I discovered the NBC television series This Is Us in summer reruns this year and I have become obsessed with it. If you enjoyed shows like Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, you’ll not only recognize the tone and structure in This Is Us, you’ll see familiar names pop up in the directing credits. It probably won’t surprise you that what has most attracted me to this show is the writing, both the quality of dialogue within episodes and the structural connections between episodes. Series creator Dan Fogelman has framed a milestone achievement in word-to-screen translation.
If you are a student of fiction you know that narrative has the highest emotional impact when story and character are revealed on equal footing, one reinforcing the other. Whether you attempt the craft professionally or as an avocation, you know how immensely difficult this is to do, particularly consistently. Characters matter more when the story advances as a result of their arcs. The depth of characters is more fully rendered when plot points drive their change. It’s enormously challenging. Try it sometime. Or you can just watch This Is Us.
I certainly don’t want to give away any spoilers surrounding this show in case you decide to binge on it after reading this post. At its core it is the story of three people born on the same day circa 1980 (the year I graduated from high school, go figure). The storyline follows them from infancy to adulthood with all of the many tangents in their lives around family, friends, loved ones lost and found, career highs and lows, and personal discoveries. The emotional complexity of the characters is what makes it powerful, yet surprise twists in their interwoven journeys jump out all the time, making it the kind of serial that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more.
What consistently blows my mind in this show is how character development is revealed in snippets that link forward and back in time, particularly replaying events with increased detail layered into the unveiling of previously hidden moments. It is these hidden moments that led me to write about the show. What continually strikes me as gripping drama is how little we know about any one character or event at any moment in time, and how adding onto the storyline sheds light on the “why” of every moment. I think about this in life every day as I encounter people, not so much in what I do see but in the stark reality of how little I see.
“The little we see” is the mystery of real-life human drama. Someone could be standing next to you in line at Starbucks with a thin smile, but she may have just come from the hospital visiting someone in critical condition. Someone could run into you on the freeway wildly distracted, when an hour ago he was turned down in his marriage proposal. The person next to you in a bar watching a baseball game might be ordering the beer that sends him tumbling off the wagon. We barely know what we see. We usually have little idea why it is happening, what meaning or consequence it may have, or what life fork in the road it may represent. Good storytelling fills in the blanks. Compounding life events don’t snap together as Lego blocks nearly that solidly.
Returning to my obsessions, in my early writing career when I was learning the craft and reading much more than I was writing, I found myself consumed with the question of what happens to characters when we don’t see them. I spent a lot of time immersed in stage-play texts and repeatedly asked myself purposefully unanswerable questions. What are these characters thinking and doing when they are offstage? What were they doing before the play began? What will they be doing after the final curtain? Certainly writers have to think about these things, but the time-limiting constraint that they never can fill in all the blanks is what can elevate a story from entertainment to a more lasting form of art. The elements of a character’s life that are left open-ended are the entry point where the reader’s imagination can come alive. It is in that synthesis that a work becomes both personalized and shared.
Why might this matter to you even if you aren’t particularly enamored with fiction? Perhaps you are like me and find yourself wondering throughout the day about the backstories and masked details in the lives of the people who walk into and out of your contact each day. When you are in a meeting and the presenter is struggling, what was he doing an hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, a year ago? When you hear a co-worker arguing on the phone in the hallway about something that sounds personal and know that you are about to review a business plan together, will that person be paying enough attention to make good decisions and what will happen to resolve the argument by the time you meet again tomorrow? When a co-worker’s child visits your office, what does she see and how will it possibly affect her future decisions about her career?
All of this fascinates me both as a writer and a businessperson, because the long and winding roads of our lives are filled with invisible forks where we choose a path and don’t necessarily know at the time that the decision was of immense consequence. I will be writing more about these invisible forks soon because I think the resonance of our decision-making becomes more consequential when we pay attention to the impact it has on those around us. We can never chart our own fate entirely, but we can think now and again about what might be going on offstage as well as onstage before we act.
One of the best pieces of advice my dad gave me in business was that unless you are in the room where a decision is made, you will never know why that decision was made. My trepidation has gone further, because too often I have been in that room and I still don’t know why many decisions are made. To me that signals what happened in the other room where I wasn’t present and didn’t even know there was a meeting, or what happened in someone’s living room that morning, or what might be happening in some hotel conference room that night. We see what we see and it’s never enough. We see too little, yet we still have to make decisions.
The little we see is a subset of any story. Think about it that way and you might make different choices when you are in the scene. Onstage or off, the story is part public, part private, part secret, part personal, and always conflicted. That is what makes a great television series like This Is Us. What it says about our lives and our business dealings is something else entirely.
Photo: This Is Us Gallery, NBC.com
Ken – Wow! Beautiful. Your words, “… the stark reality of how little I see.” That is humbling and a constant reminder that we all need to be kind and have compassion for people, particularly in the times we live. I too have renewed appreciation for kindness and compassion for others and for me as well. Love the homage to your Dad. Awesome.
I shall watch “This is Us”. I’ve heard amazing things.
The great storytellers like you have the singular and distinct power to alter the way people view others, themselves, and the world for the better, for good. You inspire. Mahalo.