Every artist repeats himself. But when is creative repetition accessible? At what point do artists fall into the “content trap,” the creative moment in which originality and innovation are abdicated in favor of corporate whoredom, filthy lucre, and formualic mediocrity?
Every artist repeats himself, often without being cognizant of it: stylistic tropes, character archetypes, peculiar metaphors, and distinct storytelling moves. The more prolific the artist, the more likely the artist will repeat himself. I think of how Joyce Carol Oates — herself astonishingly voluminous — mentions the soothing comforts of vacuuming in the aftermath of grief in her memoir, A Widow’s Story, while drawing a similar comparison between death and vacuum cleaning in her short story “Cumberland Breakdown” (contained in I Am No One You Know).
So given that repetition is a creative inevitability, how do you avoid it? And when is repetition acceptable? These are vital questions to consider in an age of franchise fatigue, in a time in which an audience is now asked to devote its entire life to consuming endless reboots, remakes, and spinoffs that offer little in the way of originality.
Speaking for myself, the only way that you could get me to watch another bloated three hour Marvel Cinematic Universe movie (Three hours? Come on! You’re not Tarkovsky!) — whereby the now tedious destruction of New York is now an annoyingly guaranteed and yawn-inducing cliche — is if you locked me in a hotel room with a group of sinuous, supple, and wildly inventive lovers. And even then, my attentions would be more fixated on the far more rewarding existential variations of tendering affection and satisfaction to each and every sybarite who drops by for a mutually beneficial afternoon delight rather than the bullshit spectacle of Manhattan once again — for fuck’s sake, not again! — being reduced to rubble.
It is not that I am against genre. (I have always loved genre passionately!) But artists who work in genre tend to be the worst transgressors of the problem I am addressing here. Furthermore, I am strongly opposed to being bored out of my fucking mind. MCU movies bore me. As do the endless iterations of Star Wars rehashes and retreads, which now fills in every goddamned ambiguity that initially captured my imagination with an indefatigable series of cheap narrative disappointments. (Did we really need to see Boba Fett escape from the Sarlacc Pit? No, we didn’t. Boba Fett was a marvelous invention, the perfect side character who said very little and, before Disney+ turned this bloated and ever propagating franchise into a bland carpet rolling endlessly down a Poltergeist-style hallway of limitless length, Boba Fett’s laconic presence invited you to speculate about just why he became a bounty hunter. I’ve been told that Andor actually breaks out of the formula, but I am frankly too fatigued by all the George Lucas wankfests to dive in.) I could not give two fucks about The Walking Dead, even though I enjoyed the flagship show in its early seasons. Characters move from one location to another, kill zombies, fend off some villain of the season (such as Negan or The Governor). Lather, rinse, repeat. Same shit, different day, different television spinoff.
But Fringe? Farscape? Twin Peaks? Issa Rae’s great series Insecure? They ended at just the right time. No problems there! For that matter, Better Call Saul struck a heartbreaking note of artistic perfection while also neatly aligning itself with its cousin, Breaking Bad. Twin masterpieces! Both shows in the Alberquerque universe arguably represent some of the best television of the last twenty years. Because the writers knew when their time was up. They knew the precise point when they were about to repeat themselves. I have great hope for For All Mankind, which possesses enough of an imaginative arsenal to run for multiple seasons without becoming dowdy, largely because of the innovative way in which the show jumps forward a decade each season with its “What if?” premise.
Brian K. Vaughan is one of the best living comic book writers working today. Why? Well, it’s largely because he knew when to wrap up Paper Girls. When Saga hit a heartstopping cliffhanger in Issue #60, Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples took a four year hiatus and didn’t return until last year. And Saga has sustained its high artistic quality because this dynamic duo knew that they couldn’t repeat themselves and that they needed a long break to get it right. But Dave Sim? Jesus Christ, what a tragic fall from grace. The man who changed the possibilities of what independent comic books could be succumbed to distasteful misogynistic incel rants. All because he was so singularly obsessed with hitting Cerebus #300. Imagine a world in which Cerberus stopped at Issue #150. Dave Sim would be a hero rather than a well-deserved pariah.
At 75, Stephen King may be the best example of pop fiction staying power that we have. While there are undeniable King tropes (the dangerous religious zealot, the endearing simple-minded sidekick seen with Wolf in The Talisman and Tom Cullen in The Stand, and an empathy for blue-collar types that has rightly caused his books to be revered by many), the man is still successfully working in other non-horror genres such as crime (Billy Summers) and dark fantasy (Fairy Tale). And while he has been self-effacing about declaring himself the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries,” his capacity to grow as a writer in his seventies and still win us over would suggest very strongly that he’s a lot more than this.
The excellent audio drama Wolf 359 knew when to quit. As did Wooden Overcoats. The Amelia Project? Nicht so viel. It is now a stale and uninventive retread that no amount of new characters or talented actors can salvage.
