Friday, June 26, 2009

It All Depends

contingency--an event that has potential for occurring; a possibility without being a definite certainty; something liable to take place as a consequence of a previous action.

The behavior of a character in a story is contingent on 1) that character's reaction to another character, 2) one or more events in a character's past, 3) a character pursuing an agenda, 4) a character suffering a reversal. Contingency is the excitement of story, mixed with ambiguity and plot design to create a simultaneous atmosphere of causality and uncertainty in any given narrative. A splendid example of contingency in operation is Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, the net in the title mischievously referring to the net of language and the potentials therein for misunderstanding. One of the lead characters, Jake Donaghue, is writer who has just written a novel, The Silencer, from which comes this contingency-describing quote, "All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net." Many of Jake's actions ironically reflect his being driven from place to place by his inability to interpret facts and choices presented through the reactions of other characters.

Some modern critics have made names for themselves by linking closure with contingency, a useful way for a writer of stories to link the payoff of a story with the writer's personal take on the zeitgeist or ambiance of a historical time. For examples of this useful equation at work, consider Thomas Pyncheon's huge romp of a historical venture, Mason & Dixon, Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted, and Philip Roth's American Pastoral, each of which has a historical overview against which characters are driven to choices that are defined by contemporary forces.

It may also be argued that science fiction and the subgenre of fantasy dealing with alternate universes are providing a contingency for readers as well as for the characters. Contingency ranks high as a forceful factor in the writer's mind because it allows the writer to simultaneously deal with the structured necessity of drama and the seemingly anomalous plausible surprise offered by the very ways and means contingency is used. Although tightly plotted, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy provides contingencies that further define the various characters and their goals, bringing the tension of impending crisis into collision with delightful surprise in the crucible of dramatic event.

In the framework of contingency, Moby-Dick reflects a search for the nineteenth-century American psyche, and in Mark Twain's often neglected Pudd'nhead Wilson, the author literally and figuratively reverses black and white.

Hint: the message of contingency is to keep presenting characters with junctures, points at which they will have to make choices. These points of choice are where the contingency-based story begins.

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