With the advent that is American Horror Story returning shortly to our screens via Season six, the internet is being flooded with promotional material for the show - trailers, posters, articles, etc.
In fact, to date, we have 19, yes NINETEEN teasers for the new show, all toying with the fans and asking that infamous question: What is this season's THEME?
Yes, American Horror Story is back at it again with generating intense interest among fans and skeptics alike as to what exactly it will be about this time around. It's amazing to me how well they do this.
American Horror History
Let me back up for a moment. When American Horror Story first arrived on the scene with Season One: Murder House, I was fully on board. The show was creepy as all hell, the storytelling was pretty good, the acting - watchable, and the imagery alone was enough to haunt your nightmares. It seemed like the series was doing new things, and achieving spectacular results.
Season Two: Asylum arrived, and once again, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Season Two, for me was AHS' height in regards to storytelling, acting and originality. But alas, it was not to be. With the return of Season Three: Coven, the show became some kind of New Orlean's Harry Potter-horror comedy, a comedy that became so caught up with all the interesting individual ideas it had for the story, that by the time the end of the season came around, they hadn't actually developed the narrative progression enough and had to end the season suddenly with deus ex machina cliches and plot twists.
(Author's side note: Deus Ex Machina: an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.)
Yet, somehow, with the arrival of Season Four: Freak Show, I kept watching. Much of the same horror/comedy vibe, Freak Show was the first season I saw that made me reconsider the construction of individual AHS seasons. I looked back on the previous ones and noted something.
Every Season Of AHS Follows This Particular Structure:
1. Start off with a solid, original theme or setting.
2. Introduce an ensemble cast of fascinating characters.
3. Start telling an ensemble of minor stories relating to each character.
4. Forget about a central story arch.
5. Remember the central story arch with 3 episodes to go.
6. Try conclude not only the multiple smaller story arcs, but also the central one within 3 episodes.
7. Run out of time to do this.
8. Introduce a "horror" twist that may or may not make sense.
9. Fill your finale with deus ex machina conclusions.
10. Leave several questions unanswered.
With Season Five, AHS merely reiterated their storytelling capabilities once again with moments of brilliance, followed by confusion and a lack of narrative cohesion.
Now, don't get me wrong, there are some true gems in AHS, and the first two seasons in my opinion, although following this structure as well, somehow managed to get away with it, perhaps because at that point, we as an audience were watching something entirely new to television - nobody had ever done such intense, stylistic horror on TV before.
The reason I bring this show up as an example, is because in this article, I want to speak on the importance of marketing when it comes to telling stories.
Marketing A Story
No matter which way you swing it, American Horror Story has FANTASTIC marketing. I mean, think about it. Somehow, every year, it manages to get all of us fans super pumped, excited that perhaps this new season will be AMAZING. We go into it with high hopes, we devour the teaser videos, the articles speculating as to the theme, and we look for as many clues to connect the individual seasons to previous ones, in hopes of unlocking some kind of hidden code within the narratives.
And then, when the show is finally released, we sit down in front of our screens, bright eyed, ready for some scares. The first two episodes? Awesome. The setting is creepy and stylish, the characters are fascinating, we can't wait to hear all about the backstory of this monster and that mutant.
But then, somewhere around episode four or five, we start to ask - hang on a sec, what is this story actually about? Like, over all? If we can answer that question, its generally pretty vague, and that is because the writers maybe touched on it in episode one or two, and never went back to it. Around episode seven, you start to think, boy, how are they going to resolve this, wrap it all up in three more episodes? By episode nine, you're grinning miserably at the screen - there's no way this is going to be all resolved neatly in the finale.
When the finale finishes and the credits roll, most of us, if we're honest, come away feeling... well, disappointed. Our AHS fandomness goes into hibernation until about mid next year, when the teasers and the speculation around the new theme begin again, and we become suckered in once more, hoping that THIS TIME they'll get the story right.
