Posted by: kshayes513 | December 19, 2009

Storytelling Methods in the Stargate Universe

There’s a wonderful LinkedIn group called Science Fiction Readers, Writers and Collectors, whose members regularly fire off fabulous discussion topics then carry on smart, engaging and entertaining debates about all things science fiction and fantasy. Not long ago, I asked this group what they thought of Stargate Universe. The responses were black and white; fans either loved it or they hated it, for dozens of fiercely argued posts.

SG-1's O'Neill checks out a stargate. Image: MGM

The debate crystallized my understanding of the fundamental difference between Universe and the 2 previous Stargate shows: they represent opposite approaches to telling a story.

To illustrate these 2 approaches, I use the metaphor of visiting a museum.  You can take a guided tour, or you can ramble through on your own.

Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis used the guided tour approach. The showrunners took their audience through the “museum” step by step, pointing out the major exhibits and explaining their importance: “These are the good guys, these are the bad guys, this is the conflict, these are the choices the heroes have, this is what you can look for in the next scene.”  Suspense in this kind of story comes from wondering how the heroes will deal with the stuff in the “next room;” while emotional engagement comes mostly from liking the characters enough to want to spend time with them and watch their relationships grow.

Stargate Universe, in contrast, is a free ramble, and that’s what has shaken up the fan base. The showrunners set up their “exhibits” and sent us in on our own, to walk from room to room and make of it what we will.  No one is telling us which events matter most, how the characters fit in, or even which ones we’re supposed to like; we have to decide that for ourselves. And most of the time we can’t even begin to guess what will be in the next room, let alone what we’ll find 2 or 3 rooms ahead.

There’s a lot to be said for a guided tour approach. The author has more control over the audience reactions because he’s directing and shaping them most of the time. And it’s a lot easier for the audience to enjoy a guided tour, because we don’t have to think hard or pay really close attention. I love this kind of story for relaxing on the beach, unwinding at the end of a workday, or entertaining me in the kitchen.

The biggest risk of a guided tour story is that it may be too safe and easy. You may bore your audience by failing to surprise and challenge them enough.

The SGU team finds a kino that is really going to mess with our heads. Image: MGM

The free ramble is a much riskier approach, because it’s a lot harder to pull off. You have to give just enough information to keep the audience current, but not so much that they can see what’s coming. More important, you have to provide story questions that are compelling enough to keep the audience with you even when they don’t have a lot of information. And even then, not everyone will stick around. People don’t always want to have to put the story pieces together on their own, and they often don’t like main characters who aren’t definitively good guys or bad guys.

So what makes a free ramble story worth attempting? The audience has to live it. We’re not standing back with the guide and watching the big picture from a safe distance. We’re in the crisis with the characters, moment by moment. We’re challenged, unsure about what’s happening, who they should trust and what’s going to hit them next; and even more unsure about what they will do or should do about any of it.  More than any other storytelling approach, the unguided ramble recreates the surprise, intensity and uncertainty of real life. And that is the source of the emotional engagement that’s the ultimate payoff of any good story.

Either approach works, and I like both kinds of story. But for a real mental challenge and the best emotional sleighride, give me the free ramble every time.

Which approach do you like best and why?

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