Thursday, January 31, 2013

Frustration, the Key to Successful Story

In most of the things you read and write, frustration plays a role equal to the array of front-rank characters.

Someone is in a near or complete state of frustration, either at the seemingly slow progression of events, a failure to make one or more of the other characters "understand" her agenda, or perhaps even the intransigent nature of opposing forces.

Someone is being interrupted from a task by one or more individuals with priorities and needs of their own.

Without frustration, there would be no story, no sense of nuance, no conspiracy theory, no calloused-over grief or remorse.  Love letters would work.  Impassioned speeches would produce the desired results of the orator, scientific experiments would deliver one or more useful datum which would in turn produce beneficial results.  Young couples would not have to wait before being able to afford to marry.

Without frustration, the world of Reality would in effect turn into a Utopian society, wars would become relics of the past, family squabbles would devolve into family meetings or conversations at meal time, lovers' quarrels would end almost before they began, departmental politics t universities would impart yet a more positive meaning to the word Collegiality.

Without frustration, there would be no humor, a presence which, as you understand it, relies of humiliation of pomposity, cutting down to size of inflated senses of importance, and the general taking of the self with too much seriousness.

Without frustration, there would be too many books on the joys of communal living and Utopias, both of which, in their most ideal formats, would be peaceful, agreeable, and therefore quite boring.

Bring on frustration, jealousy, hegemony, and despotism, then watch story grow.  This observation might suggest your belief that story rises only from negativity and is therefore of itself a negative element, but that observation would miss the point that story is the most democratic of all forms because it is so free in its willingness to accept the notion that all characters, however bright or befuddled, believe in their own vision, their own sense of being right, having a correct, functional perception of the way the universe works.

Many of us in fact have little or no preparation for considering the ways of quantum physics, how matter behaves, yet most of us do have a sense of how persons ought to behave when they are not behaving so poorly.  This is to say each of us has experienced the feeling of the world going downhill in a shopping cart, with some degree of salvation available if only the rest of those about us would stop arguing long enough to take up our own brand of quantum physics.

Story, under those circumstances, could be held to incorporate much cynicism related to the human condition, the viewer quick to take on the role of the despot without pausing to consider the despotic nature such a role implies.

So long as there is frustration, yours with any of a number of institutions and specific individuals (including yourself), and the frustration of others with you, there is a Petri dish for the culture of story to provide nourishment.

Story attempts to wedge open gates frozen into a locked position.  Story speaks of the awareness of humanity that there is frustration available at every turn, then attempts to pressure some motion to effect the desired change.  A plan, there's the thing.  But in order to be story, early plans must somehow fall short.  Some degree of failure must costume up for every story, else it is not a full story but perhaps simple propaganda or fable or sermon.

How comforting it is to believe good will, energy, and diligent pursuit of an outcome will produce the very outcome desired, but if it does, no story, because there will have been no frustration or only the set-up frustration that put the story in motion.  John wishes to marry.  He has had this wish ratified by the occasional sight of Mary.  We would be horrified were John to make his feelings known to Mary, then her immediate agreement.  She must find some reason to add the spice of frustration to the dramatic stew, thus she sets John a task, which seems the height of absurdity to John, but what the hell; if that's what it takes, he'll have at it.  Now we have a potential for story and the added potential of uncertainty of outcome.  John may think the task he has been set is rather minimal, but he nevertheless finds it not so easy as he thought.  The task, it turns out, is damned difficult, and while he is engaged in it, John has second thoughts.  Perhaps marriage was not such a good idea after all if it involves so much nonsense.

Seeing John's uncertainty, we are energized right along the narrative primrose path because we're not sure John can perform the task nor if, when he does accomplish it, he will still wish to have a marriage partnership with Mary.

Frustration and uncertainty are part of the dramatic genome.  Without them, we may have narrative, we may have tale, but we do not have story.  Not yet.

At first, the task John has been set appears little more than a bother, but to those of us who have read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, another aspect enters the picture, wearing a costume every bit as gaudy as those worn by frustration and uncertainty.  This one is risk.  I'm to endure all these hardships as a prerequisite to working my tail off for the rest of my life to make a home for Mary and any children we might have?

If the task is too simple, we readers loose interest if not faith in the story.  Probably both.  If the task is too difficult, we begin to suspect we are being manipulated in some way or other, perhaps in service of some philosophical outcome.

If the outcome is too preachy or philosophical, the modern tools of critical theory allow us to think the narrative less story than some form of propaganda.

Story in its more abstract form emerges as the true protagonist of every story within the latitudes of drama; it demonstrates with plausibility and regularity how frustration, conflict, reversal, and uncertainty are never far off.  For all they offer us risk and potential menace, they also demonstrate how necessary it is for us to recognize them in their stronger rather than weaker aspects, the better to able us to negotiate our own ransom and negotiated settlement with that most abstract and villainous potential of all, Reality.

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