In my bid to keep the finger of this blog firmly on the pulse of about 15 years ago, I recently finally started watching The Wire. (Quiet, you.) The writing is, as very widely reported, very good, and (insofar as I am qualified to judge these things) the performances by the actors are excellent. It is also (as no doubt very nearly all of you will be aware) extremely bleak and not easy to watch.
And yet, I’m really entertained, and very much enjoying it, and this despite the decreasing enthusiasm for ‘shades of grey’ stories that I have mentioned here on more than one occasion. In general, right now I like a story that has some kind of positive resolution, and I tend to like there to be unambiguously ‘good’ characters. The Wire – although I am only one season in – is very clearly not going to provide either of those things. And yet, I’m liking it.
This has gotten me to thinking about why, and in a larger sense, what can make shades of grey stories work, when they do. Part of it, I think, is that even if you’re going to make all your characters various shades of terrible, you still need to make at least some of them individuals that your audience is going to want to spend some time with.
I think The Wire has that. But honestly, I think the larger factor is just that the whole thing is supremely well made. I am consistently, thoroughly impressed with the quality and craft of the writing. The dialogue is consistently entertaining and plausible – sounding enough like things people would actually say – and the plot lines are clever. There are more subtle touches, too, that leave me very impressed. One example: at one point there’s a young kid who had been involved in selling drugs who gets taken out to his grandparents’ house in the country as a kind of protective custody so he can later provide testimony the police need to make their case.
When he arrives, he gets out of the car, and asks what all the noise is. The cop with him has to think about it for a second before replying: ‘crickets’. And that’s the scene. It communicates perfectly how out of his element this kid is and foreshadows that this is not an environment or a situation he’s going to settle into. You could convey those things with a lot longer dialogue or with a bunch more ‘fish out of water’ scenes, but the writers here figured out how to do a lot with a little, and then had the confidence to leave it at that and trust that their audience gets it.
So the story they’re telling is really dark, most if not all of the characters are some degree of terrible people, and just as Season 1 did not have a positive resolution, I feel confident we won’t get one at any point along the way. And yet, despite the fact this is nearly the exact opposite of the kind of story I’m inclined to look for these days, I’ve still entirely bought into this one. Because it is so very well done.
What I think we end up with is yet more proof that you can tell almost any kind of story and get your audience to buy into it and really dig it. You’ve just got to tell it well. There’s a lot of advice for writers out there about which stories are done to death and which genres are dead and even which formats are simply not workable. I gotta say, at this point I don’t buy it. I think people will read just about any story, if that story is told well enough.
When I was first getting The King in Darkness ready to come out, there were many words of wisdom about how dead the novella was. Then some really well done SFF novellas came out, and now novellas are fine again.
It is both a wonderful thing and a horrifying thing that ultimately there is no magic formula for the story that everyone will love, other than: a really well told one. I am increasingly convinced that you can spend as much time as you want chasing the hot genre and the stories on wish lists and none of it matters unless you tell that story really well, and if you can do that, you can find an audience for the story you wanted to tell anyway.
It is both liberating and terrifying, because ultimately, you just gotta write.
Which reminds me that I should indeed be doing that thing.
Thank you for reading.