If Only We Had The Technology To Write A Good Story

I’ve been reading Asimov’s Foundation and Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I’m struck by how rich and deep the stories are compared to those in films or TV. 

Sure: the Foundation series (counting only those written by Asimov himself) is SEVEN books long — a total of 2,255 pages. 

And Cryptonomicon, a single enormous novel, is 918 pages. 

So, you’d expect the story in a book to be more complex. Fair enough. Getting through Cryptonomicon would take you 18 days of reading 50 pages every night before bed. 

But you can watch Season 1 of House of the Dragon in just over 10 hours. Or a typical movie in two hours.

Films and TV are simplified by necessity. It’s a constraint of the form.

But shows like Star Wars: The Acolyte are not only simplified. They are DUMB-IFIED. In two ways:

1 – The characters speak every thought they have and describe everything happening on the screen. It’s assumed the audience is… dumb. So, nothing is left for the viewer to figure out — we can’t participate and engage our own imagination. It’s as invasive as a try-hard tour guide shouting exposition at us. Shut up and let us directly experience it.

2 – They’re full of blatant logical errors. To overlook them, you have to NOT be thinking. As Critical Drinker said in his review of The Acolyte: Episode 3: 

“The female antagonist sets [a paper] journal on fire in the middle of a stone hallway — that’s made predominantly of stone. I mentioned the fact that it’s made of stone so often because the fire quickly spreads and then engulfs the entire fortress. Because in this universe, stone is more combustible than a 1990s shell suit.”

And this must be true. Because after exactly 60 seconds in real-time, everyone in the stone fortress is KILLED by an explosion. It’s like a slapstick ‘80s action movie where cars erupt in a fireball when hit by a single bullet. 

I’ve seen some online conspiracy theories that the writers intentionally did this. Perhaps an unreliable narrator trick? Having watched many of these Disney Star Wars shows, I doubt it.

This is not just any old scene: this is the inciting incident! The reason the story (the entire season, the entire show) exists.

Why did no one involved in the creation of this episode (the writers, the directors, the actors, the editors) realize that this makes no sense? Why did no one yell, “HANG ON, we need to rewrite that!” With the vast budget and every resource in the world available to Disney, how can this happen?

I’ve never been paid to write a Star Wars episode, but I can think of three things:

1 – Too many cooks and the mandatory agreeableness of corporate culture (disobey your boss’s command or dismiss their creative input and you’ll lose your job),
2 – Deadlines. Writing a TV show is so rushed there is no time to address such basic problems,
3 – The two writers of this episode had little TV writing experience.

(And I can’t necessarily blame the writers because who in L.A. would say NO to that gig? I sincerely believe they did their best under the circumstances.)

Disney could have paid ANYONE to write this $180M series. Why not hire auteurs like Jordan Peele, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Todd Field, Ti West, Ana Lily Amirpour, or Robert Eggers and simply get out of their way?

Because writing is not valued. 

The studio kids like to have “story meetings” and call themselves “executive story editors,” but they don’t know what it’s like to submerge themselves in a bathtub full of mud and weeds so they might understand a character’s point of view. 

Disney (and the rest of the entertainment industry) treats writing as an afterthought. 

Christopher McQuarrie admits that he doesn’t write a Mission Impossible movie’s screenplay (or even an outline!) until he first decides on the locations. “Forget the outline. The outline is meaningless. All that matters is the look of the film. The location is going to tell us what the action is.”

As long as it looks cool, who cares what the story is?

It’s a cart-before-the-horse Daniel J. Boorstin hyperreal pseudo-event in which movies are somehow made before they are written. 

Back at Disney, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on directors, producers, famous actors, marketing, an army of animators & visual effects workers (around 2,800 for Infinity War, for example), and a thing called The Volume (which makes everything look like it was shot in a sterile cleanroom). 

I get it: film is a visual medium. And VFX are immensely useful tools in ways that viewers would never notice.

Now it’s out of control. Most of the budget goes towards the technology to create a visual spectacle, and a TINY fraction of the leftover budget goes to the writer: the primary storyteller! 

In our thousands of years of storytelling, technology was never the obstacle. 

Books do the job just fine. And so does every film with good writing. (And by good, I mean without overt errors.) 

While technology has gotten better and better, the writing — the core of storytelling — has gotten worse and worse. 

