Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Elephant in the Living Room vs The Mosquito in the Bedroom

A few days ago, when you were in a conversation with some friends, you used a common enough phrase, "worst-case scenario" in reference to a potential social outcome.  The situation and the phrase stuck with you because the actual even, as it transpired, was much worse than your candidate for the worst-case scenario.

It has become a truth, universally recognized, that most worst-case scenarios are not given accurate names.  There is always a case worse than the supposed or anticipated worst case.  Because you were aware of this on a number of levels, it was not the elephant in the living room.  Such metaphoric elephants are conditions or circumstances you don't wish to notice or cope with or even recognize, preferring to trip over them and affect great surprise or walk about them as though they did not exist.

Your next step up from the elephant in the living room is a condition you've named the mosquito in the bedroom, that rapacious and hungry female (males for some reason do not draw blood) who buzzes about when the lights are turned off.  Her target is you.  You hear her, are aware of her intent, then drawn into a lights-on, lights-off game in which you hope to squash her.

You may be aware of the elephant in the living room and ignore it, but you cannot and do not pretend to ignore the mosquito in the bedroom.

In this case, the mosquito leads directly to your more educated sense of the worst-case scenario being resigned to the not-so-hot scenario.  Something worse can always happen.  Such results are given an aura of the mysterious, perhaps even so far as mystical or karmic.  Part of the problem stems from too much reliance on predicting the exact nature and degree of any outcome.

Some writers pride themselves on their ability to concoct a worst-case outcome of true, utter awfulness and then to provide for their next work an outcome even more spectacular.  Not bad for starters.  Writers should be able to see beyond the limitations of worst-case and into dreadfulness of epic creativity.  Melville pushed worst-case pretty far with Moby-Dick, leaving us only one survivor after having taken out a large ensemble crew.  The prevailing wisdom is that he had to leave someone to tell the story in all its tangle of involvement.  Yet Melville could have reached beyond by having the GWW (Great White Whale) at least having one nosh off of Ishmael's body, perhaps even a foot or hand.  He could have had Ishmael die midway through his debriefing, leaving us to wonder and follow our own individualized sense of worst-case plus one, which is to say our individual sense of worst case instead of a more articulated worst case.

Writers, you included, it appears, limit themselves when they speak of the worst-case scenario as anything but a benchmark for a more complete and inexorable worst case which, in order to go beyond the benchmark, must secure the consultation of the characters.

Readers have experienced such awful cataclysmic results that they have come to expect gigantic surprises and activity that makes mayhem seem like kinderspiel, which is child's play in German, used because things in German, even such things as bitte and danke, sound worse than they do in English or French or Italian.

Whether they are using their reading as a surrogate for real life activity and confrontations with adversity and the partnership of active encounter with reality or because they have in fact engaged and felt the combination punches to their esteem and experience, readers don't want things too easy.  They may claim to prefer such tropes as "nice" and "happy." but in their secret heart, they want the worst case.  Not only that, they see you letting your characters off without a proper romp in worst-case super, they'll write you off without so much as a "Goodnight, John Boy."

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