Perhaps this is the true American Horror Story - the insanity of us, its fans climbing onto that merry-go-round time and time again, only to be destroyed by the time we get off, but not so much that we never want to get back on.
AHS may not know how to do storytelling right, the show runners are not writers for sure, but I repeat: the get marketing down to a T.
On the flip side, there are plenty of brilliant stories out there, truly genius pieces of writing and acting that are virtually unknown, all because they never get marketing right. And I know, as an artistic person, a writer myself, there's this kind of self-destructive defiance against using anything commercial to further or work in the public sphere, but we have to push past that, it's not about us making money out of our art, it's about letting the world see it and enjoy it.
So let's briefly look at AHS' marketing and what it gets right.
Well, first off, the most important thing for AHS is the question of theme. As audiences, we love narrative questions.
There are two kinds of narrative questions important to what we are talking about here. Let's call them Arc questions and Narrative jumps.
An Arc Question is a question the audience is prompted to ask regarding the entire season or story they are digesting. This question can begin to be asked before the release of said story, as in the case of AHS "What is next season going to be about?" or it can be asked during the story, as in the case of LOST "Will they survive long enough to escape the Island?" or it can be a mix of both.
An Arc Question is crucial for the marketing of any kind of long-form fiction, it's what wets the appetite of the audience and keeps them coming back for more each week or each chapter etc.
Equally as important are Narrative jumps.
Narrative jumps are smaller questions, generally hidden within the story as it plays out in front of the audience. These questions are all about generating conversation within the fandom, creating speculation about where the story is going and the story's lore or mythos.
Examples of Narrative jumps can be seen again with AHS - "What's the creature living in Room 33?" or in the case of LOST - "What's inside the Hatch?"
Narrative jumps are all about asking a question about a smaller aspect of the text, and not answering it right away. This allows the audience time to discuss, share theories and opinions online, it creates a buzz of interest in the story and once again, brings them back for more.
While AHS may often falter in its ability to tell a good story, it uses these narrative marketing techniques incredibly well. As a result of this, the show is able to create a hive of activity from the fandom even months before a new season is to be released.
Another aspect of marketing that the show gets right is Style. I could make a pretty decent case that AHS focuses on style over substance, but that is unhelpful in this context. AHS knows its strengths for sure, and uses its extreme graphic style to sell itself to fans and potential fans.
As I'm sure you're noticing by now, AHS uses all three of these techniques in tangent with one another to sell their show. They release heavily stylistic teasers that not only feed our lust for graphic weird horror, but also prompt us to ask such Arc questions like "What will this season be about?" and "How does it connect to the previous seasons?" as well as giving us tidbits of information that become Narrative jumps such as "Who's running a chainsaw?" and "What's that creature on the train tracks?"
How Internet Has Changed The Way We Tell Stories
In a world that is becoming increasingly saturated in not just marketing, but also storytelling, it is important for us as writers to stand above the rest. If you want your work to be noticed, you need to consider these kinds of things.
The internet has changed the way we tell stories drastically. While there has always been the concept of the death of the author in post-modern storytelling (the idea that an audience interpretation is infinitely more important than the author's intent), the internet has intensified that concept in a strange way.
Communication between the author and the audience is now more easy than ever, and as such great shows and stories often allow for audience engagement to help structure their narratives.
In marketing our stories, we need to consider this aspect, as not only does it give the audience a feeling of ownership over the narrative, it also provides us writers with an near unlimited well of ideas for future plots. Writers need to cultivate these wells through the use of marketing that encourages conversation about lore and mythology and future plot twists.
AHS may not be a perfect series, but I do believe it will go down in the history books as being a particularly important Television show. It has made bold and daring choices with style, and the way it chooses to market itself. The show is worthy of our attention each year, even though we will most likely be disappointed. It is worthy to analyse so as to learn how marketing well can effect not only the size and commitment of our fan base, but also the future development of our stories.