June 14, 2010


Last season, a friend recommended a TV series and out of respect for his opinion, I began watching. When a program is new, one should allow time for the actors to build a rapport with one another and for the writers to develop character. Over time, however, the audience expects to see growth and providing that development makes good business as well as artistic sense. The brain abhors repetition. It stops paying attention and the program loses its viewers. 

The difficulty I had with this new series is that it forgot that even stick figures have to be believable. Conan the Barbarian may be simplistic but he is readable.  He mistrusts others because his mother was murdered before his eyes when he was a child.

Action writers are ill-served if they believe plot alone will satisfy. Motivation is the engine that drives plot. If we don’t see it or it’s out of sync, we become uneasy.  In real life, when Tom Cruise made his famous couch leap, he damaged his image because his conduct was sudden, unpredictable and a bit over the top. The audience was left to wonder if his behavior was more irrational than exuberant.

There are two occasions when the absence of motivation works.  One is horror.   A character who commits mayhem for no reason is the most terrifying of all. How do we comprehend violence that is random? We see the chain saw and a masked figure with murder in his eye and we immediately ask why. Why? Why?

Oddly enough, comedy feeds off the same energy. What makes the pie throw or the slip on the banana peel funny is the element of surprise. The difference between the two art forms is that mayhem flows from one genre and silliness from the other.

In fiction as in life, however, an audience or a reader is most content when he understands what drives the action.  Without motives, characters are like pawns in a chess game, being moved as the plot dictates without intentions either good or bad. Stick figures usually aren’t interesting.

In the TV series my friend recommended, there was action but not much humanness. I won’t continue to watch. I’m not motivated.