The role of fiction is to tell us the truth through the world of make-believe. Fiction has become more inconsistent by the day. The payoff is less, and the satisfaction at the end has declined.
According to the philosophy of Objectivism, when an object or form loses its central idea, it loses integrity. When applied to story, this is the reason why fiction is losing steam. In the media landscape, there is a rush to write and make non-fiction, and from an agenting level, literary agents are almost exclusively looking to represent only non-fiction. And this is because fiction has become more inconsistent by the day. The payoff is less, and the satisfaction at the end has declined.
But the interesting thing is that the beginnings of all these stories are hooky and specific. They all start with a great deal of clarity. Where it meanders and gets lost and becomes generic is the middle.
The reason for this lack of sense-making is the principle of making a story ‘massey’. In other words, ‘giving the audience what it wants.’ And what this vague, undefined audience (who no one believes they are part of) wants is a love angle, a rivalry, an item song, a larger-than-life supervillain, a supportive woman figure reminiscent of Kiara Advani, and a hero who eventually turns into Rambo. (the list can go on).
Not to disregard overall structure and story. When you’re writing fiction, you’re making a point or several points, and the structure and subplots are there to help you run parallel tracks. And when you strip a story down to its bones, you do see a similarity in all of its overall spines. For example, a coming-of-age teen story would have a makeover scene, a break-up with the best friend, things a character does to feel affirmed, and then at the end when the character starts accepting external love. What makes stories novel is how you reorder these scenes, and how you get from one point to the other. The larger issue lies when you start introducing themes irrelevant to the story, in service of spicing it up. There’s a problematic belief that without these points, the story will not work for the junta at large.
And the issue is that these tropes aren’t just points that can just be dropped into the story and then ignored. Once introduced, they have to be tackled and resolved. And it’s in the resolution of these angles that the story becomes something separate from the premise.
This is why Akshay Kumar’s films stop making sense after a while. The premises of all his movies are interesting. But in their efforts to make it a ‘massey’ film and introduce all the ‘masala’ elements, they became lost opportunities. RRR was a sack-full of elements totally disconnected from each other. The goal was to keep the audience confounded, to keep them from thinking. Another example is the film Super 30. It started well enough. But in the second half, it became a filmy 80’s style melodrama, where the antagonist seeks to murder his prodigy, and politicians begin to orchestrate contests between two tuition camps. Even in Chennai Express, which was entertaining enough, to give the audience a larger-than-life hero, Shah Rukh Khan’s character, from being quite mild and pussyfooted, suddenly became Rambo. Plus, there’s a worrying thinking that has emerged, that special effects and visual splendour, can somehow circumvent potholes in the story. But to operate like this means to underestimate your audience, and at worst – to disrespect them.
It’s as if you don’t trust the premise to be interesting enough, so this is a backup plan to ensure that people will still watch your content. Content studios, in their effort to capture viewers, try to jam as much sex, lies, and scandal into stories as possible – regardless of whether the show is about cricket, math – or even chess.
But when you approach any story with the goal of making sure that ‘at least’ it has lies and scandals and whatnot so that it’s for ‘everyone’, you limit the space for what the story actually intended to be about. It becomes a sequence of fillers, rather than a story. And slowly, the audience is beginning to catch on to it. The belief that fiction has a single algorithm that makes it work is what is killing it.
This was why the Queen’s Gambit took decades to make, despite the incredible success and acclaim it received. Because of its lack of a familiar structure, no studio was able to comprehend why or how it would work. The biggest issue – it was about a teen girl and it didn’t have a love track! They managed to fix that up in the end though with Townes. Fun fact – in the book, there was no love track. The real and only love story was between Beth and chess. It was only her and a telephone against Borgov in Russia. No Townes.
The role of fiction is to tell us the truth through the world of make-believe. This is the reason why HBO Max and Hello Sunshine, which is Reese Witherspoon’s company, have become so highly valued. They are able to depict reality – ordinary, mundane reality, in an interesting way.
Big Little Lies and The Morning Show are a few examples of brilliance. Zoya Akhtar’s Made in Heaven was similarly incisive and hit the spot on many uncomfortable truths. But unfortunately, this approach to content numbers very few, and as a result, consumers are turning to non-fiction in their quest for authenticity.
Because with non-fiction, there is no choice but to be authentic and true. You can’t put in unnecessary item songs and love tracks into it because of the legalities of writing and acquiring the material. It is back-to-the-wall truth, it is what it is, and no more. It’s telling that is touted to be the genre of the future.
Fiction needs to take a lesson from non-fiction. And the lesson is this – we need to resist tropes, easy as they are to inflict upon an audience. The question that needs to be asked is: if we resist the presence of an unnecessary item song in a two-hour film, what could that space be used for instead? If we resist a damsel-in-distress trope, how else could that character add to the story?