it frightens him.
  3. Refusal of the call. This is where things go off the rails. See, I can’t see any point in the story where Frodo refuses the call. He takes the ring to Rivendell on Gandalf’s advice but he never really seems to not want to do it – it’s a chance to see Bilbo and he’s always wanted to travel. Again, at Rivendell, no one has to convince Frodo to take the Ring to Mordor – he volunteers. Quite unexpectedly. In truth Frodo, while not eager to bear the Ring, still bears it without flinching. The closest we come to this trope is when he offers the Ring to Gandalf, thinking it might be safer with him. This could be considered a refusal of the call but it’s pretty far from how this trope usually plays out.
  4. Meeting with the mentor. Again, Frodo doesn’t seem to have any mentor character. Gandalf comes close, of course, but he doesn’t really equip Frodo for his task as Frodo can’t really be equipped for what he has to do. He is given talismans in the form of Sting and Bilbo’s mail shirt, as well as Galadriel’s phial, not to mention the Ring itself but these don’t come from Gandalf. On the other hand it’s Gandalf’s mention of Bilbo’s pity which ultimately opens the way for the quest to be completed. Again, there are echoes of this trope but nothing that really fits with it.
  5. Entering the unknown. This is the stage where the hero and his companions leave what they’ve known and enter the unknown. Theoretically this must happen when the hobbits leave the Shire, as they’ve never really traveled much, unless we see departing Rivendell as the moment when they enter the unknown… except most of Frodo’s nonhobbit companions have been to the places they’re going and… you see how the archetype isn’t making much sense by this point.
  6. Tests, allies and enemies. At this stage the hero and his companions face challenges, defeat enemies and get stronger… except in Lord of the Rings they don’t. Get stronger, that is. Yes, Merry and Pippen get larger, stronger and a little more martially ready later in the story and Gandalf ascends to a new level of wizardliness but other than that the characters don’t really become more formidable from the time they’re introduced. In particular the “hero” of this journey, Frodo, is a bit of an albatross in the story, doing more to expose his companions to danger than save them. Again, there are all kinds of challenges in Lord of the Rings, it’s just that none of them result in the kind of growing power in Frodo’s hands that the hero’s journey would lead us to expect.
  7. The supreme ordeal. At this stage in the story the hero is supposed to face the shadow, his nemesis of the story, go through a symbolic death and rebirth and emerge victorious by dint of the lessons learned through his struggles. While Frodo’s going into and emerging from Mount Doom might count as death and rebirth the fact is when he faces his ultimate opponent, the One Ring, he loses. He can’t overcome it and destroy it, Gollum must do so – and quite inadvertently at that. Again, the hero of this story isn’t the “hero”…
  8. The reward. Heroes are supposed to get something for all their work. Frodo is awarded PTSD. Okay, he also gets the adoration of a nation for a short period of time. This one applies, sort of.
  9. The road back. Again, this trope applies as Frodo does have to make a return journey, bidding farewell to his friends.
  10. Restoring the World. At this point the hero is supposed to use his newfound powers and the rewards he gathered during his adventures to make the world a better place. And again, the four hobbits do this, cleansing the Shire of the evil influences that have come upon it and restoring just government. It’s just that the hobbit who plays the smallest part in this is Frodo. His incredible exertions have won him to respect at home and the journey has left him diminished, scarred by heavy burden and long journey. His friends have grown and he has paid the price.

It’s important to note that there are a number of superficial similarities to the hero’s journey in The Lord of the Rings. Several characters seem to embody the tropes of the monomyth at various points – Gandalf’s death and rebirth leading him to the height of his powers, Aragorn being rewarded for his struggles with the crown of a kingdom and Merry and Pippen being forged into heroes of the Shire. But the so-called monomyth, while a common storytelling convention, is not the one Tolkien was working from. I’m not saying the monomyth is bad. But don’t let it blind you to what’s really going on.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a Catholic and his writing was deeply steeped in Catholic traditions. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the hero at the heart of the story is not a person who ascends to apotheosis but one who steadily diminishes himself on behalf of others. It’s the courage and sacrifice of Frodo we admire and the truth that there’s rarely rewards awaiting those who make sacrifices that gives the story its ring of truth. Writing conventions are all well and good, but don’t let them shackle you.

Sounds like a good idea to mull over next week, doesn’t it?

