Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Rabbit Always Knocks Twice

A standard magician’s trick is the pulling of  a live bunny from a top hat that has, moments before, been demonstrated as empty.  You have no idea how the illusion is accomplished, but being a fan of old vaudeville magic, you’ve seen variations on the theme numerous times.

Over the years, the term finds its way particularly into your spoken language as a positive metaphor for the kinds of storytelling that give you the most pleasure.

One magical act you enjoyed produced an ongoing stream of plush rabbits of varying sizes and colors, making the point that the appearance of a limitless number of surprises can be a delight in any medium.  Fans of story—you among them—are aware that some rabbits bite, which is to say that not only are some surprises not pleasant, some surprises are intended to be unpleasant in order to produce another great adjunct of surprise, which is tension.

In the old horror movies, a familiar set-up was the introduction of the baby sitter or governess into the household.  She is told she has free rein of the house/estate/castle—except for the attic.  Do not ever go into the attic.

Of course the governess/baby sitter goes directly to the attic at the first opportunity, whereupon, in the eerie darkness, she steps on something that erupts in a banshee yowl, curdling her blood and ours.  We are being set up.  The banshee is in fact a cat.  We would yowl were someone to step on our tail, right?  Back to her prowling, the baby sitter/governess turns down another darkened hallway, only to meet the reason she has been warned off the attic in the first place. 

“It” turns out to be crazed Uncle Morris or equally addled Aunt Matilda.  Neither of these crazies is nutty crazy; they are seriously deranged and vicious.  They mean no one any good.  The thrust of this attic evil is introduced through the device of surprise, where we are expertly made to experience a fright, then laugh at ourselves for suspecting an innocent cat of treachery.  We have made ourselves vulnerable, which is why we came to the film or read the Stephen King book in the first place.

You approach surprise in much the same way this archetypal baby sitter/governess refuses to let a little warning throw her off.  You go where you should not, in theme and in curiosity, pulling rabbits or, if you insist, surprises out of relationships or some part of the landscape.

Depending on the type of work under way, a surprise can come from a number of ways, but they should be ways relevant to the type of narrative in progress.  The essence of surprise is when you realize a character did it because of some inner urge of which you were becoming aware.  I did it on a whim is not acceptable; that it too managed.

Surprise should be the least expected thing as opposed to the least plausible thing.  Some proof of the organic nature of the surprise--which is to say proof of it not being contrived for mere effect—arrives when the careful, conservative movements forward you were guiding your characters toward meets the equivalent of the vaudevillian’s banana peal or cream pie in the face, sudden, physical, explosive to the point of shocking you.

There you are, looking at your note pad or your computer screen, thinking, How did I let this happen?

This is the moment you’ve been waiting for.  This is the moment you reach into the hat for a rabbit, forgetting the possibility that this rabbit savior might well be the one rabbit you never thought would bite you.

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