Fiction opens eyes where journalism cannot

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David Simon

Utne Reader has named The Wire‘s co-creator David Simon as one of its 25 Visionaries changing our world. In the Reader‘s package on Simon, a former Baltimore Sun crime reporter, you can follow a link to a 2009 interview with him by Bill Moyers. At the NPR website you’ll see Moyers ask Simon if telling a story in fiction, with characters in the HBO series, gets through to help address injustice.

I did a lot of jounalism, a lot I thought was pretty good. As a reporter I was trying to explain how the drug war doesn’t work. I’d write these very careful and well-researched pieces. They would go into the ether and be gone. Whatever editorial writer coming behind me would write “let’s get tough on drugs,” as if I hadn’t said anything. And I would think, “man, it’s just an uphill struggle to do this with facts. When you can tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats.”

Simon went on to talk about part of that fiction success is the “delivery system of television,” but added that they got to “tell the story we wanted to tell.” When you see the words “Based upon a true story” at the start of any movie or book, that fiction is relying on facts — but they are chosen, because all art is about choices. What’s more they’re wrapped around characters, compelling people who act like the megaphones for the emotions and conflicts around any subject: public education, public safety, and yes, public health, like in Viral Times.

Storytelling, journalism live on The Wire

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Abby and I are reveling in the sweep and depth of HBO’s The Wire. It’s a piece of genius, 60 hours of entertainment that feels like reading a masterful series of crime novels. Or a week’s worth of old-school newspaper reports, what was once called “a series” and now is a rare breed indeed.

The creator of these connected, 1-hour dramas started as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun, but after 13 years of crime articles David Simon aspired to say more than newsprint could carry about important issues. He wrote a non-fiction book in the late ’80s that became the blueprint for Homicide, another TV show. In The Wire Simon, along with his ex-cop, schoolteacher creative partner Ed Burns, takes on big matters like poverty, crime, education, graft, politics both good and bad. They have created a Book That Makes a Difference and plays out on your DVD screen.

In his closing letter after the series wrapped, Simon points out that The Wire was built on interviews and details with experts. Once upon a time, he asserts, journalism at its best told this kind of story.

For those of us writing The Wire, a television drama, story research involved dragging the right police lieutenants or school teachers, prosecutors and political functionaries to neighborhood diners and bars and taking story notes down on cocktail napkins and paper placemats. To be more precise with their tales? To record it and relay it in a manner that can stand as non-fiction truthtelling? Yes, that’s harder to do. But there was a time when journalism regarded that kind of coverage as its highest mission.

The true stories that The Wire traded in are out there, waiting for anyone willing to take the time. And it is, of course, vaguely disturbing to us that our unlikely little television drama is making arguments that were once the prerogative of more serious mediums.

The lesson to take away here is the drive for details, usually accumulated through personal contact. Efforts to connect with resources in this way will make a story stronger, whether it’s drama or non-fiction or the creative non-fiction that blends both. (There’s also the lesson about journalism fundamentals being a sound foundation for fiction, but this old newspaperman will not wax on too long about that bromide.)

By the way, if you rent The Wire, be sure to turn on the subtitles. It adds a level of richness for a writer, or anyone who enjoys a good read.

Story endings that fit their means

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So much has been written and said about the Sopranos finale. I’m prepared to give a writer like David Chase any kind of ending he wants to his epic television show.

The commentary on the “surprise-cut” ending calls out viewers’ preferences for story. The howlers, well, they like genre stories: mystery, sci-fi, romance, all respectful of formula and always with a resolution. As in the Tom Waits song, they all “want to know the same thing we all want to know — how’s it gonna end.” Genre sells best. That’s why the howls are loudest this week.

A significant minority of viewers have sounded off with satisfaction after Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” cut off in mid-chorus, with a sudden cut to black. They’re literary readers, in my view, who enjoy stories with an ending you create yourself, like life. So few times do we know how everything turns out. Or if we do know, we’re wrong, because we have only our own point of view to consider.

I laughed out loud at the ending — after a moment of wondering about our satellite reception. David Chase has always used a “take it or leave it” approach to his HBO storytelling. Characters dropped, plot lines left tangled. If the howlers had looked closer at his style, they shouldn’t have been so stunned.

But millions of people, from the sports-talk host Jim Rome to my grocery store bagger, all had a better ending in mind. A flock of yay-ohs, all wanting to write the sweetest part of Chase’s story for him, to act as vicarious storytellers. Chase fights for his story, outlasts actor holdouts, agrees to write and produce about twice as many episodes as he wants. In his moment of ultimate spotlight, everybody wants their ending tacked onto his story.

You want an ending to a brilliant story with mesmerizing characters? Write your own damn story. Then you are entitled to whatever finale you can dream up. Asking for anything else is an ending that’s beyond your means as a storyteller.

HBO’s TV as the new novel?

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My work on Viral Times goes a long way back, into the 1990s. Back then my wife Abby gave me a gift of The Writer’s Dreamkit, software which led me to Dramatica. The software offers tools to understand story, the part of the process I am hacking my way through this month.

You see, I know the story of Viral Times. But getting it down on paper, the plot and storyline, so I can see what I have remaining to write, has been a matter of looking over several very lengthy snyopses. Recently I did a gisting layout in Excel for the novel, with each chapter summarized in 20 words or less. That’s gisting, by the way.

It’s been yeoman work, and I’m looking at tools to help. While turning back to Dramatica — software so decidated to story that its creators wrote a comic book explaining dramatic storyline theory — I found a Daily Dramatica blog.

Inside the blog: A posting about how episodic TV on HBO is the New Novel. Deadwood is the latest, most brilliant example.

By the way, “The “New Novel” is redundant, since the word novel comes from the Latin novellus, which means “new.” So all novels are new, if we’re talking about a form of literature. Novels grew up in the era of Daniel Defoe. This author who created Robinson Crusoe as his first book is often credited with creating the first novel. Character study became the major preoccupation of novelists, according to A Reader’s Guide to Literary Terms. (And that book is tough to find. I picked my copy up in a used bookstore in Iowa City, home of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It’s out of print. My copy is a first edition 1960 hardback, not that it’s worth more than $5 anyway.)

But to get back to what makes a novel great, it’s character. The brilliance of the many HBO series — The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Big Love — flows from depth of character.

Abby and I gorged ourselves on the first season of Deadwood as DVDs over one week. (My borther Bob had been raving about Deadwood for months.) Finally we bought the first two seasons, and we watched Season Two nearly nonstop over a long holiday weekend. We were reading a novel, together.

Weekly episodes are chapters. The detail of character story and plotline on an HBO series would never make the cut on basic cable or regular series TV, in my opinion. (Although my son Nick says that the FX Series Nip/Tuck has this same kind of build.

But he’s most excited about watching Big Love, also mentioned in the Dramatica blog post.

If nothing else, it’s given me a little more justification for watching something on the tube to take a break from the writing. I’m studying story, I tell myself.