Trevor Noah knew when to leave The Daily Show. As did Jon Stewart. At least initially. But after taking a few years off to write and direct films, his ego became seduced by the fame, attention, and money that emerges from churning out more of the same. He returned to the airwaves with the same schtick, vastly eclipsed by the far more thoughtful and more hilarious approach of John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. (I truly hope that Oliver knows the precise moment to quit. Because it would be a pity to see him transmute into a disinterested has-been hack.)
The Who and Led Zeppelin both ended at nearly the right time (although the less said about everything after Who Are You, the better; opinions vary on whether or not Zeppelin’s final album, In Through the Out Door, was entirely necessary). Had Keith Moon and John Bonham lived longer, I think it’s likely that they would have turned into 1980s corporate rock sellouts that Gen X punks like me would have justifiably ridiculed with formidable sneers. And while John Lennon’s assassination by Mark David Chapman was truly terrible, imagine (har har!) what kind of hideous reactionary Lennon would have transformed into in the 1980s. Or Kurt Cobain. Or Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix. This fun but unsettling speculative game — which I personally guarantee will enliven a dull party — is what Billy Joel (who quit writing songs long after his talent was tapped, but who at least had the decency to spare us further River of Dreams drivel) was referring to when he sang about “the stained-glass curtain you’re hiding behind.”
In other words, every artist has a finite amount of talent and imagination. Sometimes it extends within a given project or a stylistic approach. Sometimes it’s represented in an entire career. I used to love T.C. Boyle’s work, but now I find him insufferably repetitive. Why? Because Boyle hasn’t changed his formula much in the last ten years. It is highly doubtful that we will get another novel on the level of World’s End or The Tortilla Curtain from him. And that’s a damned pity. At some point around 2014, Boyle stopped caring about whether he was evolving as an artist and started to phone it in.
Lost? Battlestar Galactica? Both shows lasted at least one season too long. They were both wildly popular and didn’t seem to understand that the creative well had run dry. Imagine if they had ended at the right time.
The artists who didn’t know when to stop or change things up fell into what I’m calling “the content trap.” The content trap is what happens when something distinct and original becomes wildly successful, but corporate greed or an artist’s narcissistic need for chronic adulation gets in the way of knowing when the jig is up. Ego prevents an artist from knowing when it’s time to end things. And what we usually get are inferior repeats of the same stories that initially captured our imagination. Let’s be honest. If Douglas Adams had actually confined his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series to the trilogy format, what would be so bad about that? I think Adams knew that So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish was never going to live up to the three books that preceded it. He was so impaired by the need to write content for the fourth book that publisher Sonny Mehta had to move in with Adams to make sure that he finished the novel. Douglas Adams — for all of his wit and radio drama innovation — fell into the content trap. On Community, Dan Harmon had a running joke in which characters suggested that the show had “six seasons and a movie” of material. And had Community been renewed for a seventh season, there is no way that its formidable writers could have summoned anything as brilliant as “Remedial Chaos Theory.” Dan Harmon didn’t fall into the content trap.
John Cleese — a genius whom I worshipped as a teen — hasn’t been funny in years. His best days are far behind him. Why? Because he fell into the content trap. He’s bringing back Fawlty Towers decades later and it’s completely unnecessary. On the other hand, I had thought that Star Trek: Picard was a dead retread incapable of further innovations, but the third season has somehow found new life under showrunner Terry Matalas. Here was a show that fell into the content trap, but that somehow clawed its way back, even resolving an Ensign Ro storyline from decades before. In other words, it’s not impossible for a content trap victim to reverse course and find a vital reason for creating new art. (Witness the surprising endurance of Doctor Who over more than fifty years — although its recent partnership with Disney+ does have me greatly worried — or Philip Roth’s multiple periods of resurgence. Or how about Tina Turner’s Private Dancer (after four dismal solo albums)? I’ve lost track of the number of comebacks that Miley Cyrus has had, but you’d be hard-pressed not to groove to Endless Summer Vacation.)
Most artists find it difficult to escape the content trap once they fall into it. But here’s the good news: everyone loves a comeback. And if we start demanding higher standards of the work we love and that goes on on and ever ever on rather than accepting bullshit like some hopelessly compromised head-bobbing fanboy who settles for, well, anything, then even once beloved artists have a shot at surprising us with the imagination and talent that is buried somewhere within them. That is, if they can successfully resist the large bags of money that corporate overlords continue to wheelbarrow into their palatial estates so long as they continue to offer us more of the same.
(Special thanks to my friend Tom Working, whose insightful comments partially inspired this essay.)
