Zooglobble: What stories -- in any medium -- do you remember growing up?
Jonathan Messinger: At the risk of outing my tastes, which have not really changed since I was eight years old, the two stories that I remember loving the most as a young kid were The Hobbit (the book, not the animated movie) and The Neverending Story (the movie, not the book). Those were the two stories that were on nonstop rotation for me, reading and watching over and again as a kid. When I got a little older, it was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It was one of those books that a cousin gave to me when I was too young and I loved it, and then loved it for different reasons each time I re-read it as I got older.
Do you remember anything in particular about The Hobbit and The Neverending Story that drew you in? Was it the story? The fantasy? The sequential nature of the story?
For The Hobbit and The Neverending Story, I think what I loved about both of those stories was the endless surprises. The sense, as you progressed through the story, that anything could happen, around each corner was something unexpected, and it wasn't always going to be clear if it was friend or foe.
Hitchhiker's Guide just blew my mind. Until I read it, I didn't know a book could be that funny. That you could tell a great story and make your reader laugh that hard at the same time. The first time reading it felt like discovering a secret language. (I got to meet Douglas Adams a few years before he died, and was too tongue-tied to do anything but shake his hand.)
Hitchhiker's is one of those rare books that's laugh-out-loud funny and decently plotted.
What audio do you remember growing up?
My dad collected old radio serials and comedy. He had them on reel-to-reels (!) which he also then transferred onto cassette. My brother and I used to listen to those fairly obsessively. The two that really stick out for me are The Shadow from a mystery/drama perspective, and The Baby Snooks Show from a comedy perspective. I have very distinct memories of sitting on the living room floor and cracking up to Baby Snooks. My dad also introduced me to a lot of other radio comedy, like Jack Benny and of course Monty Python.
Do you think those radio serials work differently (or better) if they're listened to in immediate sequential order like you and your brother did, as opposed to how they were originally aired?
I am a huge proponent of cliffhangers. This is a central tension in the working relationship between myself and my editor (my son Griffin). He hates cliffhangers, loves spoilers, wants the whole story immediately.
But I think the delayed gratification of the cliffhanger is valuable. It allows you to take a moment and think about what you just heard (or read, or watched), and think about the whys and hows of a story. That inevitably leads you (and by you I mean adults and kids) to think about the underpinnings of storytelling—what are the characters motivations, what are they going to do to get what they want, etc. And if the audience starts theorizing on what happens next, then they feel an ownership of the story.
There are of course exceptions, and sometimes a cliffhanger can just be a cheap trick ("Same bat channel!"), but I'm all in favor of cheap tricks.
That's what made Serial -- both seasons -- a little odd, because it was serialized without being based on the cliffhanger. They seemed to ping-pong around the topic from episode, not so much linear as your show and other more traditional serials.
I think in both seasons of Serial, they probably had the serialized approach locked and loaded, and then were slightly derailed by new reporting (which enriched both seasons, in my opinion.)
So in crafting season 1 (and 2) of Finn, were you consciously crafting cliffhangers as you went along, or did you have the overall idea of the arc and just needed to figure out where to end each week?
The writing of season 1 started off very differently, but as I read new episodes to my son to get his take, I noticed the immediate impact of writing in cliffhangers. It also made it a little more fun to write.
This is a long answer, but bear with me. One of my favorite podcasts of all time was the official podcast of Breaking Bad, where Vince Gilligan and his writers and directors talked about making each episode. And one of the things they talked a lot about on that podcast is the way they would sort of write themselves into corners, and not know how they were going to get themselves out of it. Essentially, by keeping themselves surprised and sort of trapped, it forced them to think creatively and not follow a formula.
Not to compare my show to Breaking Bad, but I try to take a similar approach, and cliffhangers are sometimes how I do that. Sometimes an episode would end in a cliffhanger and I would say, "Huh, I wonder how they'll get out of that?" Even though I knew the general arc and where I wanted the story to go, I didn't always know how they were going to get there.