f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of Complexity – Monk, Cal Ripken, Tricks, and Clues

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, March 04, 2005

Day 4 of Complexity – Monk, Cal Ripken, Tricks, and Clues

1. Though on the outside they’re both detective shows, there’s a vast difference between the shows Monk and CSI. Monk is a detective story, while CSI is a procedural show. And if you ask me to talk about them at a story level, I’d say that while CSI is flashier and glitzier, Monk—when done well—is the more elegant.

Here’s the reason: Monk, usually, shows its cards upfront. There’s a mystery to be solved and you’re given all the clues to solve it. CSI is all about procedure and normally there’s some crucial piece of evidence that needs to be found before the right criminal is apprehended. It’s a cheat—a way of prolonging suspense artificially by keeping viewers intentionally in the dark.

Monk risks losing its suspense by allowing viewers the opportunity to solves the crimes. There are episodes where I’ve known within the first five minutes. The only pleasure then comes in watching it to the end with my wife to prove how wonderfully smart and talented I am.

The thing is, I couldn’t do this at first with Monk. Only in watching a full season did I pick up the little tricks they used to innocuously introduce important clues while learning to ignore the red herrings. Fact is I’m not wonderfully smart and talented. Any twelve year old willing to ruin an episode could play the same game and learn the same tricks.

(I remember quite vividly reading all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories one summer as a thirteen-year-old and realizing about fifteen stories in that Doyle never quite shows all the clues. There was always one footprint or bit of tobacco that Holmes sees but doesn't mention until the end. Drove me nuts. And yet I read them all.)

2. Cal Ripken is one of the greatest shortstops ever. He revolutionized the position in the early 1980s. Shortstop was once the realm of lithe, quick, light-hitting glove men. Ozzie Smith springs to mind. Cal Ripken is a large dude. Power hitter. No blazing speed. Yet he played the position wonderfully and the reason is because repetition and deep understanding of the game allowed him to place himself in the right spot to catch a ball—before it was ever hit. Those little tricks and clues made his lack of quickness a non-issue.

3. This post has wandered afield, as things do on Friday. It’s mainly about seeing through complexity. I think that’s what should happen to us as we begin to improve as writers and readers. The sheer undertaking of a novel may seem daunting when looked at it as a whole. The skills and tricks and clues that we pick up from reading and writing, however, should help begin parsing the novel down into manageable chunks.

At the same time, they should make reading a more interesting pastime. Have you ever tried to write out where you think a writer is going with a book? Try it sometime. Look at the clues and predictors left in the text and see how close you can come. It should help you gain confidence in planning the overall structure for a book. But remember, most novels aren’t about deep surprise in the plot of a book. Instead our pleasure comes from the emerging details and characterization on the journey through those plots.