To celebrate Audio Drama Sunday, we chat with Lauren Shippen, creator and producer of The Bright Sessions, in a wide-ranging conversation about how Los Angeles traffic can be inspirational, YA, therapy dialogue, genre, the 1985 movie Clue, and neck snapping.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto an extraordinary audio drama called The Bright Sessions and listened to every episode with a speed and an enthusiasm rivaling a ravenous rabbit discovering a carrot field. The podcast is ostensibly a psychotherapist secretly recording her therapy sessions with young people, with each tape labeled with a mysterious taxonomic nomenclature. We come to learn that not only do these young people have special powers (the ability to jump through time, the capacity to read other people’s thoughts, et al.). But what makes The Bright Sessions so compelling is its more intimate approach. You won’t hear New York City destroyed in grandiloquent fashion after a superhero battle. But you will delve deep into the hearts and souls of the show’s characters.
I contacted the show’s creator Lauren Shippen (she also voices one of the patients, Sam) to express my appreciation and soon found myself in a fun and lengthy email volley about how Shippen came to create The Bright Sessions, thoughts on what radio drama can do for genre that other forms can’t, and some discussion of the 1985 film Clue. In tribute to the hashtag #audiodramasunday, which has recently taken Twitter by storm, I’m hoping this will be the first in a series of Audio Drama Sunday interviews with radio drama creators and their programs to help listeners and producers alike get a sense of the marvelous offerings out there.
If you want to listen to The Bright Sessions, go the website. You can also chip into The Bright Sessions‘s Patreon fund, which greatly helps this show stay afloat.
EDWARD CHAMPION: In audio drama, we have quite a number of wonderful podcasts being made that deal with investigations — what I call the “missing tapes” genre (The Black Tapes, Tanis, Limetown, et al.). These shows have responded, perhaps knowingly or unknowingly, to Serial‘s great success. It’s almost as if audio drama needed its own spin on the “fake documentary” style pioneered by such television shows as The Office, Parks & Recreation, and the like. But somehow your hook, which involves a psychologist taping the sessions of her clients, manages to transcend the tropes. I’m very curious to know how much you researched the audio drama climate before you started creating this show and if you learned any lessons on how to build an audience from your potential investigation. Also, I’m not sure how steeped you are in Dr. Jacob L. Moreno‘s notion of drama therapy, but where did your interest in psychotherapy come from? Why did you feel psychotherapy would be a great format for radio? (I’m also wondering if you’ve ever listened to the podcast, The Psychology of Eating, an often inexplicably fascinating show that deals with patients talking about their eating habits.)
LAUREN SHIPPEN: I actually wrote the first episode of The Bright Sessions in June of 2014 — before even Serial had been released. While I love the faux-documentary format of those podcasts (and of course, adore Serial), that trope didn’t yet exist when I first came up with the concept of The Bright Sessions. Instead, it was somewhat inspired by two very different radio shows: Welcome to Night Vale and BBC’s Cabin Pressure.
I was listening to these shows while stuck in the famed LA traffic and fell in love with the idea of audio drama. These shows showed two very distinct, very different paths to take: Welcome to Night Vale is mostly one man speaking into a microphone and Cabin Pressure is a whole cast with a large production budget performing in front of a live audience. As much as I enjoy Cabin Pressure, I don’t have the same resources as the BBC; the WTNV route seemed more manageable — I had a nice microphone and a vague idea of editing. But I ultimately realized I couldn’t pull off what WTNV does. I think WTNV works as a largely one person show because of three things: Cecil Baldwin’s performance, the beautifully surreal but funny writing, and the music by Disparition. Without a similarly magical combination of things, one person talking can get boring fast.
I wish I could say the therapy concept came out of some deep, clever thought process but – if memory serves – I was sitting in the aforementioned traffic, talking out loud to myself as the character of Sam (this is a weird but important part of my writing process) when I realized I needed to give her someone to talk to. The first thing that popped into my head was “therapist” and from there, the floodgates opened and everything started to fall into place.
I wrote that pilot episode in essentially one sitting. Then I got swept up in other things and didn’t touch it for a year. By the time I came back to it, I had become more familiar with the audio drama landscape as a whole. I had binged Serial, Limetown, and The Message. But my format was already determined. That being said, I did look to these and other shows to see how and where they existed online and how they promoted themselves.
I’m tangentially familiar with Moreno’s work, but The Bright Sessions was not particularly influenced by any one psychological theory. I used my sister — an actual psychologist — as a resource for how a therapist would talk or what methods they might use and did online research when necessary. I think my interest in psychotherapy actually comes from my background as an actor. The conversations you hear in the podcast are very similar to internal conversations I will have when developing a character – you have to figure out all their baggage, what makes them tick. Bizarrely, a lot of acting techniques are pretty similar to therapeutic ones, so it was easy to connect the dots.
I think the therapy format works especially well on radio for two reasons. One: it’s straightforward and easy to follow. It can be hard to pull off convincing action in an audio format, but it’s very easy to put together two people having a conversation. Two: there’s a voyeuristic element to it that I think is intriguing to people. Even though our patients are extraordinary, they are still dealing with very real, human problems. I think there’s a lot of entertainment to be mined out of that and a lot to relate to. And because it’s an audio recording and not a video, I think it gives the listener the feeling that they are really there, listening in.
