Saturday, January 28, 2006

The BONANZA Plot Problem

I'm sitting here by the computer, while the TV is showing an old BONANZA episode in the background... and suddenly it hits me:

The Cartwright Family is living in the most violent place on Earth.
I mean, people there get shot to death or otherwise killed EVERY WEEK! And it all happens in one small region of Nevada between Virginia City and the Ponderosa ranch.

Their ranch is supposed to be near Virginia City, Nevada, in the late 19th century.... but it looks much more like Bogota, Colombia, today. The Cartwrights are a regular death squad! They must have killed more people than Wyatt Earp. (If you're in a morbid mood, search on Wikipedia how many characters got killed over the course of the entire BONANZA series...)

If one watches a whole season of BONANZA, one gets the impression that every dysfunctional family with a violent patriarch, every gang of bank-robbers and cattle-thieves, every rapist, cutthroat, lowlife and scumbag, is just flocking to the Cartwrights' spacious back yard.
(Which begs the question: why don't the Cartwrights move to a more peaceful county?)

And if we were to take the BONANZA Situation realistically, all this violence would have consequences:
1. Law-abiding families and businesses would move out in droves, making Virginia City an
impoverished slum -- or worse, a ghost town;

2. The local Congressman would go to Washington, D.C. and ask for Federal intervention: "Every seven days it's the same -- The Cartwrights kill people! We need a permanent U.S. Cavalry base to keep the order in this den of crime and gunfire!"

3. Someone would start a criminal investigation of the Cartwrights: "The whole area is littered with spent casings from Colt cartridges. A firing test shows that they match the guns of the Cartwright brothers. Take'em in for questioning!"

4. The psychological stress of living in this world of almost constant shootings, beatings and deaths would cause the brothers to go crazy, suicidally depressed, or psychopathic. But considering the ease with which they kill people and shrug it off -- plus the fact that all their girlfriends get killed or escape -- they may always have been psychopaths.

Jokes aside... this is a generic plot problem with almost any TV series, and sometimes shows up in novels too. If you concentrate too many dramatic events in a very small time and space, the plot becomes too far-fetched. (*COUGH*24*COUGH*)
(The exception is if the story is meant to be comedy, spoof, send-up, camp or satire.)

Now, the real reason why TV shows have too little "space" for the action is that locations and sets cost money. Money is the big "hidden variable" of television, and causes TV scriptwriters great headaches:
"How can we afford to send our heroes to Paris this week? I know: Let's skip new locations and travel entirely! We'll have everything happen in L.A. in realtime!"
(And thus, 24 was born...)

Written fiction, on the other hand, can afford its characters to travel around a lot more. And travel itself extends the time of the story, which eliminates much of the "time-compression" problem seen in BONANZA and other shows. (*COUGH*24*COUGH*).

Even so: novel writers watch TV (I do -- way too much ;-)), and thus they might pick up some bad plotting habits from television writers.
You shouldn't compress too much action and plot into too little space and time.
In the real world, the space of a normal human lifetime includes very few dramatic events like fights, violent deaths, dramatic accidents and such.

If you want to write a plot full of action, you must set up a situation in which this makes sense. (War is one such situation where lots of drama and violence is credible. Other situations with dramatic potential are revolution, social upheaval, or natural disasters.)


Hans Persson said...

Speaking of over-use, that's a lot of boldface... ;-)

A.R.Yngve said...

But I really speak that way!

Andrea said...

And then there's the "Midsomer Murders" problem. How can so many people die in that peaceful countryside? By now there shouldn't be any people left... (And of course the survivors would have moved to London by now. Much more safe.)

A.R.Yngve said...

Hehe! ;-)

"WELCOME TO MIDSOMER - Stay A While, stay Forever!"

Bob McCarty Writes said...


Have you ever wondered how the incorporation of today’s technology would have changed the story lines of our favorite television shows from the ‘60s and ‘70s? Well, I did a little research on this topic and came up with some interesting possibilities.

One show wouldn’t even exist if Global Positioning System Equipment (a.k.a., GPS) had been around back in the ‘60s. Yes, the castaways of Gilligan’s Island never would have gotten lost if they had had GPS equipment on the S.S. Minnow.

And what about The Brady Bunch? If they had only had one of those multi-phone family cell phone plans – and, of course, cell phone technology – Mike Brady wouldn’t have had to install a pay phone in the family room to keep the kids from fighting over the Brady’s one regular home phone.

This last one is more difficult.

What television brothers could have benefited from the online relationship company, The answer: The Cartwright brothers of Bonanza fame.

In fact, Little Joe, Hoss and Adam could have written the book on bachelorhood.

Did you know that, despite the fact that the story lines of 38 Bonanza episodes involved at least one member of the Cartwright family falling in love, none of the boys ever married during the show’s eight-year run.

Surely, could have helped the boys – even Hoss! – meet their soul mates.

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A.R.Yngve said...

Very observant, Bob. Technology -- or the absence of technology -- shapes storylines.

And it just hit me... the oldest fairy-tale cliché is becoming increasingly relevant because of technology: the life-saving Enchanted Object.

In old fairy-tales (and to some extent in modern fantasy books), the hero has some small enchanted ring/object that can save his life at a crucial moment.

But in today's world, a little gadget in your pocket CAN save your life: a mobile phone when you need to call for help in the wildernesss, a Swiss Army Knife to open a faulty lock, a creditcard when you need to buy a fast taxi ride.

The Brady Bunch look so quaint, fighting over one house phone. Kids seeing that TV show today must think, "Why can't those dimwits get their own cell phones, like the one I have?"

Future kids are going to watch reruns of LOST and think: "Jeez, why can't those stupid 'castaways' turn off their Virtual Reality island and switch to one that's not as dull?"

Stories are shaped by technology...