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The Wire: Writing Into Your Arc
Merlin Mann | Sep 25 2008
While this article about The Wire deliberately contains as few actual spoilers about the show as possible, it does contain numerous links to pages with information that will tell you critical spoiler information about the stories and fates of the show's characters. The article also contains language and links that are very much not safe for work. Please proceed with caution on all fronts.
In the time since I gallantly announced what makes a good blog, I’ve had time to think more about the qualities of work that endures.
Not thinking just of personal blogs here, or solely in terms of the ways that we can improve online publishing and social media —although clearly these are areas that could stand some improvement. I’m talking about the extent to which some of those qualities that I mentioned in that article relate to broader ideas around all creative work and the process behind how it gets made well and consistently by an auteur who’s only incidentally a merchant.
And it’s especially got me thinking about how any thing we choose to make today can contribute to, for lack of a better phrase, an arc.
So, naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about The Wire.
First, understand that I’m an unapologetic superfan of and evangelist for The Wire, which is David Simon’s epic, 5-season HBO drama about the life and work of a lot of very flawed characters in contemporary Baltimore. This is neither the first nor last time that I’ll quote Simon’s excellent description of the show’s theme, which is taken from his DVD commentary of the very first scene of s01e01:
Much has been written about the dense, literary quality of the show (read Kottke for context and great links), so it may not surprise you to learn I’m one of the many people who consider The Wire to be the best series that’s ever appeared on television; my wife and I have watched the first (and, in my opinion, best) four seasons at least three times.
Ok. So, why The Wire?
My point is that one big reason why The Wire was so good is its endlessly satisfying story arc, which is composed of many smaller, complementary arcs inside the big arc. That’s where a good story becomes a much more engrossing narrative that’s ultimately about more than itself.
Like any creative work that connects with the people who enjoy it, The Wire tells a story. And, to some extent, every story is about change.
Something happened. Or something is going to happen. Or something that everybody expected to happen hasn’t happened. But, it’s a change, and it’s having an impact on the lives of people we care about. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s basically the bones and teeth of every story from Adam & Eve through Harold & Kumar. Something changed, and now people have to deal.
How that dealing spins out over the life of a project, how the story is told, and what the story says about the world are the sorts of questions we’re only encouraged to ask about Big Important Things like very old books and Bergman films. Which, of course, is bullshit.
There’s no reason you can’t look at the lifetime of any good piece of story-telling — and, yes, why not, let’s say that could include blogs, Twitter accounts, and Flickr streams — and be able to see what the change is.
Yes: if it’s any good, I can look at one page or one photo or one 140-character post and enjoy it for its value as one independent thing in the world. But over time, all those potentially thousands of pieces can and do snap together, often without our even realizing it. The question is, what story is it that we’re telling? What is the arc?
And, that’s where I look to an example of middlebrow culture that falls somewhere between Bergman’s Death playing chess with Man on a beach and Scoble’s latest shaky video of a guy who likes golf speaking in press releases. But, The Wire is a piece of popular culture that beautifully illustrates how satisfying all those seemingly unrelated pieces of an arc can be — and how much richer they each become when the audience is engaged, challenged, and rewarded by the effort of giving the work 100% of their attention. Of course, it also helps if the creator is talented, tries really hard, and doesn’t treat the audience like a bunch of bored imbeciles. But, I digress.
Like any story, The Wire has characters, settings, and things that happen over time. Example? Let’s start with a single, one-minute scene from s01e05 — an episode called “The Pager,” that’s from right around the time when the series really started cooking. Which, not coincidentally, was also when the intersecting arcs started to reveal themselves.
Meet Jimmy McNulty.
Jimmy’s a talented, politically deaf, pain-in-the-ass homicide detective and drunk who’s estranged from the mother of the two children he adores. One night, in the shitty little apartment he’s recently moved into, Jimmy’s too wasted on cheap scotch to properly assemble the Ikea furniture that he bought for his kids’ imminent visit. Jimmy is a mess, because he’s dealing with change. In his own inimitable way.
But, see, you don’t really even need to know all this to just enjoy the scene. (Please watch from 0:09-1:25)
One small scene of a guy who’s drunk and a little careless. There’s loud music playing in the next apartment. He has to make a few trips to get all of the stuff he bought into one room (bet he’s in a walk-up apartment, right?). Jimmy’s useless tonight, clearly more focused on the bottle than on assembling the parts of his new SÜLI. Here’s a middle-aged man whose bedroom contains a green plastic lawn chair. Plus, the whole sorry scene is grimly lit by a single high-wattage desk lamp — reminiscent of the unforgiving light flooding the interrogation rooms that Jimmy and his partner, Bunk, work every day. Painful already, right?
So, that’s just one very small bit of character, setting, and thing-that-happens. While it’s certainly not a story, in and of itself, it’s still an entertaining, well-made scene to watch. Not as famous as Jimmy and Bunk’s deservedly best-known scene from the previous episode (warning: very NSFW), but you get the idea. You can already tell a few things about this show.
It’s well photographed, the set is painfully realistic, and the man dealing with change seems convincingly Baltimorean and drunk (although the actor portraying him is stunningly British and, to my knowledge, mostly sober).
Even if you have no idea what else happens on the other dozens of hours of this series, past and future, you could watch this one-minute scene and think, “yeah, that’s pretty good.”
But, if you were able to watch the whole episode — and it’s a good one — you’d see an atypically intense and complex police drama about cops in an understaffed bureaucracy trying to gather string about a case that seems impossible to crack. You’d see that some of the cops are brilliant (“Natural PO-lice”), some are dedicated, a couple are intoxicated by brutality, and a memorable pair with a Gaelic pun for a name are hilariously useless and corrupt. None is perfect, but none is without his or her interesting and redeeming qualities. End to end, it’s a very colorful bunch.