And no, I have not listened to The Psychology of Eating, though it sounds like something I need to put in my feed!
CHAMPION: On the subject of psychotherapists, I think one of the reasons your audio drama works so well is because Julia Morizawa is tremendously believable as Dr. Bright. We often hear an annoyed edge in her voice, a vague artificiality often vacillating with something real, with the slight pause just before she has to enter into that professional therapeutic mode. I’m so glad that your audio drama is paying attention to these minute cadences, whether deliberately or organically. It’s one of the aspects of therapy that can be irksome when you’re on the couch! And it leads me to wonder what work you did with Julia to hit these very precise notes and what prep you’ve done with your actors in general. Of course, what I’m detecting here may very well be the natural intimacy of radio! After all, if you listen to any of Anna Sale’s interviews on Death, Sex & Money, it often sounds like a therapy session. Why do you think the radio format lends itself more to a therapeutic vibe? Should audio drama be hitting this sweet spot if it expects to win over larger audiences? Also, how did these conversations with yourself in traffic contribute to the writing process you worked out?
SHIPPEN: Julia is a magical superhuman and The Bright Sessions would not be a tenth of what it is without her. That sounds like hyperbole; it isn’t. I’ve known Julia for about two years – we met in acting class at the BGB Studio in North Hollywood. That same studio is where I met Briggon Snow (Caleb) and Charlie Ian (Damien) — it’s a studio full of crazy talented people and I take as much advantage of that as possible. The moment I realized I didn’t want to play Dr. Bright myself (and yes, that was something I briefly flirted with), my mind immediately went to Julia.
I wish I could take credit for all the nuances that Julia brings to the role but all the layers and subtle shifts you hear are a testament to Julia’s talent as an actor. We certainly discuss the character and the story; I give my impressions and Julia always comes prepared with insightful questions and ideas. The first time we recorded, she lugged this enormous binder with her — it had the scripts, her own personal character biography, and pages of notes. Her dedication and attention to detail has made Dr. Bright an incredibly interesting and complex character and really changed the way I approached the writing her. No one, including myself, knows Dr. Bright better than Julia and I think that shines through.
On the whole, I don’t do much prep with my actors. I honestly don’t even give them that much direction when we record. They are all very talented people that I have worked with before and I trust their instincts. I’m still amazed I was able to convince these brilliant people into doing this little project — I really feel like I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our cast.
Our especially dedicated listeners (of which we have more than I could have dreamed — another embarrassment of riches) will be familiar with the music playlists I made for each character. While these have been very fun to share with our audience as bonus features, I made them for myself as a writing tool and for my actors as a way to round out the characters for them. While we were recording the first season, I shared these playlists as well as Pinterest boards. While not directly related to the plot, these were used to express some of the less tangible aspects of the characters.
I think the phrase you used, “the natural intimacy of radio”, is exactly why it lends itself to the therapeutic feeling. With radio, the listener can imagine whatever they want about how the person looks, what the setting is like, etc. This engagement of the imagination engages us emotionally as well and creates this atmosphere of intimacy. I think this is furthered by the fact that most people listen to podcasts alone, with headphones on. It feels personal in a way that TV or film doesn’t. As for an audio drama sweet spot, I’m still trying to find that myself.
The traffic conversations have been a big part of my life in LA and I’m sure have gotten me a few strange looks at stoplights. When I’m working on a character — whether it’s one I’m auditioning for or one I’m creating from the bottom up — I have to determine some things about how they talk. Where in my voice does their dialogue sit? What’s their cadence? What filler words do they use? This can all be worked out on paper or in a script, but I find it’s much easier to work through this process out loud.
So, when I’m doing a task that is taking up most of my focus — driving, cooking, doing dishes — I’ll pass the time by having imaginary conversations with these characters. Some of these conversations simply help me get into the mindset, but some end up in the final product. I think I was able to write that first episode in one sitting because I had worked out most of it in the car when driving back from Santa Monica during rush hour (never do this).
CHAMPION: I’m tremendously fascinated with the work you’re doing with the actors to establish these characters and very curious how, in this case, Julia’s notes altered the writing. How much of this story do you have planned out? And how much of the story has been dictated by the notes from the actors? What did these music playlists reveal about these characters that, say, unpacking a history and a backstory didn’t? Your filler description reminds me very much of how David Mamet layers his scripts with underlined emphasis and includes all these filler words or how someone like Kevin Smith is especially demanding of inflection points. My own feeling is that there’s a certain futility in this process. Because there isn’t a single writer, no matter how talented, who can completely transcribe human speech without the final artistic output sounding deliberately stylized. This can often take us away from the reality of what we’re experiencing — unless, of course, one is deliberately striving for a heightened reality. But it does raise some questions. Because no matter what the art, one does have to find a balance between reality and fiction. If we’re reading transcribed speech from Mark Twain or Emma Bovary’s inflections, our minds can fill in the details. But radio is more explicit about speech, even if we’re still using our minds to imagine what’s happening before us. How do your conversations in the car help you to find a compromise between some “authentic” blueprint and the organic nature of conversation that you end up recording?
