Friday, August 06, 2010
Any “Office” fans out there? I am, although I definitely did not start out that way. The first time I tried to watch it I thought it was lame. I’d never have given it a second glance if not for Lana. She watched it regularly, so I watched a few episodes with her, often criticizing it at the same time, and suddenly at about 7 or 8 episodes in I found that I was enjoying it, that I was “getting” it. Now I even watch it when Lana is not around, and it’s the only TV comedy besides Frasier that I’ll say that about.
So what happened? And what does it have to do with writing? Well, first let me tell you why I didn’t initially like The Office. I didn’t because it takes the laziest possible tack toward storytelling. Frequently, the characters directly address the audience through a patently fake and quite silly “mockumentary.” We are supposed to believe that the folks are being interviewed at times and that the cameras and cameramen are recording the people at work. The problems are two-fold. 1). The “interviews” address anything the “storyline” needs them to address. 2). The cameras clearly catch elements that no documentary cameras would catch. This requires a level of suspension of disbelief far greater for me than believing in aliens, vampires, or an honest politician.
I know it is comedy, but you have to admit this is just lazy storytelling. Don’t we criticize writers when they directly address the audience? Don’t we tell writers to show and not tell, and to avoid info dumps? The Office does all of these things. Despite its flaws, however, I came to really enjoy the series, and it had to do with one thing: The Characters. Under Lana’s influence, I watched enough episodes to get to know the characters and I found that I liked them and empathized with them. I wanted to find out more about them. I wanted Pam and Jim to get together. I wanted to find out more about Dwight's twisted childhood. I even came to feel sorry for Michael, who I absolutely hated at first as a character.
What I learned, or relearned, in relation to writing is that characters are the single most important element in storytelling. Great characters will cover up a multitude of sins. That doesn’t mean the writer can or should neglect the other elements of a story, but if you were going to follow the Bill Clinton approach to winning the presidency in your writing, you might want to use the mantra: “It’s the characters, stupid!”