It’s a very reasonable question: just how many storylines and characters can viewers be expected to keep track of when it comes to television dramas.
Labyrinthine plots, over-populated casts, subplots suspended for weeks on end -how can we possibly be expected to keep up?
Sometimes I struggle to stay on track with all the characters in Game of Thrones: Lannisters, Starks, Targaryens, Tyrells and Baratheons, it can be a cluster just trying to recall who’s who and where we last saw them. Those recaps before the theme song are crucial to knowing what’s going on -and sometimes web recaps and Wikipedia are still needed.
But Game of Thrones is only one show. When you add a myriad of shows that are crowding our heads with a roll-call of storylines and characters, it can be a real problem. US casts, more so then Australian dramas on limited budgets, seem to have no problem with multiple character arcs.
Orange is the New Black is back with its abundant cast of about 16 principals and another 30 or so recurring characters. No wonder the credits go on forever. The characters are all so wonderfully nuanced and, unlike Game of Thrones, at least they are all in one location. Remarkably, our own Wentworth manages to uphold a standard as good (if not better) with about 12 principals.
Lost and True Blood also had extensive casts that meant subplots would be seemingly suspended in time. And then Orphan Black even goes there with the same actress in multiple roles.
Sense8 on Netflix is currently doing the Heroes trick of different characters across the globe that leave me wanting them to meet up so my brain can stop doing so much hard work. Sure I like to be challenged, but there’s only so many hours in a week.
According to this Wall Street Journal article on the topic, scientists say there’s actually no limit to the number of narratives, that the human mind can accommodate.
Richard Gerrig, professor of cognitive science at Stony Brook University, says, “Being able to keep track of plots and characters is the same thing as keeping track of our friends’ lives.
“When you have to get re-established with a character, it’s the same as meeting a colleague or cousin you don’t see very often. Sometimes there are some awkward moments until you get to the right place in your memory.”
I guess it’s a bit like seeing someone out and not being able to place them (I’m pretty bad at this!).
Here’s my list of essentials for writers contemplating convoluted storytelling:
1) Give us a central character. Our guide into the world, their viewpoint and what it is they want.
2) Bring us back to a central location. There’s no place like home, whatever ‘home’ may be.
3) Make your hierarchy very clear. Who is important?
4) Make recaps mandatory at the top of each episode.
5) Don’t suspend subplots for too long.
6) Ensure a show’s website has plenty of helpful extras.
7) Cast distinctly. If you must have a cast of thousands the last thing we need is actors who look similar.
8) Consider flashbacks to fill in the gaps. Preferable to voice-overs.
9) Edit. A red pen is your best friend.
But if there is one show that has more characters than any of these, it has to be The Simpsons.
Funnily enough, I have no problem working out who is who there.