SHIPPEN: I had written the first nine episodes (which make up the first season) before we all sat down for the first table read. I had a clear idea of who these characters were and where I wanted the story to go. And then I heard it out loud, as interpreted by smart, talented people, and things shifted. I don’t want to go too much into what the initial overarching plot of The Bright Sessions was for fear of changing people’s perceptions of what it is now, but hearing Julia interpret the character of Joan Bright changed the way I thought of the character. She became more real, more human, and her motivations changed somewhat as a result. This shift changed a lot of other characters as well.
Similarly, our production meeting before season two provided a lot of inspiration. I shared the first few scripts and told the actors what I had in store. And then they shared their ideas about the characters and how they wanted them to grow. A lot of the plot for season two grew out of that. The finale episode of this season is a direct result of that production meeting and a few ideas that Charlie Ian floated around. A lot of The AM has been influenced by ideas that Julia has had. So, while I do all the actual writing, my actors absolutely deserve a lot of story credit for the second season.
I don’t know what the music playlists revealed to the actors — that’s probably something I should ask them. For me, the mixes provide the general mood of the character; an energy. I listen to the mixes before writing the characters to get me in that mindset. It can also help me zero in on an overall theme within the character. For example, I built Sam’s whole playlist pretty quickly (she’s the character I voice so I know her very well) and afterwards I realized how much of the content had to do with the idea of “home.” That discovery told me a lot about the character and what was important to her.
I think you’re absolutely right — no writer can ever perfectly mimic natural speech. My use of filler speech, aborted starts to sentences, stutters, etc. function more as goal posts for the general speech pattern of the characters. Caleb says “like” a lot — he’s a teenager, he doesn’t always know how to express himself so he uses this filler word and doesn’t finish sentences sometimes. Sam has a lot of ellipses in her speech. She’s a nervous person so she stops to think of the right…word. I’ll write these kinds of things into the script and then the actors will adopt them and put them in the natural places, even when they aren’t written in. Then it becomes a volley between me and the actor — I write something, they improv and ad lib, I adopt those natural inclinations into writing the next time, so on and so forth.
The car conversations are vital in the early stages of developing a character. I can try and write out their speech patterns but it won’t solidify until I start saying it out loud. There are things that will look good on paper but sound stilted or unnatural when spoken aloud. And then there are questions that need to be answered. Does the speech go up at the end — if so, how would that affect the way they structure their sentences? Where do they pause? Why do they pause? Do they have to fill the pause with speech or can they sit in silence? All of these questions need to be answered and are easiest when worked through out loud. I don’t often return to these car conversations after I’ve gotten used to writing a character. Thought they can be helpful for figuring out how two characters who have never met talk to each other because each character relates to every other character in a unique way and that is going to change their speech.
CHAMPION: Aha! So as I suspected, your actors almost serve as “editors” for your scripts! This leads me to ask how you manage all the very helpful input you get from your talent. This may be tangentially related to the issue of natural vs. stylized speech, but have you ever faced a situation where your vision for the storyline gets disrupted by all the ideas from others? If so, how do you manage all the notes? How locked is the script when you eventually record it? Also, how and where are you recording it? Given that the patients are teenagers, I’m wondering if you ever considered using actual teenagers for the part. Aside from the car conversations and your work with the actors, do you talk to a lot of high schoolers to get a sense of their angst? (I’m thinking especially of Caleb and the adept way you handle his sexuality.) Given that you seem to be responding to what you have previously established with each episode, what steps have you taken to ensure that you never get caught up in tropes or predictable storylines? Do you have a natural end point in mind for The Bright Sessions?
SHIPPEN: The input from actors never feels too overwhelming or disruptive because it comes in bits and pieces. I’ll send out a script and get some questions and comments back and then I’ll make small adjustments to the script. A lot of the larger ideas come from “wouldn’t it be cool if” conversations about the overarching plot or character development. An actor will make a suggestion or float an idea about what could potentially happen in a season or in an episode and, if it works, I’ll take that suggestion and work it into the existing structure. As the sole writer of the podcast, all the details and specifics are up to me.
When we record, the script is 98% locked in, I’d say. It’s a final draft (that never seems to stop it from having typos) but occasionally an actor will ad lib or ask to say a line a slightly different way. But, beyond from a few minor line changes or improvs, the scripts tend to be consistent from page to episode. Editing also sometimes happens in post-production – I’ve cut out lines in the past that worked on the page but didn’t in the editing bay.
With a few exceptions, we record the episodes with both actors sitting across from each other, with individual mics on them. We go through the episode in it’s entirety a few times as I give notes. It’s a lot like acting in a class — we’re not crammed into a sound booth recording each line one-by-one — instead we’re recording the episode pretty much as it would happen in real life: two people sitting in a room together (my bedroom in this case — we’re very high tech).
