Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Usual Suspects

If there is such a thing as a creation myth for story in the dramatic sense, the lovely area between anticipation and disappointment has earned its way into it as a primal force.

Anticipation, you see, means an eager, positive expectation from a forthcoming event.  We approach individual and group meetings, performances, entertainments with the interest and pleasure receptors well honed, looking forward to entering the moments those meetings, performances, and entertainments (such as meals) will occur.  We are up for the adventure of enjoyment.

Disappointment is not the mere negation of expectations, it carries the nuance of having been led astray, either by our own expectations, some unforeseen disaster, or our faulty reliance on the judgment of one or more other individuals.  We are disappointed when a thing or event does not live up to our prior expectations (which, if everything related were optimal, would have exceeded our fondest hopes), thus are human not content with satisfaction, we wish to have our expectations exceeded in ways that surprise us.

The no-person's land between Anticipation and Disappointment is the storyteller's dream turf, the territory where drama, conflict, hidden agenda, drug deals gone wrong, and arguments over easements are alive and well 24/7.  The area is Suspicion.  When we begin with the suspicion that we will be disappointed, we are questioning the motives of others and the enemy of story, which is stasis, is ousted from the conversation.  We suspect we will have a terrible time, which means that even though we were to be met with a modicum of pleasure, it will still have been blunted.  Even more of relevance, there are those who would judge such an approach as cynical, which in its own way means suspecting something will go wrong.

Readers, of course, want things to go wrong; readers thrive on things going more and more wrong, past their threshold of accepting quotidian foul-ups.  Readers are so focused on suspecting things will go wrong that they will begin skipping pages if accord, unity, and cooperation persist.  You have to hand it to readers; they know things providing pleasure, comfort, and satisfaction are harbingers of forthcoming disappointment.  Readers love it when two individuals who appear to be well suited for one another fail to recognize the pleasures to be had in such comfortable and productive relationships.  Readers want characters to be mismatched, even to the point of wanting them to be miserable in their mismatched condition.  You'd be tempted to argue the cause of readers being mean-spirited or transferring their own sense of being misallied.  Such temptations would cause you to overlook the true rationale:  Readers want to see the characters they like find pleasure because these readers want to see how it is done in order to try the technique themselves.  Readers in fact are happiest when characters are able to find hidden pleasures, hopeful that they, too, will turn up some unanticipated pleasure when and where they least expect it.

Readers know that characters who suspect one another are more apt to engage in story that will push boundaries going in, which is to say with opening complications--and going out, which is to say with some form of resolution.  Readers will become suspicious if the resolutions are too fair, even-handed, or lavish; the complications can never be too severe or unfair.  In the responses of the characters to severe and unfair complications reside the best and worst of the species as the Homo sapiens entry in the parade.  Men and women in modern stories may be disappointed, but in their responses to the disappointment, they convey what we like most about ourselves as individuals and as a species.

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