Spoiler alert: We live in a recap media culture. Here's how to write a good one.
Here’s how it works in the Clark family. After a Sunday night episode of "Game of Thrones," I wait for my cell phone to twinkle. It's my daughter Alison, an actor who lives in Atlanta. What follows is a text message exchange, like this:
Daughter: Did you see it??
Dad: OMggggggg. Seven Gods!
Daughter: HOLY LORD OF LIGHT!!!
Dad: Maybe best battle scene ever filmed. Loved the hungry dogs and Sansa’s smile.
Daughter: Loved the Greyjoy Stormborn forearm pact.
Dad: Lots of woman power this week. Sansa!
Even if you know nothing about the series, you can sense the excitement of two fans immersed in a narrative. Monday evening, the phone will ring and Alison I talk for an hour about the most recent episode. During that time, we will:
- Recap the action.
- Discuss what worked best for us — and what did not work.
- Make some predictions on what might happen next.
Alison and I have become actors in the Recap Culture. We will consume the recaps of others on movies, television shows, award shows, sporting events, serial documentaries and even recurring news events. But we don’t think of ourselves as passive. We want to read and watch, but we also want to talk, talk, talk.
That good talk — let’s call it conversation — can be inspired by expert writers and critics who know how to produce recaps for a variety of media platforms. This essay will help you think about the craft of the recap: especially the how and the why.
A cool thing about the recap experience: It can broaden its audience and extend for several days.
I arrive at work on Monday morning ready to talk about the latest episode with my colleague, Jordan.
Jordan: "Don’t say anything! I haven’t watched it yet."
Me: "OK! just holler at me when you are ready."
At one time, we thought of this as watercooler chatter. “Who do you think shot J.R.?” Now, it seems, thanks to cable television, the internet and social media, to be something much broader and deeper, captured in a phrase I first heard from my editor Ben Mullin: the Recap Culture.
As I write that phrase, I have a hunch and hit the dictionary, where I discover that the word “recap” is a shortened form of “recapitulation,” defined as “a summary or concise review, as of a news report.”
I’ve been listening to old conversations among novelists such as Jonathan Franzen and the late David Foster Wallace about the so-called demise of the serious novel. I have tried a few times now, but it has been hard for me to devote a month to reading the thousand pages of Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”
And yet I have devoted countless hours — weeks and months — watching television serials such as "Breaking Bad," "House of Cards," "True Detective," "Fargo," "Orange is the New Black," "Mad Men"…and on and on. Not only did I find time to watch them, but I find time I did not know I had discussing them. Serial narratives carry with them a desire for recap and an insatiable need to wonder about what will happen next.
This is old magic. In 1841, readers of Charles Dickens’ novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” crowded the harbor in New York City, waiting desperately for a British ship that would deliver the latest chapter. Would the Orphan Nell die in abject poverty, or would she survive?
If that seems too 1840s to be relevant, think of me at midnight at a Walmart waiting to buy my copy of the seventh and final book in the "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling. Or think about all the conversation and debate generated by NPR’s “Serial,” a series of hour-long podcasts revisiting the evidence of an old murder case.
When we are hooked, the experience of story ceases to be a private matter. We are compelled to talk, argue, meet with friends, call Tom in Indiana, join the thread of commentary. There seem to be countless podcasts devoted to "Game of Thrones." My favorite is produced by James Hibberd and Darren Franich for Entertainment Weekly.
For about 45 minutes, I can walk around the park and through my earbuds listen to funny, fervent, and well-informed conversation between two writers who share a passion for the series. My colleague Kelly McBride turned me on to one of the brainiest of the growing army of recappers, Jeremy Egner of The New York Times.
I was so impressed by Egner’s style, speed and critical insights that I emailed him questions about how he works. I will share his responses, but first here is a highlight from his most recent recap, season six, episode nine.
Spoiler alerts galore…
The demise of the lord, Ramsay Bolton, was arguably the most eagerly anticipated death ever on “Game of Thrones” and the show handled it with flair, dispatching him in a poetic, canine-fueled fashion that was no less satisfying for being telegraphed early on. I haven’t fed my hounds in seven days, Ramsay told Jon Snow and friends during the pre-battle trash-talking session, at which point I suspect most of us guessed who would ultimately end up in the dog dish.
When I first read this, I was attracted to Egner’s approach and to his trick of voice: which was to sound both conversational and erudite. Egner is the smartest kid in the room, wise and wiseass. Reading him felt like having a conversation with my pal Tom French at the Banyan coffee shop in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Egner writes like the kind of friend who knows what you want to talk about before you even tell him. He is not interested in a straight recap of the action. His recap is colored by brainy commentary, including the evidence of doggy foreshadowing (which I had missed in my viewing). "Game of Thrones," like other series set in the past, has a way of being about the present.