Technically, only one of the patients is a teenager: Caleb. Adam is also in his teens, though not a patient, and Chloe is 20 when the series begins, so only just over that period in her life. But no, I never considered using actual teenagers. Firstly, there would be a lot of logistical and practical issues recording with someone under 18 and secondly, I never considered anyone other than Briggon for the role of Caleb. And he has nailed the high school voice, as I knew he would.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I talked to a teenager — I wish I could say I’ve done in-person research, but most of Caleb’s plot line is directly inspired by all the YA novels I read. Yes, I do still read Young Adult fiction. I’ve met my fair share of adults who don’t consider that a good use of time, but I politely disagree. YA fiction is consistently growing and changing and there are some real gems to be found. I read a lot, and in a lot of different genres, and one of the best things I’ve read in the past few years is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It is a book that I couldn’t put down and it has lingered in my mind ever since. I think it has had a lot of influence on the writing of both Caleb and Chloe and I can’t recommend it enough.
I also spend a lot of time on Tumblr, a website that definitely skews towards a younger audience. There’s actually quite a bit of linguistic discussion that happens on the site and I think I’ve absorbed a lot about how teenagers speak and interact. On top of that, I read fan fiction — not of The Bright Sessions, but of other things. Fan fiction is written about and by many different people, but a good portion of it either explores the lives of teenagers or is written by teenagers. Reading teenage dialogue written by a teenager will give you a pretty good idea of what teenagers sound like. So I think my ability to write compelling high school dialogue is a combination of reading YA fiction, reading fan fiction, and observing teenagers on social media.
This actually transitions well into your question about tropes. A lot of fandom conversation and fan fiction is centered around the idea of tropes — either leaning into them or breaking them. In order to avoid tropes, you have to know what they are. And yes, you can watch a lot of film and television, listen to a lot of audio drama, and read a lot of books to get an idea of what the cliches are but it is helpful to have tropes distilled for you. That’s what happens in fandom discussion.
All that said, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about making things unpredictable. I focus on what stories I want to tell and sometimes that means taking a hard left and sometimes that means jumping directly into a trope – after all, cliches are cliches for a reason. But, to keep things engaging, it’s important to make a slight tweak when engaging with tropes. The Bright Sessions is built on this idea. A mysterious time traveler shows up! But…she can’t control her ability. A high school football player is having trouble expressing his emotions! But…not for the usual reasons. I think it’s really fun to lean into story beats that are familiar but give them a different flavor.
As for keeping the plot from getting predictable, I think it’s a delicate balancing act. A certain amount of predictability is a good thing, in my opinion. When I see a listener comment with a prediction about the plot, I’m pleased if that prediction is very close to correct. That tells me that I’m on the right path, that I’m not going to jump the shark. However, you don’t want your audience to be able to predict everything. And that’s where the red herring comes in (Clue is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’ve had to delete an entire paragraph explanation of why because this isn’t my chance to write a dissertation of Clue). Currently, I’m seeing a lot of predictions about the end of season two that could be correct. The predictions make sense in the context of what has happened so far but they are largely in response to something that is a bit of a red herring. As a result, I think the end of the season is going to be unexpected at the time and make complete sense looking back (that’s my hope anyway).
As for a natural end point for The Bright Sessions…no, I don’t have one. I’ve heard a lot of other audio drama creators say “I know exactly what the last episode/last line/last season of my podcast is” – I am not that person. I had no idea how this season was going to end when I started it. I know where I would like characters to end up emotionally but I’m really just letting this thing organically develop on its own terms. We’ll see where that takes us.
CHAMPION: Your method of scouring for youthful banter reminds me of how the great novelist Megan Abbott conducts research. She also writes about young people very well and scours many online forums to get the tone right for her last few books. But I’ve detected a bit of Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon in The Bright Sessions. I’m curious to know more about The Bright Sessions‘s literary influences (including YA, of which, being a wide reader myself, I’m certainly not going to pull a Ruth Graham here!). Also, we’re living in a time in which we are saturated by endless superhero movies, Hugo Awards ballot stuffing by frightened white middle-aged libertarians, Comic-Con as a publicity machine, fan entitlement, and numerous other intrusions into genre storytelling. But the many genre audio drama podcasts I listen to — such as yours, Ars Paradoxica, Atheist Apocalypse, Tanis, Lily Beacon, Wolf 359, Eos 10, The Cleansed, far too many wonderful shows to list here — seem relatively insulated from these developments. It’s almost as if audio drama is operating in its own hermetic corner, relatively safe from any General Zod neck-snapping controversies. Do you think audio drama runs the risk of getting co-opted? Or capitulating to the audience too much? What do you feel you owe the audience? Do you think audio drama is enough of its own animal to beat the odds? And why (or why not) do you think that is?
