Tuesday, March 10, 2009

And Now We Look At The Shocking Swerve

First, a little backstory--both the illustrious Diana Kingston-Gabai and I watch Battlestar Galactica, which is busily winding its way towards its season finale.

As with rather a lot of things, the ultimate success of the show isn't something we entirely see eye to eye on--she finds its spontaneity to be fresh and exciting and never predictable, I find it to add a lot of energy to the show when they work and a lot of unfocused rubbish when they don't.

One of the cornerstone's of the show's success is that it eschews the notion of random episodes that may or may not move the over-arching plot forward (as the 1970s series did and s/f television as a whole has done for pretty much all of its lifespan) or a tightly-plotted arc wherein every episode serves the function of chapters in a novel (as occasionally experimented with on Babylon 5 and, occasionally, Star Trek) BSG apparently just goes with whatever feels right at the time, even if it doesn't make a terrible amount of sense or require lots of bending over backwards, plot-wise to justify later.

Sometimes it just about works, and it does add a layer of unpredictability and excitement that's more immediate than a more planned-out arc would be. TV Tropes has a name for it, just like they have a name for everything:

The Shocking Swerve.

The Shocking Swerve comes to us, as so many things surprisingly do, from the world of pro wrestling, wherein, in an effort to keep things fresh week in and week out, it becomes necessary to add excitement and unpredictability into things.

Wrestling is pretty simple storytelling when you get down to it--to write it, all one needs to do is provide a sufficiently compelling reason for two people to have a fake fight that other people will pay to see or watch on television.

At a basic level, this is accomplished by dividing your personnel into good guys ("faces") and bad guys ("heels") In the last 15 years or so it's become fashionable to stake out points all along the line--your heroes act a bit like villains and villains are allowed to be not totally irredeemable bullies or cowards or whatever.

This, ultimately was the petri dish from which the Shocking Swerve spawned.

Here's the ideal form of the Shocking Swerve. I will be using the characters from the old NES Pro Wrestling game because I stopped maturing around 1988 or so:

King Slender is mad at his longtime tag team partner, Star Man. Star Man, apparently has been holding him back and King Slender is ready to strike out on his own. They very nearly come to blows multiple times during the course of the show, necessitating the making of a match that will serve as the Main event for the night, which will have Fighter Hayabusa as the Special Guest Referee.

The match begins, but King Slender and Star Man seem to be unwilling to tie up and begin the match. Words are exchanged between the two, perhaps some shoving. King Slender, frustrated, slides out of the ring and grabs a folding chair (folding chairs, despite being the most dangerous things in the pro wrestling universe, are plentifully available around ringside--it has always been so) Slender slides back into the ring, raises the chair above his head, ready to clobber Star Man . . .

. . .and waffles the HELL out of Fighter Hayabusa. Star Man and King Slender both put the boots to Fighter Hayabusa and once he's well and truly out, they embrace and pose in the ring, the clever heels who put one over on everyone. Never mind that neither of them had a feud with Hayabusa at all so their animosity comes from out of nowhere--we've managed to shock the audience.

It might be thrilling, it might even have been awesome, but the "awesome" buzz only lasts as long as it takes to hit the men's room or, if you're lucky, the arena parking lot. Perhaps a little of the blanks can be filled in on subsequent installments of television, but for the sake of a quick shock, you're really punched a hole in your long-term plotting.

So, as you see, the Shocking Swerve is a two-edged sword that breaks as much as it fixes. In other places I've likened the Shocking Swerve to a nitrous booster in an engine--useful for quick bursts of speed, but using it all the time will destroy the engine beyond all repair.

Unfortunately, there are many examples of use

For an example of this in wrestling, I give you World Championship Wrestling. For those of you who find Wikipedia a little dry, here's a snippet from my favourite disaster novel The Death of WCW, which is well worth your time to read, if you stories wherein things with every advantage and expectation of success fails with the vigor and determination that is usually only seen in successes:

"Wrestlers retired forever . . .and then unretired days later. Matches ended when wrestlers who weren't in the original match pinned other wrestlers who also weren't in the match."

WCW, you see, loved the Shocking Swerve and used it ten times an hour . . .in three hour long shows. Imagine if you will the resultant catasto-fuck that ensued. I don't have to--I was watching at the time, and I assure you the authors of this book are being far more charitable about the quality of the programming. I remember it as being so excruciatingly awful that I wanted to injure the people responsible.

So the Shocking Swerve is something I'm not big on, or at least, I'm not big on its overuse. There's a certain fallacy that planning out a long, involved arc that will be the spine of the story that leads you towards its logical conclusion somehow locks you into a certain plan that cannot be deviated from, and really, that's just not the case. It does help to have a vague idea of where you're going when you set out, as it keeps you from getting lost. You'll still be able to make all your pit stops and interesting detours, but you'll be assured of getting there in the end, also.


C. Elam said...

I'd like to say an "Amen" to this entire post, without reservation.

There are certain advantages to flying by the seat of your pants, but I also think it helps to at least have an idea of where you are going. To use your example, if King Slender had lost a feud to Fighter Hayabusa a year earlier, and this was his long delayed revenge by "pretending" to face turn, that would be some brilliant and insightful booking.

Brilliant and insightful booking rarely happens anymore.