Star Wars Episode Eight: Course Correction

So let’s pick up where we left off last week. The Star Wars character Rey has had some Mary Sue elements stuck into her character but that’s not the end of the story. I really feel that The Force Awakens suffered for these elements but I have to stress that they weren’t the sole reason or even the biggest reason I felt the movie was subpar. The holes left in Rey’s character exist for one of two reasons, in so far as I can tell.

The first is that the film didn’t have enough room to squeeze in all the kind of narrative support that make the wish fulfillment aspects of Rey’s character function within the larger story framework. The story is chock full of characters to be introduced, situations to be sorted out and story to be imparted. The whole film moves so fast that none of this information really gets examined deeply. This is a bad habit I see in a lot of recent movies, and Disney movies in particular, where filmmakers just throw a character archetype or well known plot on screen and expect the audience to fill in the blanks while the story glosses over the lacking character and plot development in favor of more spectacle. The studio wanted a blockbuster show and the other, more important stuff, got cut.

Now spectacle isn’t bad but Star Wars, for better or worse, hasn’t ever been exclusively spectacle. And furthermore, the archetype of a character without power suddenly unlocking hidden power – Rey’s archetype – clashes badly with the established Star Wars lore. For the first time we’ve gotten a Star Wars film that feels like it was made to be a blockbuster, and that’s sad. Understandable, given the investment Disney made in the movie, but disappointing none the less. So one reason Rey may not have gotten the development she needed was studio mandate. That’s lame, but it’s part of showbiz.

The second reason for Rey’s off balance character development is even more speculative. There’s a possibility that the film is setting up a story arc where Rey’s burst in power is a result of the Dark Side, the fast, easy and seductive half of the Force. With a quick burst of power fueled by her anger and the Dark Side much of what Rey does can be explained away. This doesn’t have any more support than the prevailing interpretation of the story, that Rey is just an absurdly powerful and fast learning Jedi, but it would better explain things in conjunction with the lore than the idea that Rey has amnesia and has forgotten previous Jedi training.

Of course, the biggest problem with this theory is that it doesn’t have support, the problem that the whole movie has to start with. In truth, it has less support than others, since Rey never actually shows any signs of Dark Side influence when using the Force. But it could have been the intent and, more importantly, it brings me to the question of how the poor writing around Rey’s character could be salvaged.

The first is if Episode Eight runs with the idea I just laid out. If we find Luke training Rey hard to cure her of a taste for the Dark Side it would go a long way to show that the existing Star Wars lore is being respected and open up opportunities for a lot of interesting ways for Rey’s character to go. She currently doesn’t have a clear direction for character development or arcs so by giving her an ongoing struggle with the Dark Side the writers would both do her character a real favor and take advantage of the opportunity to explore themes the franchise has dabbled with previously but never delved into in any meaningful way.

Another entirely viable option would be to make the next film primarily about Finn. He felt more like the main character of the first film, with his broken indoctrination and significant streak of cowardice giving way to new ways of seeing the world and the start of real personal courage. If Rey moves back out of the spotlight some the lack of polish in her character is less jarring. That doesn’t really solve the problems in her writing as such but if the film is constructed in such a way as to make the problems irrelevant then it still does some good work.

The third possibility is to give Rey a new and very personal challenge. The fact that she is never significantly set back through the course of the film is the greatest weakness of the character. Unfortunately, the writing of The Force Awakens severely crippled Kylo Ren’s ability to serve as a good antagonist in future films and I can’t see any new meeting between Rey and Ren having the dramatic weight necessary to be that setback. Hopefully the Knights of Ren that were hinted at will provide some of that needed threat so that Rey’s character can really shine.

The big lesson here is that even bad writing can be redeemed, most of the time. The real question for the typical writer is, would it be worth the time? All three of the solutions I suggested for Rey’s character problems require a certain amount of narrative gymnastics to function. Most writers find themselves better served by drawing what lessons can be had from bad writing and moving on, as the resources of Disney probably aren’t backing your less than stellar outing (and it probably doesn’t have Star Wars level brand recognition, either). The hard truth is, while a weak writing project doesn’t doom you as a writer, it can doom the ideas you invested in it.

At least until you can adapt those ideas into a new form for a later project.

Unless your Disney playing with Star Wars. At this point, nothing can really kill that project. But I’m still hoping they draw lessons from it and make it better.