SHIPPEN: I think it’s hard to say what’s not a literary influence on The Bright Sessions — everything I’ve written could probably be traced back to something I read once. I am an avid reader and I feel like every book I read becomes a part of my brain. YA has definitely had a big influence, David Mitchell is always in the back of my mind when I’m thinking about world-building (especially on top of existing reality — he’s a master at that), and Philip Pullman (an all-time favorite of mine) has definitely had a roundabout influence on the last few episodes of this season (and on my brain in general).
I think audio drama is excelling in genre storytelling for a few reasons. Firstly, genre film and TV can often fall into the trap of focusing too much on the “smashy-smashy” (as NPR’s Glen Weldon calls it). While people, myself included, go to these films for action, it is sometimes given attention to the detriment of character or plot. Unless the action is innovative and exciting enough to hold up a film (as it is in Mad Max: Fury Road, though that movie has pretty much everything going for it, in my opinion), you can’t just blow up buildings (or have Superman snapping necks) and hope people will be satisfied.
Audio drama is truly incapable of making that specific mistake. Action can happen in audio form – the audio montage in Wolf 359‘s “Mayday” is a stellar example of this — but action isn’t the go-to. Instead, the focus goes to the characters and the worlds. When you can’t distract the audience with shiny effects or crazy stunts, you have to work twice as hard to give them something to chew on. I think that motivates audio drama to innovate a lot more than other mediums.
Secondly, I think audio drama benefits from being independently produced. It costs money to make a podcast, but not Mad Max $150 million kind of money. There’s no studio to appease, no execs to give notes, no 20 person marketing team ready to merchandise your idea. Having audio drama be entirely in the hands of its creators provides the kind of freedom you can’t find in big genre movies. As a result, you see a lot more risk-taking and a lot more diversity in audio drama. Half of the podcasts you mentioned have female protagonists; Marvel has yet to make a female-led movie. There have been numerous news stories recently about how female characters in genre films were changed to male for fear that a female character wouldn’t sell toys. Even when genre creators try their best to widen the pool of main characters — and I really do believe that they are trying — there is a larger machine at work that can stall progress. To my knowledge, that machine has yet to exist in audio drama.
I couldn’t presume to predict where the audio drama world is headed — I’m still a newcomer but I feel like things have shifted in the year I’ve been working on The Bright Sessions. There’s more content than ever and the quality of said content seems to be getting better and better. I think there will certainly be attempts to co-opt audio drama — after all, it is a rapidly growing entertainment sector with low overheads and excellent advertising potential — but I don’t know what form that will take or how successful those attempts will be. But, whatever happens, I think audio drama will continue to find new and exciting ways to tell stories, whether independently or under a larger umbrella. Bigger is sometimes better.
As for what I feel I owe our audience: I want to continue to entertain and surprise them. I want to keep things unpredictable without making them ever feel like they’ve been misled or cheated. I don’t think I owe rainbows and sunshine — the audience doesn’t have to like every plot point or character — but I owe thoughtful writing, even when it’s painful. I owe them continued and respectful character development, enthusiasm to rival their own, and a satisfying conclusion to a story they’ve invested in.
As to when that conclusion will come is anybody’s guess.
Docx isn’t on the working man’s side. His essay reads like some corpulent slug defending his gated community with a Magpul PDR and then slithering away because he doesn’t know how to release the safety.
On December 12, 2010, The Guardian published a pretentious essay by an amental snob named Edward Docx. Docx foolishly suggested that “genre writers cannot claim to have anything.” He accused Lee Child of “ersatz machismo bullshit” even as Docx himself could not see the fecal specks sprouting throughout his own ineptly argued assault on genre. He wasted his first two paragraphs blabbing on about the plebs on the train and, like a petulant infant longing to grow into a long-winded David Cameron, bitched about not having space to provide “a series of extracts…to illustrate the happy, rich and textured difference.”
Yes, it’s class warfare, my friends. But here’s the thing. Docx isn’t on the working man’s side. His essay reads like some corpulent slug defending his gated community with a Magpul PDR and then slithering away because he doesn’t know how to release the safety. It’s the kind of unfit approach that invites ridicule rather than confidence, alienation rather than mobilization. For if you’re going to claim yourself a champion of the people (or, to use Docx’s inept populist metaphor, a half-hearted burger eater), shouldn’t you be paying attention to what they’re reading? If you wish to demonstrate why Stieg Larsson is such a shitty writer, shouldn’t you have the guts to quote him at length? After all, your argument is airtight, isn’t it? The writer is dead and he can’t respond, right? Win win!