The problem is this: everyone thinks writing is easy because they conflate it with typing

It’s a job that appears to have a low barrier to entry. No need to be pretty. No need to be rich. No need to study the craft. 

“Hell, I could type a screenplay! Stephen King says the plot doesn’t matter…”

*opens Notes App and types one big unstructured stream of beginner writing cliches*

“I’m clever and funny! I’m a screenwriter!”

But a script is not only those snarky lines of dialogue the actors say during a battle scene. 

Screenwriters live a tortured life of pacing around their apartments, doing unnecessary chores, taking naps, using stimulants, and hating themselves. Their job is to imagine the characters, design the world, embed themes, clarify meaning, put everything in the most powerful order, and delete the useless. And yes, write the jokes. They just happen to type it all out. 

Writing isn’t being a living thesaurus, talking like a smarty-pants, and typing writing-like sentences. It’s mostly thinking. Painful thinking. 

Worst of all, it’s trying to fix your bad ideas and being unable to before they go into production. 

And when you’re done, everyone… EVERYONE… thinks they could have done better than you. Because even if your writing is flawless, personal taste is mistaken for technique.

Bottom line: screenwriting is hard to do. Eliminating contradictions doesn’t make a story good. Few people are GREAT writers, but that’s no excuse for making such obvious low-level mistakes — the kind Disney has made lately. 

The most common defense of recent Star Wars films and TV shows is, “Dude, calm down. It’s a children’s story about space wizards.” But there is a difference between a genre (fantasy) and bad writing. 

H.G. Wells said this: 

“As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention.”

That means even IF there are space wizards, even IF they can levitate things, even IF they can fight with laser swords — the fabric of the story’s reality must be consistent. Everyday things need to MAKE SENSE. Internet critics call these problems “plot holes,” but they’re more basic than that. 

Such as: A stone fortress can’t catch on fire and kill everyone in 60 seconds. Unless it were a type of Very Dangerous Space Fire. In that case, why did they use it as a light source in their Super-Flammable Fortress? And why would you build a fortress out of that? 

The other recent Star Wars shows are plagued with these implausibilities. I can’t watch them without being distracted by the thought: “Wait, that would never happen. That makes no sense.” 

I don’t experience that when reading books. 

Is it because the medium matters?

In the 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman argued that it does. Here are some quotes:

1 – “The form in which ideas are expressed affects what those ideas will be.”

2 – “I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.”

3 – “…Every new technology for thinking involves a tradeoff. It giveth and taketh away, although not quite in equal measure. Media change does not necessarily result in equilibrium. It sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it is the other way around.”

4 – “…My point of view is that the four-hundred-year imperial dominance of typography was of far greater benefit than deficit. Most of our modern ideas about the uses of the intellect were formed by the printed word, as were our ideas about education, knowledge, truth, and information. …As typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity, and above all value of public discourse dangerously declines.” 

And one more:

5 – “To avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as standard-brand academic whimpering, a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on television, I must first explain that my focus is on epistemology, not on aesthetics or literary criticism. Indeed, I appreciate junk as much as the next fellow, and I know full well that the printing press has generated enough of it to fill the Grand Canyon to overflowing. Television is not old enough to have matched printing’s output of junk. And so, I raise no objection to television’s junk. The best things on television ARE its junk…”

So, should we continue creating and consuming JUNK like Star Wars: The Acolyte? Or can we raise our writing standards? Just a little? 

Good news: the answer is YES. There’s a concept called Quality TV (also the name of a small repair shop in North Port, Florida).

Quality TV could be circularly explained as… the opposite of Non-Quality TV. 

But I define it as having more film-like elements: Surprise, Abstraction, Ambiguity, Subtlety, Non-Linearity, Ironic Counterpoint, and “Dimension 7.” (Read more about Type 1 and Type 2 Art.) 

Some examples of Quality TV (many from HBO) are: The Sopranos, Twin Peaks, Battlestar Galactica, Boardwalk Empire, Fargo, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Big Little Lies, True Detective, and Succession

These shows aren’t burdened with glaring logical errors, regardless of genre. 

Even Disney’s own Andor gave us a taste of Quality TV, and it wasn’t The Volume that helped. According to creator Tony Gilroy, Andor was filmed without it. “We’re old school,” he said.  

So, what sort of advanced technology would Disney need to write a good story? 

Asimov did it with only his incredible brain and a typewriter. 

Maybe Disney should start with buying one of those. (An Asimov.)

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