The Art of Patience in Fiction Storytelling

I’m generally not a fan of fiction drama. I think it’s because I’m more into real-life drama, and I feel like there’s plenty of that throughout history. Stories like Devil in the White City*, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt*, or In The Garden of Beasts* are chock full of gripping dramatic moments, and there’s the added suspense that it’s, like, real.

Long form fiction drama, like television, is even worse. Everybody says that Mad Men and Breaking Bad are crazy-awesome, and I just can’t bring myself to commit to these shows. I’d rather watch The War or Prohibition. Or I’d rather get lost in laughter with Community, Arrested Development, or, (you guessed it) Parks and Recreation. If it’s going to be fake, it might as well make me laugh.

My problem with television dramas

I lose interest quickly. My wife loves watching Criminal Minds. It’s okay, besides the fact that it’s pumped to the gills with darkness, which isn’t something I really like to surround myself in for very long (and neither does the guy who actually starred in the show until he quit because it was too dark, apparently). And I start reacting like Bob Kelso at a certain point –

“Ted, the only thing I hate more than bikes are procedural cop shows. We get it. The pedophile did it.”

Heck, I’m almost ashamed to admit that I used to watch Grey’s Anatomy. But after a couple of seasons, you suddenly had rooms getting sprayed with excessive Seth Green blood for no reason and doctors performing on deer. It just loses whatever it had going for it and devolves into “WHAT CRAZY THING CAN WE DO NEXT?!?”

And of course, it can get melodramatic, and that’s the delicate dance that every drama has to dance. Almost every “perfect” drama gets old after a couple of seasons at the longest, and every perfect show starts having “stuff” happen for the sake of “stuff”, and the show pushed beyond the boundaries of the characters and plots they’ve set up.

It gets fake and forced, and most attempts to garner an emotional reaction from a TV show ring out as trying too hard in my book. This is why I chuckle when my wife just totally loses her mind while watching The Biggest Loser or something.

Give one of the main characters on any show a life-threatening illness or catastrophe, and I’ll sit quietly. I don’t buy it. It’s hard to convince me that anybody’s life is in danger when they’re on the show every single week. Grey’s Anatomy tried to make us believe that they were going to kill Meredith Grey when she’s narrating every episode and THE SHOW IS NAMED AFTER HER. There’s no drama there!

And yet, last week, one of the masters at television drama got me… again.

Here’s the setup: Parenthood is running a breast cancer storyline with Christina Braverman. Parenthood has always walked the line between ridiculously over the top and stunningly effective, and yet almost every time, it comes out on the latter.

I still fully expected the drama of the Braverman clan to fall flat here.

But throughout the last few episodes, the focus has been on Christina’s husband Adam, and how he’s struggling with trying to help his wife even though he can’t really do anything. He runs around the house like a chicken with his head cut off, taking care of the kids and trying to take care of his wife, and I start to get interested in the storyline because I “get” what Adam is doing: he’s trying to overcompensate to make his wife’s treatment easier, and he’s trying to be the superhero of the family to keep everything in order.

It’s a smart way to write the story, because that’s the part that people can relate to. I’ve been a husband now for over two years, and if my wife (God forbid) is ever stricken with an illness like cancer, that’s exactly how I think I would react. I’m going to throw myself into absolutely everything that goes on around the house and try to take care of it all.

The genius of the storyline hasn’t been “Is she going to die?!”, it’s been “How hard is this for the whole family?!?”

And like real life, the emotions really come from the smaller moments: when Adam is allowed to reflect on what’s actually happening. That’s when he shows weakness, and it really adds weight to all of it. I find myself being Adam Braverman in my mind – the “Holy crap, what would it feel like?” type of storyline.

Of course, to add to the melodrama, Christina comes down with a fever while going through chemotherapy… right before Christmas.

As she lies in her hospital bed, somewhat circling the drain, the show focuses on Adam. And suddenly, I get even more caught up in it. Adam, like me, keeps the whole fever thing quiet. He doesn’t want his parents running up to the hospital to check in. He just wants to deal with it, because there’s no “news” yet – they don’t quite know what her body is doing. So he sits, alone, at her bed, hoping she gets better.

