[REVIEW] End of Month Reviews #45 - September 2007 [spoilers]

Martin Phipps martinphipps2 at yahoo.com
Sat Nov 10 09:32:54 PST 2007

On Nov 10, 2:20 am, Tom Russell <milos_par... at yahoo.com> wrote:

> And some of my favourite films-- Nashville, Magnolia, Faces-- are
> ensemble pieces.  But I think I still prefer the sort of clarity of
> focus you get with smaller casts.  Part of it is also my own work as a
> writer and filmmaker; I know it's much harder to sustain interest (and
> suspense) with one plotline following basically one character.

But then there's the problem that in order to make the reader or
viewer want to follow this one character for a whole novel or movie,
this character has to be either very well liked or at least very
interesting.  An ensemble piece creates the opportunity for the
audience to be presented more than one character, including one or two
who aren't particularly likable.  I really doubt that anybody would
follow a character that they didn't like for the length of a novel or
movie so ensemble pieces free writers to write about different
characters, including characters that audiences aren't normally
exposed to.  There's no longer the need to make all characters
likable, although obviously one would try to make them all

Variety is the spice of life.  No one character can be expected to be
an expert psychologist, an expert in chemistry and ballistics and an
expert in the law.  In real life people are forced to work as teams
because there are tasks that they simply cannot perform on their own.
You seem to be endorsing the value of individual accomplishment
whereas most ensemble casts are there to endorse the value of team
effort.  It is possible when using an ensemble cast to focus on
individual characters but focusing too much on one character in a
series limits the kinds of stories that can be realistically told in
my opinion.  You can also, obviously, appeal to a wider range of
people with an ensemble cast than you could with any single character.

> I also think that, in general, more intensely focused works of art
> tend to have more power and be more satisfying, at least to me; I've
> spent two whole hours with someone, instead of bits and pieces of two
> hours.  I've become more deeply invested, I know the character
> extremely well, I've shared an experience with them, and the payoff is
> that much more intense.

I learn more about people based on how they interact with other people
and in order for the interaction to seem real then the other character
must also seem real: it isn't enough for the other character to just
be there in a supporting role because that makes then either basically
part of the setting, a foil for the main character or a contrivance to
further the plot.  You can't have an effective romance focusing on a
single character, for example.  A lot of the suspense in drama comes
from irony and from wondering how the secondary characters will react
when they find out the truth: this suspense won't work if the
secondary characters aren't developed as much as the primary
characters.  The problem with following the primary character
everywhere and never leaving the room to observe secondary characters
in isolation is that we only ever see the secondary characters from
the main character's point of view.  They seem less real in that case,
almost like puppets.

> With an ensemble, there's more of a liklihood of what I guess one
> could call "cheating".  For example, you can get away with not having
> anything happen in this story or that one because you're always
> cutting away to someone else's story.  In a focused piece, you don't
> have that luxury, and so it better damn well be interesting.

Well, to say "a few days later" is also a kind of cheat then.  There's
no need to follow a single character everywhere and stay with him all
the time.  We assume, for example, that everybody goes to the bathroom
and we don't need to read about or see that. :)

> And, in serial fiction, an ensemble piece is more likely to not be as
> well-plotted; a few subplots can fill up an installment nicely and
> gives the impression that something has happened.  (I was guilty of
> this myself many, many times in my team books, and I think my more
> "focused" approach of the last couple years has been an attempt to
> train me out of bad habits.)

I feel the opposite.  I've always used to write short stories that
focused on one character and they would end up being too short.
Subplots are a great tool to use if you want your pacing to come out
just right: a subplot can be developed separately from the main story
and then eventually be brought to the forefront.  This is a great way
to show the passage of time.  One thing about the TV show Law and
Order that is a bit annoying is that it follows a single case from
beginning to end in a single episode even though in real life the case
would take months to pan out.  So if you look at the 22 plus episodes
of Law and Order that come out in a year, you have to assume that
these cases were actually being tried in parallel instead of one after
the other.  It would be interesting if they actually tried to do the
show that way instead of focusing on a single case in each episode,
but of course it would be much, much harder to write because the
wiewers would get hopelessly confused given the number of cases they
are dealing with at the same time.  In a similar manner, I don't think
ensemble casts represent a "cheat" at all and actually do present a
challenge for writers who want to present a large number of characters
and plots and not leave people confused (especiallly if the writer is
able to make all the caharcters and plots equally interesting).  As
I've said previously in this thread, not everybody who has attempted
using an ensemble cast and subplots was able to do this without
leaving people hopelessly confused!

> At the same time, an ensemble gives you a vital tool: contrast.  Look
> at THE GODFATHER PART II and the way in contrasts Michael with his
> father; look at the parallel plotlines in KING LEAR.
> Ensemble fiction has its uses, its pros and cons, as done more focused
> fiction.
> I guess we'll have to see how I do when JOLT CITY returns...

To be blunt, if you are going to do an ensemble in the future then you
won't be obligated to make secondary characters look like idiots in
order to elevate the status of the central character.  You admitted to
doing that vis-a-vis Martin and Darkhorse in Jolt City #11.  I
personally hate it when authors do that.  I realise that, to a certain
extent, I make the supers in Superfreaks out to be idiots to elevate
the cops but the typical approach of superhero stories is to make the
cops look like complete idiots, little better than the Keystone cops
of silent films.  The old Batman TV show was particularly bad in this
sense: when a crime was committed, did Comissioner Gordon
investigate?  Did he have his men old looking for who did it?  No, he
called Batman every single time.  What the Hell did he ever do when he
didn't have Batman to call?  And the whole "I'm wrongly accused and
need to clear my name" plot (as seen in the TV shows The Futigive and
Prison Break) usually has the effect of making the police look like
idiots (the exception being the movie The Futigive which cut back and
forth between Harrison Ford's character and Tommy Lee Jones' character
and we got to see them separately figure out who the real killer was).

It's a personal pet peeve.  Just as making the supers less than
perfect seems to be a pet peeve of yours.  But I think my approach is
more realistic.  I mean, be honest, when you saw O J Simpson driving
his white Ford Bronco away from the police were you thinking "He's
trying to escape so he can find the real killer himself and clear his


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