Seat-of-the-Pants Storytelling

Whether it was true or not, I always loved the old adage from Raymond Chandler about how he wrote his detective stories.  He was known to say that when he didn’t know where the story would go next, he always had a villain walk through a doorway brandishing a gun toward Phillip Marlowe. 

I’m fairly certain this isn’t true, but it illustrates the larger point that when you’re telling a story and you don’t know what to do, good advice would be to ratchet up the tension anyway you can. 

Io9 makes the case for seat-of-the-pants storytelling, which sometimes works (Lost, Lesbian Willow on Buffy, Raymond Chandler, etc.) and sometimes doesn’t (see M. Night Shamalyan’s apartment movie, which is so bad I don’t even want to bother remembering the title). 

I’m a big believer in “narrative energy,” or the kind of static-electric crackle you get from a story where the inventiveness is cranked up to maximum. It’s impossible to quantify, or even to identify really, but you can tell when a creator or set of creators is having fun coming up with stuff, and when they’re just grimly plodding towards the finish line along a predetermined path. Given the choice between a story that gets too random, and one that carefully lays all the bricks one after the other, in a totally straight line, I’d take the former every time.A lot of bad storytelling feels like a grade-school essay: It tells you what it’s going to tell you, then it tells you what it’s telling you, then it tells you what it’s told you. All of the dominos are set up in slow motion, then toppled in even slower motion. Obviously, out-of-nowhere storytelling can also be hideously bad (hello, Heroes!) but nothing is worse than the plod.

I think there’s a certain vitality when you don’t know what’s coming in a story, it’s one of the reasons movies are much more enjoyable when you know nothing about them, or why television shows can hold our attention for five or seven years, why a great book is so sad when that last page is turned.

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