In the same spirit, Egner describes the classic insult exchange between Jon and Ramsay as “trash talking.” Ending that paragraph with “end up in the dog dish” is the kind of euphemism/dysphemism that seems popular these days, nothing cynical here, just vicious bark turned into playful snark.
This particular recap attracted more than 600 comments, and a few rotten apples could not spoil the experience of immersion in a community of watchers, readers, and talkers. Their insights were often sharper than mine and on occasion matched Egner’s.
(David Ho from Los Angeles, noted that the creator of the series, George R. R. Martin “really loves symmetries: Hodor is a big hero for keeping the door closed. Wun Wun is a big hero for breaking open the door.”)
I find the craft of creating these critical recaps most impressive. I love to watch journalists who can turn events around on the tightest deadline and do it with flair and insight.
Among this tribe, sports writers stand out. Think about it: a reporter has to watch a game in real time, record the highlights in progress (these days including a Twitter feed), and begin rehearsing decisions (“What’s my lead”?) without knowing how the narrative will end.
Will LeBron James lead the Cavaliers to victory and give Cleveland its first championship in half a century, or will Steph Curry of the Warriors save the day and return Northeast Ohio to the pit of despair? All these variations must be played out in anticipation of the climax. You can’t wait till the end, and then start writing. So it is with the kind of recap of cultural journalism that Egner is delivering.
I asked him about his process:
- Have you screened these episodes or are you writing your recaps and comments in real time?
For "Game of Thrones," specifically — I've also recapped "The Walking Dead" and "True Detective" for the NYT, among other series — I watch the episodes on Sunday nights along with everyone else. In past seasons, HBO made at least a few episodes available in advance. But this year they stopped sending out press screeners.
- Please describe how you manage it: Watch once or more? Take notes? Draft quick and revise? Publish how quickly?
Back in the screener days, I used to watch each episode at least twice and take some time to ponder themes/procrastinate before I wrote. But now I just watch on Sundays and frenetically take notes, occasionally pausing/rewinding the DVR (or asking my wife) if I miss what seemed like a key line or revelation. Often I flesh out a few thoughts in advance based on what I think might happen in a given episode, the way you might work up some b-matter before a sporting event or award show. But not always.
After the show, I write up some observations as quickly as possible and send them to my editor. That goes up around an hour after the episode ends, along with a groveling plea for anyone who reads it to please come back later for the in-depth version. Then I do a deeper write-through that usually gets posted a few hours later.
- Please describe how you manage it: Watch once or more? Take notes? Draft quick and revise? Publish how quickly?
- What do you learn from your readers comments?
Well occasionally I learn that I've misspelled the name of some lesser knight or maester. (The names are insane on this show — I've never accurately spelled "Daenerys" without double-checking. The Game of Thrones wiki is invaluable for this sort of thing.)
But more common is some insight into a character's behavior, or an interesting notion about what some enigmatic moment might mean for the larger story. The show's narrative is incredibly dense and I freely admit when I'm stumped by something — see: Cersei's "rumor" from a couple weeks ago. I frequently solicit readers' theories about the show's various puzzles, which they're generally happy to share (occasionally with less civility than I'd like but on balance, our commenters are thoughtful and friendly.)
While I try to bring some critical assessment to the recaps and am objective about what works and what doesn't, there's also a conscious, fannish informality that differentiates them from more straightforward reviews. (Titlewise, I'm an editor not a critic.) I approach the task almost like I'm leading a book club, encouraging discussion and trying to embrace, in the writing and in the themes explored and questions raised, the fun of diving into a sprawling story.
Back to me. The one week my daughter Alison and I veered from our normal Game of Thrones debrief was the day of the Orlando shootings. The dreadful violence of real life eclipsed the fantasies of dragon holocausts. Our text messages went this way:
Dad: Alison, no spoilers. We can talk tomorrow or whenever. So so angry about Orlando.
Daughter: Me too. I’m feeling lost. And sad. I’ll watch tomorrow and we can talk.
Dad: Art can help us find our way, give us solace and give voice to our anger.
Aristotle teaches us that the viewing of tragedy involves a catharsis, which he defines as the purging of emotions of pity and fear. When we see a fictional hero (Jon Snow or Arya Stark) suffer, we experience life and death vicariously. Pity attracts us to the character. We identify with human suffering. But we also fear it. We fear what might happen to us. But we know that when the action is over, when the screen goes dark, we can walk from the theater, or turn off the TV.
While those impulses are most clearly expressed in the experience of fiction or the dramatic arts, delivered serially, there is plenty of evidence to indicate they can work when nonfiction is delivered in dramatic episodes (as in “Serial” or the ESPN documentary on the O.J. Simpson trial).
Let’s learn what we can about the Recap Culture. Let’s build audience by leveraging the passions of loyal fans or binge watchers. But let’s imagine the ways we can turn that appetite for fiction into a continuing appetite for dramatic news.