Same goes for the dealers and drug kingpins, who are struggling with their own related set of problems around bureaucracy, trust, and continuity inside a crumbling system. Theirs is a mature but increasingly vulnerable criminal enterprise that’s being menaced and robbed at will by a dangerous and unforgettable outsider with surprising tastes, ethics, and style.
Along the way you’d see a lot of beautifully shot scenes that show (without telling) why these people are so desperate. Plus you’d be introduced to secondary characters who are anything but stage dressing, such as a junkie informant who’s inked and filled-in with the complex texture of a Mercutio or a Fagin.
So, basically, if you gave this episode from June of 2002 about an hour of your time, and it was the only thing you ever saw of The Wire, you’d probably walk away thinking, “Wow, I didn’t understand almost any of that, but it was really interesting and well made. This looks like a great show that you have to actually watch and think about.”
But, here’s where it gets really good, and where we start to see a bigger arc that may not have been clear before.
Indeed, if you watched that whole first season of The Wire, you’d find yourself rewarded with a storyline — an arc — that I will not spoil for you.
But, you’d start to see that almost every character you meet ends up having some effect on at least a handful of other characters — even if they never knew the others existed. The decisions that people make early in the season have resonance throughout the story that plays out in unexpected ways. And the change that describes the generic arc of that first season (Antihero cops try to take down an antihero Baltimore drug crew) ends up telling a much deeper story than any typical police procedural that I’m familiar with.
Even in one season, we’re seeing a story that’s closer to Dickens or Zola than any styrofoam plate full of Law & Order. This is nothing short of a Greek Tragedy about broken people trying to stay alive in a broken system. Nobody’s perfect, and everybody is fucked in one way or another.
In my opinion, it’s a breathtaking set of 13 episodes. And if those hour-long TV shows were all you ever watched: again, you’d have enjoyed a real treat.
But there’s a lot more story, more change, and still more to the arc.
Finally, if you watched all five seasons of The Wire, you’d see a lot more going on than you imagined from one season, one episode — let alone one short scene of a drunk cop trying to build children’s furniture by lamp light.
You’d see each successive season turning to a different broken and dying institution: unions, government, public education, and print media, respectively. You’d see the same themes, and characters, and mistakes, and hopes, and horrible consequences brought back to life in different ways. Stuff that happened before still means something; possibly even more than you’d first realized.
This is a show that uses previous story arcs to deepen and expand on current stories. It uses things you’d never noticed from previous viewings as the centerpiece for a whole new story. It suggests grace notes that are barely audible unless you’ve been listening carefully for a very long time.
In sum, The Wire pays back the attention you invest in it like few pieces of art created in my lifetime. It’s vicious about telling every letter of the story with muscular precision — even when it chooses to do so at pace many would consider pointlessly deliberate: “dull.”
And, because the story rarely stops to explain what’s happening for the folks who just wandered in from the first segment of Family Feud, it demands that you bring the same care and thought to watching the show that its creators brought to making it. Thinking, on both ends of the art. That is engagement.
Like great literature, yes, you can return and enjoy this series on many levels and based on whatever you have to bring to it at a given time. It’s not only smarter than anything else that I’ve seen on TV, it’s also smarter than I am. Which I love.
Arcs Matter Because Writing Matters
I doubt that I’ll ever make anything one-tenth as intelligent, thoughtful, and engaging as The Wire, and, in all likelihood, neither will you. But, again, that’s not the point.
The inspiration you need to take away from this is the idea that every scene matters to some arc. Even the one minute with the drunk furniture assembly. Whether your given “scene” is in a screenplay, or an Excel spreadsheet, or the Tweet that you’re about to type about your flight delay: it matters. It all matters.
Like I said in the talk where I first brought up this thought about The Wire (video and slides of which below), if you think what you write about or otherwise choose to make doesn’t matter, talk to Stephen King.
He started writing a book I adore before he nearly died, then finished it in excruciating pain after it turned out he was still barely alive, let alone whole. The story he tells about what happened in-between may change your mind about whether this stuff is worth caring about. Just understand: it matters to the people who follow your arc and it really ought to matter to you — long before some idiot with a rottweiler hits you with his giant van.
There’s already one arc that you began the minute you made something, called it “done,” then put it someplace where people could see it. How that very, very large story gets told may be too late for you to completely control. Sorry, but that — as Omar would say — is all in the game.
But you very much do have the power to design the arcs you make, starting today. And even if you haven’t figured out how your final episode ends, consider how the pieces you want to lay down might fit together. And how the string that you gather might crack a case you hadn’t expected.
Who do you want to delight? Who do you pray gets your references? Who will you flatly refuse to explain your backstory to? What’s the one goddamned thing that only you can make today — and what arc might it fit into downstream? Which “average reader” are you prepared to find the courage to tell: “Fuck you.”
Above all: whose attention will you reward with the best thing you can possibly make today?
Good. Now go, and reward the shit out of them.
Supporting Material: “How to Blog”
Here’s the presentation I recently did in which I talked about this Wire stuff for the first time (that part starts around the 53:00 mark in the video)
Tip: Sean’s a nice enough guy, but his introduction in this very choppy video will redefine your personal concept of “headache-inducing.” With respect, skip to 5:20 to get to where my actual talk begins.
Update 2008-09-25 11:09:18 PDT
I apologize. I cannot get this busted-ass video embed not to autoplay, and if I hear Sean screaming about a scavenger hunt on my site one more time, I’m going to lose it. Video’s here. So sorry for the extra click.
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