Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A little less fish, a lot bigger barrel, please

fish in a barrel--a metaphor for removing the need for skill in a contest or competition; tilting the conditions of a confrontation to a degree that insures easy solution; purging the doubt of final outcome from a dramatic narrative, thus an easy outcome from an endeavor.

This trope is an important one for the writer to remember. Readers do not want--cannot abide--results that come too easily. Even now, in the twenty-first century, there are those who think David got off too easily in his "contest" with Goliath, whom they try, in their revisionist history of the legendary sling-shot event, to represent as overly given to hubris. While it is true that readers respect and admire skill and cunning, they want these qualities to bring results after some pattern of trial and error. The scientist should not be allowed to come forth with a cure for cancer after spending only a week or two in the lab; she should have some added burden or incentive as a goal or as part of an emotional partnership approaching that of Capt. Ahab and Moby-Dick or Santiago and the great marlin.

The actual phrase "shooting fish in a barrel" has many possible meanings, beginning with the obvious question, is there any water in the barrel? Fish in a waterless barrel would likely be dead, making them a stationary target for the shooter. If there is indeed water in the barrel, discharging a gun into it would probably kill all the fish, thanks to the reverberation of sound. The common denominator in the concept is the absolute ease of outcome. The applicable dramatic denominator here is: Never take the reader where the reader wants to go, which is to say make things such as risk, misunderstanding, reversal, and surprise exponentially more likely to join the party as the story progresses.

A fish-in-a-barrel narrative is one in which the goal was not exquisite enough or was achieved too quickly and/or too easily, leaving some doubt in the reader's mind whether it was actually a "real" story or merely a shaggy-dog story. When a reader comes upon a story where some stated goal is achieved early on, the reader intuits the sinister hand of consequences, reaching metaphorically out to bring big time complication raining down on the protagonist. The reader waits for these complicating consequences.

Thomas Hardy rode into the twentieth century with a number of notable anti-fish-in-a-barrel novels, notable among them Jude, the Obscure, in which the protagonist had a specific goal for which he was emotionally and intellectually qualified and which, had Horatio Alger been the author, Jude would have at last achieved. But Hardy was Hardy, and Jude's seemingly reasonable goal met some fatal complications.

Bottom line: Something has to be given up, lost, or at least tempered before the goal is achieved, an observation that can lead to the ironic ending comparison between what has been gained and the price paid to achieve it. Not all endings are or need be ironic, yet it is nice to know that irony is there, waiting to be invited in.

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