Simplification And Storytelling – A Ramble

Although this is an article about simplicity and storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about TV shows for quite a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A while before I wrote this article, I ended up watching an episode of “NCIS: Los Angeles” on TV. Although I’m more of a fan of both the original “NCIS” and the “NCIS:New Orleans” spin-off, seeing yet another version of this long-running American detective series reminded me of one rather interesting storytelling technique that all versions of the show use.

In short, the series deliberately simplifies a lot of things. Each version of “NCIS” usually only has about five or six detectives. There’s a leader, 2-3 computer/science experts and 2-3 “ordinary” detectives. Of course, this is somewhat unrealistic.

Given the sheer number of complex cases that they often find themselves solving, the idea that a small team of detectives could actually do all of this stuff (let alone solve each case within a day or two) is absolutely preposterous. Yet, in dramatic terms, it works.

In fact, a more “realistic” version of the show (featuring a larger team of detectives spending weeks or months on each case) would probably be somewhat boring to watch. By narrowing the focus to just a small group of detectives, the show allows for deeper characterisation. In addition to this, it also allows the detectives to be more like a (hilariously dysfunctional) family – which makes the show more compelling to watch.

Likewise, by simplifying the process of solving crimes (eg: through coincidences, dystopian levels of surveillance, a borderline disregard for proper legal procedures and the use of forensic technology that borders on science fiction), the show is able to make each case a lot more thrillingly dramatic.

After all, showing the characters spending days filling out paperwork, applying for warrants, waiting for lab results etc.. is much less dramatic than lots of thrilling chases, futuristic lab montages and melodramatic interrogations.

In addition to all of this, the show rarely shows the consequences of solving each case. Once the detectives have worked out who is guilty, the episode swiftly ends. There’s no focus on how well their evidence would actually stand up in court, or even what the verdict or sentence is. But, by just focusing on the detection itself, the show is able to be a lot more compelling – even if it presents a somewhat simplified version of what I imagine the job of a detective actually involves.

Plus, in the original “NCIS”, the set-up for virtually every episode is usually the same. Basically, almost every episode starts with a random passer-by discovering a dead body and NCIS being called in to solve the case.

Although this simplified introduction should get boringly repetitive, it never does. Why? Because it merely serves as quick way to give the characters a reason to solve a bewildering case. This simplicity allows the repetitious nature of these scenes to be ignored or overlooked easily, in favour of the rest of the episode’s story.

So, what was the point of all of this?

Simply put, simplicity isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to storytelling. Audiences are willing to overlook a certain level of simplification if it makes the story more interesting, compelling and/or dramatic. In other words, there’s often such a thing as too much realism.

In addition to this, choosing what to simplify can have a huge effect on the tone and style of your story. For example, “NCIS” is a thrilling detective show because it simplifies other elements of the detectives’ jobs in order to focus more on comedic dialogue, likeable characters, thrilling chases, dramatic discoveries and melodramatic interrogations. If it didn’t do this, it would be a very different show.

Likewise, a certain level of simplification can also help new members of the audience too. After all, despite only having watched a few random episodes of “NCIS: Los Angeles” in the past, I was still able to enjoy the one I watched before writing this article because it told a self-contained story featuring a small number of main characters (each of whom had a distinctive personality). If the show was more nuanced, complex or realistic – then it would be a lot harder for a new viewer to just enjoy a random episode.

So, yes, “simple” isn’t always a bad word when it comes to storytelling.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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