A swerve is only good if you have a really good, logical explanation for it. Those are usually in short supply.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I'm not much of a wrestling expert, but I think the classification of "Shocking Swerve" depends entirely on execution. And rather than call upon an overused and tired example, I've thought of one we haven't discussed before: "Daria".

I don't know if you're familiar with it, but basically, after three seasons of Daria and Jane being friends and hanging out, Jane gets a boyfriend, Tom. And at the end of the fourth season, Daria kisses him.

On the one hand, it's a shocking swerve because it comes out of nowhere, and it seems out-of-character for Daria given her loyalty to her best friend. And it derailed the story, true, in the sense that the kiss completely shattered the dynamic that had existed throughout the show's run.

But it never felt contrived. Daria and Tom start dating, and Jane's eventually okay with it. In the end, a different kind of story emerges - not necessarily better, certainly not worse, but... it's the right story to tell at that point in their lives. And that story couldn't begin without a Shocking Swerve to disrupt the status quo.

Kazekage said...

I'm probably compromising something by saying the following, but the hell with it:

Yes, of all the things you referenced that I never saw, funnily enough, I did see Daria. :) And Daria did make the Shocking Swerve work, but they prove my point in that the problem is not in pulling the Shocking Swerve, the problem is how you justify doing it later. It's all in the follow-through, and what makes me gnash my teeth when people aren't willing to follow through and yes BSG I am looking RIGHT at you.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I'd say the emphasis lies more with the motivation for the Shocking Swerve: with Daria, and BSG to an extent, the Swerve was meant to specifically affect the characters - if Tom had never come into the picture, Daria and Jane would've stayed exactly the same. And barring the finale, I think a lot of the Swerves in BSG served the cast more than they did the plot.

Kazekage said...

Well, Shocking Swerves could be said to have no motivation beyond upsetting the status quo--more specific justifications usually come after the fact.

There's nothing particularly wrong with serving your cast at the expense of a TV's shows larger narrative, though. Although you often end up with something like Voyager

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I think most TV writers today conflate what's best for the character and what they think the audience wants (ie: Spike, Sylar). But that's a catch-22, isn't it? If you pander to the viewers, you inevitably start screwing things up, but if you try to hold to a dramatic/structural ideal your ratings will crash through the floor and your story will be aborted before you finish it.

Kazekage said...

Well, it's a bit of a false choice, isn't it? It's fine if you have a breakout character--a lot of shows do, and breaking out from the pack can keep things fresh while the main part of the story is ramping up.

BUT--if you have a big arc planned, then the character ultimately has to serve the needs of the story and you owe it to the story to see it through, even if some people will be pissed off. If it's all about the characters, then you can probably get away with that, just don;t turn around and try to tell me it's all One Big Plan.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I think the problems start when the breakout character turns out to be someone other than whoever the creators might have been hoping for. With Sylar, I honestly don't know if Tim Kring anticipated the surge of popularity, given how totally monstrous the character's written in the first season. And, clearly, there was no plan for him beyond the point of getting skewered by a katana.

Kazekage said...

Well, if you want to keep the breakout character a going concern after your Arc gets done, your choices are few--either put them on the bus, or realign your plotting to do that, which is going to cock up the works something fierce.

Or you can take the road less traveled, and kill off the breakout character and run the risk that people will hate you for it. Alas, most aren't willing, seeing the short-term benefits worth the long-term damage.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

It also hints at a certain lack of confidence in the writers: presumably, if they can create one breakout character they can create another. But they're rarely given an opportunity to do so.

Unfortunately, what they never seem to figure out is just how "short" the short-term really is: Sylar became tiresome by the end of the second season and flat-out unbearable by the middle of the third, and given the writer's strike in the interrim, there weren't that many episodes. I'd argue that even the short-term benefit can be a double-edged sword, because improperly-handled overexposed breakout characters will wear thin very quickly.

Kazekage said...

Well, as with wrestling (it always comes back there) the temptation is to ride the established gravy train out before resorting to the far riskier prospect of trying to build a new star to take over from the old. It's a neccessary thing to do--everyone accepts that--but the resistance to taking the risk is so ingrained, and there is such resistance to doing the sensible thing, one is amazed when it happens at all.

After all, riding something until the wheels falls off is sensible until you need a ride to get another car.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Much as I hate to admit it, it's not as if Wolverine has become any less popular now than he was in 1980...

Kazekage said...

True, but he's become more popular while the audience for comics has shrunk. There's an argument for milking these things in good time (rising tide lifts all boats and all that) but when things are winnowing?

Besides which, how much of Wolverine's popularity comes from being in comics now, anyway?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Hard to say - he's one of the few characters who's transcended the medium and passed what I call the Backpack Test (ie: a character popular enough to appear on a kid's backpack), and that was certainly the case before Hugh Jackman and the Singer movies...

Kazekage said...

True, in fact, I'd say he's probably the most recent character to get in the backpack club, wouldn't you?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Most likely - I remember reading somewhere that Wolverine's considered the last iconic character Marvel ever created - everyone after that is interchangable to some extent or other.

Kazekage said...

More than likely they're right--not least because every character that's come after that even vaguely caught on was a distaff version of another character or followed the Wolverine model to one extent or another.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Which explains so much about their current state of creative bankruptcy... though I suppose readers are to blame as well, for not being able to accept new characters and models.

Kazekage said...

I think, if comics have proven anything through their history it's that they're extremely slow to adapt, both in terms of the authors and the audience.