Like space junk in the stratosphere, the Western fiction-sphere is increasingly cluttered by a vast cloud of unfinished stories.
This first started gaining my attention when I watched Colony, quite an enjoyable sci-fi TV series. Having enjoyed season one, I proceeded on to 2 and 3 and then searched to find out when season 4 would be released only to hear completely unacceptable news: the show was ‘cancelled’. That left the main character separated from his family alone in a space pod while his wife was ambiguously dead. Or alive. As a cliffhanger, annoying but okay… As a conclusion? Disastrous!
Last year I decided to watch Shantaram. This was an Apple TV+ creation based on a book set in Bombay. In the final episode, the main character is finally caught and arrested without his love interest being wise of it. Instead, she’s assuming he’d abandoned her. Now that the show is ‘cancelled’, that’s where he will stay, being beaten to a pulp by a vicious prison warden for the rest of eternity.
I also enjoyed the TV adaptation of The Time Traveller’s Wife. Until it was cancelled after one season… Treadstone. Cancelled. The Peripheral. Cancelled – that one near-broke my heart. And Patrick Rothfuss still hasn’t finished his KingKiller Trilogy, which is a decade late, so we can give up on that also.
Although there are many things, frankly, that deserve to be cancelled – and retroactively deleted from all of cyberspace like some glorious 21st Century version of book-burning (such as the new Doctor Who) – something has gone wrong. Completion should be a condition for releasing artwork into the world. Historically, you don’t find many half-painted portraits and half-carved statues; half-told stories are just as embarrassing.
We can trace this issue back a little ways to the idea of the ‘cliffhanger’. TV shows in the 90s and 00s began to have so little faith in their own ability to win an audience afresh, that they began having a cliffhanger in every single series, and then, seemingly, in every single episode. The Kiefer Sutherland hit 24 was a strong example of this. Lost is another oft-quoted example from the same era, though I’m happy to say I never watched it.
Did they realise they were granting one perceived need at the expense of another? They provided ‘continual suspense’ but they sacrificed ‘closure’. This means they sacrificed nearly any deeper value of storytelling. Stories are now entertainment before narrative. More Colosseum than Odyssey. Circus, not literature.
This mindset means that even among shows that do reach a conclusion, the story is often hopelessly broken. Movie-makers often think that their job is to make sure that every scene provides entertainment. You watch Star Wars Episode VIII, for example, and essentially every scene has an explosion, an argument, a joke, a clue-discovery, a near-death, a plot twist, or the tear-filled eyes of an orphan child… You finish it wondering what actually happened, and hoping desperately that multiple-personality disorder isn’t contagious.
I did initially think that the decay in storytelling was about taking a lowest-common-denominator approach. Yet, in reality, good storytelling has the common denominator; a good story always has rewarding scenes, but those rewarding scenes are ‘earned’ through meaningful scenes. Maybe ‘some’ people will feel entertained by an explosion that has no pretext, but ‘everyone’ will feel invested in an explosion that was planned and that kills a carefully established nemesis! Good stories are much better at entertaining a broader set, if only we would tell more of them.
Good storytelling has the potential to draw us upwards – to sing to us of the virtues and vices, of joy, and mourning; and onwards – to sing of valour and sacrifice, of endurance, and accomplishment. (Okay, they can draw us in bad directions too, hence storytelling is indeed a dangerous thing. But stories must exist – nature abhors a vacuum. Though there will be bad stories, we must combat this by telling good ones, not by rejecting storytelling altogether.) Stories that have no ending are not neutral, they actively sing a tune of futility and pointlessness. And stories that are just a pastiche of hyperactive events sing of shallowness and randomness.
Such stories cannot call the individual upwards and onwards, but only backwards and downwards. Backwards – to immaturity and a short attention span, to unearned rewards or temper tantrums, to an eternal childhood; and downwards – to self-absorption, indulgence and the basest vice that says ‘eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’.
Well, perhaps this is all a bit over analysed. But isn’t it also the tenor of our age? An over abundance of entertainment, yet a scarcity of art. Perhaps if we could tell fewer stories, but tell good ones, we would all start growing up.
This article was published on Spectator’s Flat White blog here.