Gamechangers: transforming genre conventions into storytelling possibilities

OverthinkingIt does it again!

(What’s it? Why The Dreaded Overthink, of course.)

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Game_Changerby Richard Rosenbaum

We’ve been telling stories for a long time. Thanks largely to technological progress we’ve got a host of new media to play around with than we did thousands of years ago, but we’ve also hit more than a few dead ends, worn out genres or explored them seemingly to exhaustion. But the most innovative storytellers are capable of revitalizing modes of narrative, escaping from entrenched clichés and tropes that have been driven into the ground, taking things to the next plateau and forcing future creators not to settle for mediocrity. If you’re an aspiring creator, as I think many of us are, investigating some of the recent successes in this direction can help show us how the best of this generation are continually pushing things forward.

One of the most effective ways of doing this is by narrativizing genre or medium conventions, taking accepted tropes that have become so entrenched that they’re virtually transparent and using them as significant story elements rather than shortcuts or concessions to the limitations of the form. Not just calling attention to the trope as a comment on the contrivances of narrative (such as breaking the fourth wall). Not just deconstructing it in order to investigate its previously ignored implications (as in Alan Moore’s take on superheroes in The Watchmen). But acknowledging it head-on and making into a full-fledged component of the story, or even the driving force behind the story itself.

The first example of this that comes to mind is in the second season finale of House, an episode titled “No Reason.” Dr. House begins to suspect that he’s not in his right mind following an incident where he’s shot by a man claiming to be a former patient.  After waking up, House finds that he’s suffering from hallucinations and memory lapses; he learns that he’d been treated with ketamine while unconscious and hypothesizes that this might have something to do with his failing mental faculties.


 So far pretty standard for House, and for psychological/medical mysteries on television in general. Also standard, so much so that we don’t even notice it anymore, are the scene transitions that occur throughout the episode. Over its history, film and television have developed a sophisticated vocabulary for signalling what’s going on without needing to explicitly telegraph it. For instance, there’s the establishing shot: if we’re shown the exterior of an apartment building, and then a group of characters sitting around a kitchen table, we instantly understand that those characters are inside that building without it having to be made obvious through, say, dialogue. House deconstructs the establishing shot throughout the series with its zooming-in close-ups of the internal organs of patients, usually with an accompanying voiceover of House describing the particular anatomical defect or process that’s gone awry. This was a new convention that became necessary because of the audience’s prior lack of familiarity with the often obscure medical conditions referred to in the show, and became possible because of new filmmaking technology that allowed the show to visualize with relative accuracy what was being described. However, this new convention wasn’t ever narratively significant in the show; it was just a cool-looking effect that helped the audience understand what was going on without requiring a medical degree.

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2 thoughts on “Gamechangers: transforming genre conventions into storytelling possibilities”

  1. Okay, I can’t resist. Is it my imagination, perhaps my lack of knowledge of the subject, of all subjects for that matter, but making up a story is not all that difficult. Certainly not brain-surgery. It’s simply letting your mind escape the prison of the Daily Dulls, freeing your imagination to let it sommersault in the Valley of “Make-Believe”. Try it, and you’ll love it. I promise. gs

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