Captivating Storytelling

August 7, 2023

By Anthony Garzilli

It was chaotic. It was captivating. It was unnerving. It was relentless.  

I wish it didn’t end.

When watching a television show or movie, or reading a book or short story, tension keeps us absorbed and focused.

An engaging storyline is amplified by moments of breathless anticipation, paced expertly by sharp dialogue or precise phrasing.

Most experiences are appreciated in the moment but then dissolve among the monotony of hundreds of other shows or books, never to be thought of again. But sometimes a moment violently grabs us, holds tight and does not let go.

I experienced such a moment recently while watching “The Bear,” the instantly attention-grabbing adult drama streaming on Hulu.

The story of an acclaimed young chef who comes home to Chicago to run his family’s sandwich shop is rife with tension from the onset (including a brilliant, nerve-rattling, one-shot 20-minute episode in Season 1 that I still think about).

Season 2 begins with (relatively) calmer episodes, with the simmering tension building toward the planned opening night of a new restaurant.

But then the sixth episode — “Fishes”  — explodes into 66 minutes of unrelenting intensity that was engrossing, at times heartbreaking, and had my unwavering attention.

The Christmas Eve episode, an anxiety-inducing flashback that painfully spotlighted the Berzatto family’s trauma and dysfunction, was a tour de force of acting, script writing, camera work and music selection.

It was a reminder of how beautiful storytelling can grip us and leave lasting impressions.

From a calm but ominous cigarette-sharing opening chat among siblings in the cold (with shouts heard coming from inside the home as “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” played), to tempers getting heated in the kitchen and at the dinner table, and to its haunting closing scene of characters dissociating after a jolting crash, the episode exemplified how tension can be so riveting.

The best storytelling has us hanging on each word, feeling invested in the fate of the characters and excited and anxious for what happens next.

Julie Otsuka’s stunningly moving short story “Diem Perdidi,” about a mother slowly losing her memory, comes to mind.

As does journalist Garrett M. Graff’s article, “We’re the Only Plane in the Sky,” a masterwork that chronicles the experiences of those on board Air Force One in the harrowing hours immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Such stories leave us buzzing, exhausted, and wanting more.