Building strong narratives in the post-apocalyptic genre

 

I always appreciated—and what I appreciate even more now, in the wake of dozens of post-apocalyptic series that didn’t work nearly as well—was that the camera always kept its eye firmly turned toward the people, not the ruins.

—  Todd VanDerWerff

I read that quote a while back at the very bottom of an article about the modality of grief in Battlestar Galactica, which includes a variety of people expressing their opinion on “Unfinished Business”, an episode that split viewers two ways as either being pointless or profound because it focuses so entirely on character development that, technically, nothing happens plot wise.

That quote above, written by Todd VanDerWerff, hit me so much that I cut it from the text and emailed it to myself so I wouldn’t forget it. I’ve been thinking it over and over to the point that I thought I’d comment on it.

VanDerWerff’s main point about characters is clear: it should start and end with them. That is what makes post-apocalyptic stories work.

But, to be honest, this is true of any story, of any genre. “Character drives plot, not the other way around,” said some mysterious person who’s advice was swallowed into the writer’s guide from the void. But it’s the way VanDerWerff has worded his opinion of this universally acknowledged writing technique that really sticks with me, ‘the camera always kept its eye firmly turned toward the people, not the ruins.’ Earlier in his piece, he says,

What’s interesting to me about “Unfinished Business” is how many of the so-called “rules” of good TV that have come up in the last 10 years or so that this episode breaks. Apparently, the crew of the Galactica has this long-standing tradition of beating the shit out of each other when tensions run high, one that we’ve never heard of before. […] In fact, it reminded me of showrunner Ron Moore’s Star Trek history. If we were randomly told that the crew of the Enterprise or Deep Space Nine had rankless boxing grudge matches every so often, no one would bat an eye. It feels different here, because everything is supposed to matter.

If we do not focus on the ruins or the futility of the character’s struggle in the grander scheme of things, does that mean the people themselves offer hope/intrigue simply through their experiences? To what extent must a story not focus on the ruins of civilisation for it to work? Why does VanDerWerff ‘appreciate’ an internalised story, like Battlestar Galactica’s, more so than one with a clearer focus point on the end game? These are questions I can’t answer but am happy to ponder.

Despite being a post-apocalyptic science-fiction story, I would actually call Battlestar Galactica a political drama. The world of the characters, though unbound by the vastness of space, is ironically limited to their spaceships. There are no alien worlds to visit. There are no planets they can stop off at and have a curious look around; stay aground a few days and test the rock density. And this spacial limitation is what forces the writers to focus on the characters and their desires – how these people fit into the greater scheme of society as a concept rather than as a ‘thing’ that must be saved. It must be reformed. The very set-up of Battlestar Galactica lends itself to the phrase ‘the camera always kept its eye firmly turned toward the people,’ because where else could it turn? Space, the final frontier, except not really?

Should we have entire episodes, or chapters, that focus totally on character development for a story to feel genuine? How do we balance plot and personal-social-politics? What does VanDerWerff mean?

Character, I guess, it’s all about character. But applied and implemented how in this particular instance? VanDerWerff doesn’t give any examples of stories he feels have failed, so it’s hard to dissect what exact technique is being praised.

Television and books have more freedom to explore character than, say, films. They also have less chance of doing it well (if we’re to focus on character and character alone in the wake of a larger plot) than, say, roleplaying video games, where it’s often expected that players get one-on-one time with characters and can take a break from the main story. The split in opinion over “Unfinished Business” shows that a large enough number of people watching television don’t think an episode about characters trying to resolve their wounds by boxing each other, currently an unexplored facet of the world, was necessary. Some, like Genevieve Koski, argue that it felt too out of place, too overdone, too much like a “patch-work-quilt”. While she enjoyed certain aspects of the episode, in her opinion piece, she says,

However—and here’s where I turn into the party-pooper—I find I have a much harder time connecting to the Starbuck-Lee-Anders relationship this time around, divorced from the rest of the series. Maybe it’s knowing where all those characters are heading after this cathartic boxing match—more anger, more betrayal, more all-consuming guilt—or maybe it’s just the lack of momentum inherent in viewing it out of context, but this time I found Lee and Starbuck’s midnight tryst a little eye-rolling, which somewhat tainted their final embrace for me.

Perhaps it was an oddly structured episode, perhaps it was out of place, and maybe the anger everyone in Battlestar feels does come across as too overdone (it’s important to note that Koski acknowledges watching episodes singularly rather than in order – and with hindsight – can affect its overall impact), but I personally still enjoyed the episode’s study of grief, like VanDerWerff, because it left a stronger impression of the characters’ bonds with each other.

What does that mean for those of us who are writers?

I suppose a question that often gets ignored by writers with massive worlds is this: how can I show the character has been impacted by current events? How can I show they are struggling without meandering away from the main plot and creating something hollow or cliche? Is it possible to do so without wandering away from the main plot?

When the main theme of our story is world destruction and it hinges upon an evil master plan, we can easily be swept away by the scale of our own ideas. There are so many explosions and betrayals and chase scenes that there’s little time left over to stop and hear the laughter. World destruction equals crying and gun-fights. It means grim-dark-grim-grumble-punches.

Perhaps, then, what VanDerWerff means is that it’s important that we take time to look away from the crying and the gun-fights. VanDerWerff appreciates it when the characters take a moment from grim-dark-fighting-and-futility to confront relationships, whether they are tangled love-hate affairs or simple friendships often overshadowed by war. These little moments are what make the bigger things feel important, because character gives meaning to conflict.

What do you think?

How do you feel about the post-apocalyptic genre? What do you think about episodes, regardless of series, that do nothing for the main story but show something sincere about the characters? Should the writers find better ways to incorporate characterisation? Or does it not matter, so long as the events of that episode still mean something in later episodes?

Bloody hell, writing is difficult.

2 thoughts on “Building strong narratives in the post-apocalyptic genre

  1. This episode felt out of place for me, but I get its point – it is important to focus on the characters as people, even in the most extreme of circumstances. It would have been nice, however, if the characters in Battlestar Galactica could have caught one or two breaks over the series – or an ice cream party. Ice cream makes everything better.

    Like

    • Ah yes, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched that episode as part of the whole, but I do remember the break from the main plot feeling odd, so I do empathise with the out of placeness. I think I just didn’t mind after the first five minutes. Yeah, it would be nice if everyone was happy for a whole episode PLEASE. And then everyone found New Earth and made ice cream and lived together as one big family.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your ice-creamy thoughts with me. 🙂

      Like

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