Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Contingency, the Writer's Friend in Need


Some philosopher—you believe it was Fritz Perls—observed, No matter what stake you may have in the matter, the universe is unfolding as it ought.

You don’t think he meant by this that individual preferences and behavior have no effect, rather that personal opinions, volition, and actions, even those that change the course of events, are a part of the package.  The drop of water and the ocean are thus encompassed in a calculus of motion, movement, and consequence.

Your observations last night about choice hummed about you much of the day, like a determined housefly or a hungry kitten, leading you to consider the next step after choice, which is a decision to act in a particular way or not act at all.

Nichole has chimed in from snowy Wyoming with the observation that choice produces consequence.  As a consequence of having decided to turn right instead of left when leaving the house…

Considering downstream effects of consequence is a sure way to measure the mounting intensity of story, any story, whether it is a lifetime event with a beginning, middle, and some form of resolution, or a dramatic one, Chekhovian in its close-lipped inevitability.

This brings us to contingency, that unplanned for possibility of elbowing its way to the front of the line.  Contingency may occur; hell, it might even be a likely candidate for occurring, but it is neither an anticipated event nor one planned for.  Contingency may be planned against, as a matter of fact, an in-that-case adjustment at the last minute.  Fred arrives for dinner, unplanned, but we’re having enough of whatever it is we’re having so that his arrival will not cause any logistics except where to seat him, but of course Fred has brought along a girlfriend who is a vegan.

Some of the delightful things about contingency have to do with uncertainty and chance, which has long been regarded as an excellent way to add complications in a story and a no-no as a means for resolving a story.  Let’s look back at Fred, arriving unannounced for dinner, with his vegan girlfriend.  After a quick consultation, Jack (the host) is sent to a market to get an eggplant, it having been decided in a contingency plan that vegans like eggplant.

Trouble is, Jack goes to a small, neighborhood market, where there are no eggplants, forcing him to go farther afield, at which point he finds a market that has eggplant, but it also has a few hold-up types who panic and take Jack as a hostage.

Hours later, Jack has escaped and has returned home, only to find an irritated wife because he was away for so long and has now returned without the eggplant.

Contingency, the unexpected element arriving after a choice has been made.  Contingency, you might say, is so much like Reality because it causes things to happen that are not always plausible.  Your challenge is to make contingency plausible and in the process interesting.

In its way, story is all about contingency because contingency is all about uncertainty.  How can you plan for the uncertain without in effect making it a certainty?

Besides, certainty shuts down the story, right now.  The writer’s goal is to keep contingency uppermost in the reader’s mind because it is the living characteristic of suspense, that wonderful set of conditions where the reader wants to know what will happen next, and only a foolish or naïve writer would do that.


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