JOHN OSTRANDER: SHORT FORM AND LONG FORM STORYTELLING

splash-spectre3-1by John Ostrander

My favorite new show on TV this year is The Blacklist. It’s on opposite another show I enjoy a lot, Castle, which is now in its sixth season. Assuming it makes it (and I certainly do hope it’s renewed). I wonder if I’ll still love The Blacklist five years from now.

The new trend in American TV appears to be serial anthology shows such as American Horror Story and True Detective. Both take a season to tell a complete story and then the following season tells a different story but in the same genre. American Horror Story often keeps most of the same actors but then casts them in different parts. You tell the story and then you move on, giving a complete beginning, middle, and end.

There’s a lot to be said for that. The BBC series, Broadchurch, told a good story – so much so that I wonder how they’re going to do a sequel as they evidently plan to do.

With a long running series, you have to find ways to keep it fresh if you want to keep the viewers coming back and the reasons for continuing the show are often financial and economic ones rather than creative ones.

On Castle, a lot of the fun has been whether the two main characters, Rick Castle and Kate Beckett, are going to be a couple. Well, given their attraction, that was inevitable so, along the way, the writers had to create reasons why they didn’t and, once they inevitably did, would they break up, would they get married, and so on. They’ve managed to make that work, for the most part, for six years but for how much longer?

That’s the problem for most long form shows. The classic for going too far on a long running show was on Happy Days when the star character, Fonzie, went water skiing while still in his leather jacket and jumped a shark. Literally. To this day, when any series reaches too far and stages something incredibly hokey and stupid, it’s called “jumping the shark”. It memorably destroys a show’s credibility. Lots of TV shows, and comics for that matter, have done it.

You can do long running shows and avoid it. Memorably, Doctor Whohas gone on for fifty years but, every so often, the lead character regenerates, a new actor comes in and the character becomes radically different, so much so that you could almost claim it’s a new show. That’s how they keep it fresh.

I’ve done both long form and short term runs in comics – one shots, miniseries, ongoing, Specials, and just about any other form you can think. Generally, they have to cancel an ongoing series out from under me before I leave it. I like evolving a character or group as I go.

The Spectre was an ongoing series Tom Mandrake and I did at DC. However, we figured that at some point the book would be cancelled (it’s a fact of comic book life) and we had an ending in mind. We were fortunate that we were given the chance to do it without cramping the story we were doing up to that point. The result was that the overall story ran as a complete narrative – the journey of the soul of Jim Corrigan.

So – which is better? The long form or the short form? It depends on the story you have to tell. Some stories work better in one form and some in the other. One suggestion – know how the story ends. That provides a direction and better reader satisfaction.

One way or another, always leave the reader satisfied.