Stories may be lifelike, but not like life. After all they require a selectiveness about what to tell and what to withhold. That decision is fundamental to narrative success.
When you’re writing a piece of fiction, or for that matter a poem, the notion of form is metaphorical. You can choose to work within a recognisable genre, or verse form, (though even here the “form” cannot be a constraint in the way drawing within a rectangle might be). Or you can set your own terms and ask the reader or viewer to come with you. Readers or viewers will then come to their own judgements about whether this new thing you’ve offered is aesthetically or even emotionally satisfying.
Christopher Booker made a splash arguing an alternative view. His The Seven Basic Plots spends hundreds of pages trying to delineate seven archetypal narrative forms, which he suggests somehow correspond (in a Jungian way) to something deep in our consciousness. If you deviate from these forms, as old Modernists like James Joyce did, he argues you will produce something necessarily unsatisfying.
This strikes me as a lot of effort to give a psychobabbling and spurious apology for bourgeois art, but with that point made, I want to focus on the mainstream narrative of ITV’s Marcella, which just completed its first (and possibly only) series.
Marcella was written by Hans Rosenfeldt, who created and wrote The Bridge. You could say then he has form, which would happen to be a version of crime fiction with plots extended by multiple red herrings.
It worked after a fashion through most of Marcella, because through most of the series it was impossible to guess what was going on. There were just too many elements in play. This was useful for Rosenfeldt because it obscured the many implausibilities that were already running through the story.
In these circumstances implausibility really may not matter too much. You go along with the story (this is a version of writers being able to set their own terms).
The trouble is that what when you’re working in an established genre like TV crime fiction you also have to deal with a weight of audience expectation. We could accept and enjoy all these multiplying threads because the genre promised resolution in the end.
It seems though that the pleasure of this resolution depends on how much actually gets resolved. Marcella answered its main whodunnit question, with meta-narrative pretensions (some of the story’s red herrings had been put there by the killer to keep the police from his trail). I understand too that the series might have wanted to set itself up for a sequel, where further questions could be answered, but with the way it all worked out there were far too many loose ends for this to be acceptable.
It’s true that audience expectations are not set in stone, even when you choose to work in a mainstream genre like crime fiction. You can shift those expectations, recalibrate them, as David Lynch and Mark Frost did in an extreme way with Twin Peaks. The latter started off looking like a soap with a murder mystery thrown in, but it soon became clear that the pleasures it offered were going to be of a different kind, with the narrative constantly teetering on the edge of coherence (I think and hope David Lynch would take that as a compliment).
But you have to do the work for this. Marcella wanted to take us to a version of London where building companies murder local authority planners if they get in the way of a project. This might just about have been plausible had there been a gangland connection, but it didn’t seem to be that kind of story. None of the red herrings or minor plotlines conditioned our responses to expect anything other than a tying up of loose ends. Writers can set their own terms, but that takes a bit of effort, and on its own terms Marcella was sadly underwritten.
It’s illuminating to contrast this inadequate narrative management with the very finely calibrated conclusion of Great Expectations. Dickens had some problems with the ending. There was public pressure for a happier resolution, in which Pip finally got together with Estella. Dickens consequently rewrote the ending, with a carefully ambiguous sentence which allows the reader to hope for their eventual union. But it doesn’t actually offer that resolution, instead perpetuating the daft aspiration we were encouraged to share with Pip throughout the story, that he might marry this monstrous woman. Great Expectations is a novel about how romantic hope may overwhelm judgement, an idea which it formally embodies by playing on the romantic expectations we readily bring to these fictions. The ending cleverly leaves us in a state of irresolution, which is formally satisfying, just because it is frustrating for our sentimentality.
Marcella is not alone among recent TV productions in taking us for a ride then leavingt us short of the destination, bodging the end: Line of Duty is the most obvious high-profile culprit. The Dickens comparison shows that there’s a world of difference between a creative ambiguity and a tangle of loose ends or implausibility. Endings have the power to make or break or story, no matter what may have preceded them. I’ve found myself too often lately living in the hope of something better from TV drama.