Sunday, June 13, 2010

Readers as kleptomaniacs in a big box store

Curiosity is a force in fiction that causes the reader to care what happens next and to whom it happens. It is a dramatic element, curiosity is, always coming on stage breathless from the last place it attended, playing on our sympathy, our sense of personal identity, and the depth to which we are able to empathize. The sight of a character in want, danger, or serious speculation is sufficient to arouse our curiosity by flashing those warning lights of complication.


You could do well to add denial to the list; with enough denial leaking from a character, the concept of arousing interest becomes the dramatic code words for not when but how soon the thing being denied will explode its ashes all over the character. "Oh no," a character will announce to the Cosmos, "I've got too much on my plate to even think about romance." (Actually, The Cosmos is a nice metaphor for The Reader.) This is quickly followed by a chance meeting with--surprise--a romantic interest of spectacular quirkiness and energy, to bring to the mat all previous defenses to romance.

When a thing happens in Reality, there is often a mark-up in cost of the sort we are reminded of in post-holiday sales, where the discounts on list price are stark reminders of the profit margins enjoyed by so many retailers. This mark-up is usually the addition of complications that abound with all human events, reminding us how Reality has its own agenda. When a thing happens in story, the extraneous complications are discounted, filtered out, making the effect seem undiluted, intense, fraught. We are curious to see what the consequences will be, in some measure because we have been programmed through previous reading to expect that no act, even the act of inaction, goes unnoticed or unpunished in story. Drama is the quintessential tier of on-end dominoes, placed to trigger the next. No more dominoes, no more story.

To exaggerate the metaphor, readers are kleptomaniacs in a big-box store with awesome security. Readers are curious not only to see if they are correct in their suspicions, they want to project themselves into story to see if they can get away with lifting that tube of lipstick or that pair of sunglasses without being caught.

Vulnerability in one or more characters is a starting point for arousing the reader to be curious--to care. Add a touch of potential menace or failure and the reader has felt the oh, oh buttons being depressed. It is also possible to start with a character in high gear with hubris or pomposity for starters. The reader cares to the point of wanting to see that particular character crash against the guardrail of humiliation. Of course the seasoned writer will up the ante by allowing the hubris laden and pompous to win a few rounds first, enhancing the desire to see and taste the deliciousness of the ultimate crash. Those are the stakes for those of us who wish to sit in the game.

Ante up, guys.

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