Can of Ants

This week I want to write a little about what I felt was a really skillful piece of storytelling on the TV series Mindhunter. Some of this is a little spoiler-y so if you haven’t watched it yet, I’ll suggest you go do so (it’s really well done, although not SFF) and then maybe read this afterwards. Or maybe you don’t care about spoilers. Onwards.

Mindhunter is loosely based on the real story of the growth of ‘profiling’ as a tool the FBI used (uses?) to try to catch serial killers. One of the characters is Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychologist who gets recruited to help the two FBI agents who are the primary focus of the show, in their work. At the beginning of this relationship, you can tell she’s quite excited. She’s expecting to do work of serious scientific and academic merit, to be working with colleagues who respect her, they get an unexpectedly huge budget. She moves close to Quantico and it even seems that in her new building, there’s a stray cat that lives near her laundry room that she can charm with cans of tuna. Everything looks more or less perfect.

It all comes apart. The other agents refuse to use her methodology, and quickly change from coveting her approval to dismissing her opinions. The director starts making her do his dirty work in riding herd on the behaviour of the FBI agents. Beyond that, the actual work they’re doing seems to her to lack validity and to frequently be unethical. And then in the end, instead of a new adorable kitty friend, she ends up with a tuna can full of disgusting ants. I haven’t explained this as well as I might have (summarizing is hard) but the main point is that none of this is addressed directly.

Dr. Carr never says ‘man, this isn’t what I thought I was getting in for’. Her conversations with the FBI agents get less collegial, more curt, and more argumentative, but she never actually says ‘hey you guys are treating me like junk’. (Arguably, maybe she *should*, but that’s like a whole separate thing) And overall her optimism about the new life she things she’s getting is nicely represented by a few scenes with an off-screen cat, some cans of tuna, and some ants. You get it, but it’s never really explicit on the screen. You just come to understand that this is what’s going on. It’s really good.

Broadly I guess this falls under the umbrella of ‘show, don’t tell’, perhaps the most cliched of writing advice. Like many things pertaining to writing I think this is situationally valid. Dongwon Song put it really well on Twitter one time, basically saying that you’re a storyteller, and that if you ‘told’ rather than ‘showed’ something and readers didn’t like it the real problem is that you didn’t tell it very well – not entertainingly enough or with enough impact.

What I think is especially good about the thread from Mindhunter isn’t so much that it was show-don’t-tell but that it was done with such a precise touch. They gave you just enough to pick up on what the character was going through and really get it, but not so much that it was clumsy or overwhelmed other parts of the story. I think in general good writing is about finding that balance a lot of the time; giving your reader enough to know your characters, visualize your scenes, and follow your plot, without giving them so much that it becomes confusing, dull, or hard to follow.

I think Mindhunter did that really well, not only with the Wendy Carr character but with all the various threads of the story they wanted to tell. I should also say that none of this would work without the performances of the actors, and Anna Torv was, I thought, very good in this role. I really enjoyed her work on Fringe and it was nice to see her again. She’s very good at conveying understated details in her performances, I think. There’s a scene late in Mindhunter where she’s riding down in an elevator and doesn’t actually say anything but you can just feel the anger boiling off her.

Now, because a lot of what they did in the show was fairly understated and especially because there wasn’t a lot of repetition, you did have to pay close attention to what was happening or you’d miss important stuff. A lot of my favorite writers are that way as well – John Le Carre and William Gibson both get so much out of all their words that you really need to focus on the writing or you won’t really get what they’re trying to convey.

There’s no conclusion to all this except to say that as much as I enjoyed the plot and the performances in Mindhunter, I also did enjoy it on an entirely separate area of admiring the artistry of the writing. Sometimes, for me, that’s just as entertaining as the plot itself. Anyway, those are my thoughts for this week. Thanks for reading.

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