Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Bloat, or The Power of the Shaggy Dog Story

I recently watched “The Power of the Dog” and could not believe I was watching the same movie that had been touted and lauded for so many weeks. The acting was fine, and the cinematography was beautiful, but the film's pace was glacial. The script was somewhat intriguing, but so spare as far as the actual story that it could have been the plot of a short subject, maybe thirty minutes in length. As a feature film, it was tedious.

Over the last few years, I have noticed something similar creeping into much of our visual and written arts. I think it may have started with Netflix, which is why it was dubbed “Netflix Bloat.” This awful tendency is, simply, the desire to stretch things into a longer format than their inherent story demands. TV shows are fattened up into endless miniseries, and single films are sold as the first installment in a series—to be written, if there is any demand, very soon.

Of course, I am aware that this change was driven by money. The success of franchises drives Hollywood, I get that. Obviously the LOTR trilogy was amazing in its multiple film form, and some long TV series are wonderful—I am as guilty of binge-watching “Downtown Abbey” as the next PBS devotee, but those exceptions only prove the rule. Most series episodes are fattened up with long minutes, and even whole episodes, of what can only be called “filler,” with the characters talking about things that don’t reveal anything new about themselves, or further the plot in any way.

Once upon a time, writers wrote to be serialized over a period of weeks or months, in popular magazines that paid by the word. The result was often quite enjoyable, in the hands of a master of prose like Charles Dickens, but Bleak House has a fairly limited readership today—actually, it is probably being developed as a not-very-limited series as I type these words.

Not surprisingly, we editors have been in agreement, over the years, that less is usually more. When rewriting, we attempt to always “omit useless words,” as the quote goes. Editing is about cutting the chaff and keeping the wheat, as well as taking out the colorful but pointless tangents that take readers nowhere.

But then someone told an author that “to sell well, you need a series,” and every writer took that as marching orders. If they had an idea for a book, they assumed it could be turned into a series. And so stories that had a fairly simple story arc, that could easily be told in one book, become a series of three or four or even five volumes. Next, authors will be paying editors to expand their word counts and suggest tangents.

Bottom line: More is not always better, and quantity is not the same as quality; readers will recommend your one or two books if they contain compelling stories. Period.

Hasta pronto!


  1. It's surprising from Jane Campion to watch a men's topic, a man's tale, though the female presence is important too. But it's mostly a character study, and certainly not a western...But yes, every actor is at his top here, the directing is sharp, accurate, deep inside the characters. Not an usual scheme which depicts relations,,especially between the young man and the tyrant, played by an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch. It deserves to be watched several times I guess to understand it completely. Very subtle, brilliant, pulled by a sensibility which only a woman could provide.
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  2. Rewatched it and found it just as slow and not worth the time. Guess it is just not my cup of tea. My husband, a film buff and screenwriting teacher, felt the same way.

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