Monday, September 8, 2008

Great Expectations

If you've ever been back stage waiting to go on for a play or musical, or perhaps been waiting in a green room, awaiting your turn for a TV appearance on an interview show, or if your life has been less dramatic, if you can recall waiting to be interviewed for a job you really wanted, you'll relate to the feelings of expectations and apprehension. What, for instance, if I blow my lines? Or, what if I'm not convincing enough in conveying how much I really want this job?

Your characters are like that, wanting the part, wanting the job. They have expectations. A character who walks into the paragraphs of a story without expectation is going to be chewed up, a bug meeting an oncoming windshield. A character in a scene without expectations has not been prepped.

Let's look at Fred, who's got a Zen thing going. I have no expectations, Fred says. I am not bound up in attachment to expectations. I'm in the now.

Will says I want the job at stake in this story. Of all the characters in competition for the job, I'm best qualified, have the most experience, and have a five-year plan for productivity.

Ed says I want recognition for what I've done. I want to be recognized as someone shrewd, loyal, and inventive, a team player.

Max says I'm ready for the big time, no more minor league ball for me, man. I can hit breaking stuff, have less than one error per thousand innings, and have a strong throwing arm.

All these are reasonable expectations, particularly if they are met, so the vector of story and what they will do while on stage if their expectations are met, blunted, or have some codicil attached to them. What volcanic forces will begin to seethe and roil within the character whose expectations are not met.

I should have known better, the ultimate nipping of hope, expectation, enthusiasm in the bud. I should have known better because I'm not worthy. I should have known that there were politics at play here. What we have then is the larger message, I should have known better than to expect fairness or justice.

Such rich subtext we have when some of our characters do not speak or act in consequence with their expectations. Such lovely moments of tension or suspense or drama or revelation or all of these when a character expresses his or her expectations and is told he/she cannot expect them to be met. Well, that's very nice but I was thinking we could be friends. Oh, I thought you knew, I don't date boys. I date girls. Thing is, we were thinking of bringing in someone from outside for that job.

When you are pulled into a particularly enticing jumble of dramatic events, your first expectation is that you will finish it, perhaps even finish it well, without the slightest moment of hand wringing or thoughts that this work is no magic carpet, it does not fly. When you get beyond that point, you have hopes, expectations that someone you care about will get the emotional chorus you built into the work. Then your expectations climb to the ledge of publication, perhaps even a splendid review or two, to the point where you will be invited back for at least one more work. And then you will expect--don't tell me you won't--that the published work will have some effect on the world.

We have numerous ways for coping with our expectations, ranging from rationalizations, denial, transference, delusion, despair. For every expectation there is an outcome. Are expectations like quarters fed into a casino slot? And what if we hit the jackpot?

Allowing characters to step into a scene without expectations or some relevant chore is like letting them go off to school with out-of-fashion clothing; they are sure to be met by playground bullies, greeted with jeers, sent off to consider their shortcomings where we don't have to look at them


Wild Iris said...

Several years ago I realized something that should have been obvious perhaps, and that realization was that heartache is nothing more than deep and rending disappointment... an unmet expectation that was held so dear it must either be addressed and mourned immediately, or it will bury itself deep and precipitate the worst of outcomes.

One can not go through life without expectations, and what wonderful opportunities arise in story telling when expectations are met, and even more so when they are not met. Blunted expectations serve well, but it is shattered expectations that really ratchet up the anxiety of the character, and the more room we have to see the integrity (or lack thereof) of the character.

One might expect to put a quarter in a slot machine and win big, and be disappointed, but not nearly as disappointed as the spouse at home who's received an eviction notice because the gambler gambled the last few mortgage payments away. The question then arises does the spouse go or do they stay? If they go, do they lack fortitude? If they stay is it because they lack the self respect necessary to better their situation? Do they try to control the other person, or do they exert that control over themselves to bring about the changes necessary in their life whether they choose to stay or go? In any of these scenarios there is room for conflict, drama, and an empathy to form with the protag.

Some gamble on money, others gamble on people... always there is an expectation, and faith partnered with hope that the expectation will be met, but always... with or without faith... having expectations met in the way we wish for them to be is a bigger gamble than any of us care to admit. Some times we face devastating loss, sometimes we win big, and sometimes we break even. That gamble has to show through in a story. The reader must be aware of the risk that the character is taking, even if the character is oblivious. Regardless of the outcome, the question left at the end of the day is what did we/the character learn to do right, and what will we/they do differently tomorrow? And is the reader satisfied that those lessons have been learned? Because if they have not, then the story is not yet over, nor can it become a new one.

Anonymous said...






Oh, and Great Expectations is one of my favorite novels ever.

Anonymous said...

...and then there's the character who comes into the story well and fully bursting with expectations. And forgets the warning about getting what you wished for.

I guess part of the interview-the-characters process needs then to include this question -- probably asked with fingertips tented, eyebrows raised, lips pursed: "So tell me: You answered the ad and obviously something appealed to you about it. What do you think, hope, expect the job will entail?"

Thanks, Shelly. Refreshing way to look at it.