Alas, Docx can’t be bothered. He identifies “the most tedious acronym-packed exchange” that he has ever read, but he fails to comprehend that what Docx considers “tedious” might be the kind of wonky info banter that is going to get a journalist like Blomkvist rock hard. He quotes from a very early part of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (page 24 in my copy) and gives us no full indication that he has read the whole book. This makes Docx not only an illiterate, but an inept bully foolish enough to support his claim through deductive induction — a logical fallacy that hasn’t worked ever since newspapers had the good sense of opening up their articles to public comment. Because Docx says that genre is lesser, and Docx fancies himself an authority, then it must be true! No need to provide airtight examples of Swedish silliness. Docx also tries to quote a few passages from Dan Brown to make his case. But wait a minute, that’s a logical fallacy! What about Larsson? That guy you just shit talked in your previous paragraphs? Shouldn’t you be taking him down? Oh dear, secundum quid! If only Docx had the space, he’d demolish your genre! He’d *gasp* have an argument!
Well, not really. It becomes abundantly clear that Docx doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about when he attempts to quote others. In a feeble attempt at wit, Docx deliberately misquotes Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature (the full quote: “Whatever is felicitously expressed risks being worse expressed: it is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us”). But D’Israeli was writing rather sensibly about how well-read writers are those comprehending the wit of other men. Does Docx comprehend D’Israeli? To employ a populist reference that Docx might frown upon, you make the call. For Docx misses the vital sentence that came before the business about being “gratified with mediocrity”:
It seems, however, agreed, that no one would quote if he could think; and it is not imagined that the well-read may quote from the delicacy of their taste, and the fulness of their knowledge.
And here’s what came after:
We quote, to save proving what has been demonstrated, referring to where the proofs may be found. We quote to screen ourselves from the odium of doubtful opinion, which the world would not willingly accept from ourselves; and we may quote from the curiosity which only a quotation itself can give, when in our own words it would be divested of that tint of ancient phrase, that detail of narrative, and that naivete which we have for ever lost, and which we like to recollect once had an existence.
So if Docx wishes to uphold worthy literature, why is he unable to provide a corresponding set of virtues other than a measly list of literary names? According to my word count feature on OpenOffice, this doddering dunce had 1,770 words to stake his claim. All that space and he couldn’t be bothered to provide a single passage? Talk about long-winded. It’s safe to say that Docx is no D’israeli. I think it’s also safe to say that Docx has utterly mangled D’isreali’s great sentiment.
So why bring the argument up in the first place? Why make such a spectacle of yourself? Why do this when you tacitly admit that “there is also much theatricality to the debate?” Sarah Weinman has a few answers. Certainly I can understand the Guardian‘s need for attention in this vanquished media economy. But I’d like to think that some editor over there was having a good laugh at Docx’s expense.
You see, Docx is the kind of humorless elitist who observes people reading books on a train and actually sees this as a bad thing. Rather alarming that ordinary Joes don’t seem to share Docx’s refined instinct for spending their increasingly valuable leisure time reading a 900 page Russian epic. How dare the rabble sully literature by having a good time! In this essay, Docx vomits so many half-digested meals out of his mouth that one detects an uptight gourmand who showed up to an orgy wearing a chastity belt. The man is incapable of understanding that when people flock to Stieg Larsson, they may very well move on to other authors beyond the missionary position. The very “literary” authors Docx desires them to read. And he’s incapable of finding anything positive in this apparent predicament. Which makes him more of a pinpricked sourpuss than a viper for the people.
Here is a man who berates a blue-collar worker for having to put down a Larsson volume. He writes: “And when, finally, I arrived at the buffet car, I was greeted with a sigh and a how-dare-you raise of the eyebrows. Why? Because in order to effectively conjure my cup of lactescent silt into existence, the barrista in question would have to put down his… Stieg Larsson.” Now if it had been me, I would have viewed this exchange as a rather comic moment. Maybe an opportunity to ask the barista why he liked Larsson and recommend a few names in response that might help him find a way to wider reading pastures. That is, if he didn’t want to go back to his volume. In which case, I would have offered a generous tip for blabbing on for five minutes. But for Docx, the barista represents a foolish opportunity to cling to class assumptions that haven’t been in place since the 1880s. You insolent reader! Fix me my latte now, you unthinking peon! And this makes Docx not unlike Charles Pooter, the hapless protagonist of Diary of a Nobody, who demands some respect from a blue-collar “monkey of seventeen.” The laborer replies: “All right, go on demanding!”
Of course, Docx can go on demanding all he wants. It isn’t even noon Eastern Standard Time, and I can see that the man has already been thoroughly ridiculed on Twitter. But if Docx gets his money quote, I get mine. And if we assume that dictating taste represents a fleeting freedom, I think Nietszsche best sums up why Edward Docx is such a small and pathetic man:
People demand freedom only when they have no power. Once power is obtained, a preponderance thereof is the next thing to be coveted; if this is not achieved (owing to the fact that one is still too weak for it), then “justice,” i.e., “equality of power” become the objects of desire.
[UPDATE: This post has been corrected. An earlier version of this article incorrectly observed that Docx had not cited Larsson. This was not true. Docx did quote a passage, but his argument remains so pisspoor that Docx’s “takedown” still doesn’t hold water. Nevertheless, I apologize for my error and express my gratitude to Nico for pointing this out to me.]