Through a series of mishaps, the father of the clan, Zeek, finds out. And like my father would do, he immediately goes up to the hospital and jumps right in the middle of it, asking questions while Adam is freaking out and Christina’s body is crashing. Adam loses his temper, yells at Zeek to leave and get out of his way because he’s trying to deal with this.

Therein lies the true nature of what Adam is going through in that moment, and why he doesn’t want anyone around: he has absolutely no idea how to deal with this yet. He hasn’t figured it out. He doesn’t want people around because he doesn’t know what to say, and it’s killing him. He’s fixed things his whole life, and this is one thing he can’t fix.

I’m getting choked up right now just writing about the next scene.

Zeek knocks on the window of the quarantined room, asking Adam out to the hallway. Instead of making a big hoopla about everything, Zeek quietly hands Adam a bag with a few things from home, including a sandwich so that Adam remembers to eat. Adam tries to apologize and Zeek makes it clear that he’s going to leave Adam alone because he understands what’s going on. He tells Adam to make sure that Christina knows that he loves her, and he turns to leave.

In one of the most perfectly-acted scenes in the four seasons of the show, Adam fights back tears ever so subtly and asks his father if he would stick around for a little bit. It’s difficult to watch because, you see in Adam’s eyes that he’s accepting how hard this is, and while he knows it won’t do any practical good, he could use somebody around right now.

I watched with a lump in my throat the size of Montana, because I was invested in it. But then the show pushed me over the edge.

A few scenes later, Adam is alone again, by the bedside of his unconscious wife. He opens up her laptop to watch a video that she recorded for the kids “in case anything happens”. Adam struggles to keep his emotions in while he watches his wife say her final goodbyes to each child, and he closes it, takes her hand, and prays to God that she doesn’t leave him yet.

All of this sounds incredibly cheesy, but the combination of perfect writing and timing puts together a scene that had my bottom lip quivering and a few tears rolling down my face.

She ended up recovering just fine, of course. The ending was predictable from the moment they said “cancer”, and regardless of all of that, I got lost in it for a moment.

Patient storytelling is a lost art

Great writing and balanced, patiently-developed plotlines involving complicated characters produce scenes that, while predictable, can still leave you emotionally connected.

I attribute that to Jason Katims, executive producer and creator of Parenthood. No other television drama has gripped me like this emotionally, except for one: Friday Night Lights, which to me holds up as the best five seasons of drama ever put on television.

The head writer of that show? Jason Katims.

You can have all the crazy-awesome actors in the world, but they can’t hold up a meager script. You can write the most compelling plots, but you need characters that people will care about, and you need to know when to deploy them.

Katims (and his fellow writers on these shows) have found ways of injecting pure, real emotion into scenes. He’s taken the time to develop his characters and then build the show around them, which opens up their worlds to do whatever you want with them, because people will rally behind the characters that they love.

It all comes back to patient writing.

That’s why the last episode of Parenthood got me so bad. Had they done it in the first season, it wouldn’t carry as much weight. They know which storylines to throw down and when, so that you gradually build up the drama and gradually connect with each character.

It’s why you beat down Matt Saracen and have him quietly take it for three seasons and then let his emotions explode – do it earlier and he’s a whiner. Do it then and he’s a sympathetic figure that’s finally broken by the world unfairly piling on him for so long.

And it’s also why you get choked up with joy when Smash Williams finally gets into college after years of struggling: he was punished over and over for trying to take the easy way, and he had to earn his way in. It carried more weight.

Patience with your characters pays off. Patience with your writing does too. If you try to force your characters into off-the-charts dramatic situations in every sentence you write, you’ll lose. It won’t work.

Let the “little moments” breathe. Give it time. Because once you get your readers into your characters and you stay true to those characters, you’ve got them for good. That’s what makes good dramatic fiction work.

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