Saturday, August 21, 2021

Two Observations on Storytelling: Stephen King and “Unforgotten”


Scott D. Parker


Two things struck me this week about the power of storytelling and the ability to weave a good tale. The first is not spoilerific—I haven’t finished the novel yet—while the second is very spoiler-heavy. Be warned.

Stephen King’s Billy Summers

I started King’s new novel this week. I’m listening to the audiobook from my local library via the awesome Libby app (y’all’ve got that app, right?). I was an avid reader of King’s novels from about 1987 (when I graduated from high school and entered college) all the way through the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. If he wrote a book, I read it or listened to it.

Somewhen over the 2010s, however, I started slowing. He didn’t, but I did. Don’t really have a reason. It just happened. In fact, the last King book I can remember listening to was Joyland. 

When Billy Summers was published, I decided to give it a try. In the story, Billy Summers is a former sniper now hired killer. He poses as a writer and, knowing those folks who hired him are monitoring his activity on the MacBook they supplied him, Billy begins to write his memoirs.

As soon as I heard that, I rolled my eyes. “Yet another story within a story thing from Stephen King? Really?”


It’s a thing King has done more than once. It’s particularly effective in Misery, but there are other examples. In that book, the font changed to indicate the story-within-the-story. In the audio of Billy Summers, narrator Paul Sparks slightly changes his voice so you can tell what part of the novel you are listening to.

Being an audiobook, yes, I can fast-forward but I would have no way of knowing when the ‘autobiography’ part stopped and the ‘Billy Summers’ part began. So, I did what the author wanted me to do: I listened.

And dang if the story-within-the-story part became almost as compelling as the main novel. There are whole sections of the story-within-the-story and I found myself really getting into that part. Then it would stop and I’d be reminded about the main story.

As if anyone ever needed any more examples of how good a storyteller Stephen King is, I’ll go ahead and submit this one into evidence. Like his stories or not, think they might be too long or not, you cannot dispute Stephen King is a modern master of the writing craft. I have known that ever since I read my first King novel—Pet Semetary—but I just needed a reminder. I got one this week.

The Ending of Unforgotten, Season 4

[Spoilers, folks]

Here in American, Masterpiece aired episode 6, the finale of Unforgotten, season 4, last Sunday. I’ve written about this BBC series before (how season 4’s opening episode instantly grabbed me) but season 4 did a couple of remarkable things for me.

One involved actor Andy Nyman. Before Unforgotten, I only knew Nyman as the comedic actor he is in Death at a Funeral. He is hilarious in that 2007 Frank Oz film and it took a little bit of time in episode 1 not to think of that funny character every time he appeared on screen. 

But by the finale, I earned a whole new respect for his acting prowess. He was wonderful, nuanced, and my favorite actor outside of the core group.

Speaking of the core group, Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaska play partner who solve cold cases. I’ve written about how much they are a breath of fresh air in detective shows. They’re not raging alcoholics or any of the usual tropes we see in TV cop shows. They are just normal people doing a dirty job the best that they can. They respect each other, but there’s not a hint of “will they or won’t they?’ in their relationship. They are friends and partners who deeply care for a love one another.

So it came as quite a shock to my wife and I as we watched the final moments of episode 5 when Walker’s character, Cassie Stuart, was driving and someone broadsided her car. In the previews of episode 6, we saw her in a hospital bed and all the other characters reacting to the news. We looked at each other and, other than wondering which of the suspects did the deed, wondered how Cassie was going to recover.

Spoiler alert: she didn’t. The character died. 

For older shows (Unforgotten aired on the BBC earlier this year), I do not do any research while I’m watching for the first time. News items can ruin big things that way. So I had no way of knowing what was coming.

It’s not every day when a main character is killed off on a popular TV show. I don’t know the ins and outs of Walker’s contract or any behind-the-scenes stuff so I don’t know why she left. But her leaving enabled a show that features normal people doing a troubling job the opportunity to show how those same normal character deal with the death of a friend and partner and commanding officer. It was stellar. 

The director also made a nice storytelling technique as well: for almost the entire last episode, Walker only appeared in the hospital bed. Only toward the end did we get to see Cassie leave the voice mail her father listens to over and over again, giving us viewers one last look at a beloved character.

And we also got a moving soliloquy from Bhaska’s Sunny. Just as the shock of Cassie’s passing took my breath away, Sunny’s little speech opened the waterworks.

Great storytelling.

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