Characters in therapy

On their podcast Reconcilable Differences, John Siracusa and Merlin Mann discuss storytelling in prestige TV:

John: To make a good show, a satisfying show to watch […] it’s important for the characters in the show to have some level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness that is above what a mortal being could have, especially in the moment. Because you don’t have time to have fifty episodes in five years for someone to come to a realization. Instead what you have is one or two events that surround the issue in question and then you have the character on screen very economically say a couple of sentences that let you understand what’s going down and what their reaction to it is. No human processes things that well and is able to summarize that eloquently, nor would they let their inner monologue out that way. But on a TV show you have to. And that makes a satisfying and good TV show. Television and movies have to do that. The art of doing that is doing it in a way that doesn’t take you out of the moment and say “No one would ever say that.”


Merlin: It might not be something that a real person would say, but the test here is do we believe that this character would say this. You can’t always do a Citizen Kane-style two people acrimoniously across a breakfast table over the years with a timelapse to make a point. Sometimes you need to make a point in a more shorthand way.


John: Lots of these shows, they don’t necessarily include therapy like The Sopranos, but what makes for good drama a lot of the time is for it to be a bunch of therapy sessions informally with breakthroughs. Because that’s what we want to see. We want to understand this interaction and this dynamic and this turmoil and we want the people to be aware enough of their circumstances and what’s inside them to verbalize the condensed story of their life.

Reconcilable Differences #145: The Opposite Mistake, 50:45

As Merlin notes, there are certainly other ways of showing a realization or change of attitude—Citizen Kane has that breakfast table montage. And it’s not hard to think of literature or arthouse movies in which nobody learns anything. But most popular storytelling is based on the idea of characters changing, learning lessons, overcoming something internal as well as external—or, in the case of the tragic, finally recognizing something inside you when it thwarts you.

The time pressure they describe (“No human processes things that well and is able to summarize that eloquently”) is specific to prestige TV and other genres that are in a hurry, but the analogy about a bunch of informal therapy sessions with breakthroughs applies more generally. If the world is your character’s therapy session, providing prompts and hard questions, what breakthroughs is she going to have? What breakthroughs that we see are needed will she fail to have?

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