Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wanted: Entertaining Writer. Must Have Experience with Failure

Out in the real world, where thousands of adults pay extraordinary sums of money to watch millionaires play  hockey, football, and baseball, while yet other millionaires wearing short pants attempt to make a contact sport of basketball, such forces as friction and inertia qualify with ease as opposing forces.

These forces--friction and inertia-- slow down or stop other bodies from such possibilities as entering orbit, striking a target, or the more generalized conclusion of making a meaningful contact.

Deep within the alternate worlds of story and drama, opposing forces are often represented by characters who, according to their individual identity take on the metaphoric mantle of such cultural and moral identities as convention, tradition, wisdom, and as a useful standby, common sense.

The outer world can and often does run on specious logic as well as tradition, both of which are given wide broadcast as common sense.  Often, there is no need for opposing forces in the warp and weft of the outer world; laziness, stupidity, and stubbornness will suffice.

Story and drama are other matters; both require the tangible presence of one or more opposing forces.  Both give the protagonist(s) targets to aim at, competitors against whom some show of contention must be made before the reader can accept anything resembling positive results.

If you prefer, you could say opposing forces join hands with failure as a part of the risk any protagonist character must face, if only to insure the presence of story.  Another way of looking at this calculus is to expand the relationship between goal of choice and the inability to achieve that goal. This is, of course, failure.

The best failures are systemic rather than individual.  You believe antagonists tend to put more faith than they ought into systems, not enough in individuals.  Tragic as a failed system may be, you see a greater disappointment and bankruptcy in the individual who feels betrayed by the system.  Unless that individual has another significant system in which to seek refuge and/or solace, he or she is truly alone, and must begin a new search to find landscape if not comfort in that new, unexplored terrain.

When a character wonders if she's good enough, the approaching footsteps of failure may be heard, echoing through the halls, which, to extend the metaphor, come closer, perhaps even to the point of whistling a familiar refrain.  Only when failure becomes as plausible an outcome as success does the story have a chance for working its way past the border guards of believability, at which point the reader once again abandons skepticism.

Sad, but true, a lifetime of reading produces what you call here a reverse cynicism.  When you read or watch a story in which the protagonist is risking something to attain a goal, you pretty well know the protagonist is going to be successful.  

This means your expectations for this being a successful story depend on the ultimate prize the protagonist realizes.  If there is not some surprise connected with the outcome, then So what?  Who cares?  If there is a significant enough surprise, the characters, readers, and writer will accept with good cheer and enthusiasm the fact that this is, indeed, story rather than parable or propaganda tract.

Most of the contest stories we've read provide a satisfying payoff beyond the fact of the protagonist winning some contest.  The payoff is effective because of the strategy the protagonist used to win, or because the protagonist does something remarkable in the face of failure that overshadows and undercuts the failure, making it second banana to some implicit or explicit understanding.

There is no disputing or disagreeing with the notion of story as entertainment.  Nor, however, is there dispute or disagreement with the goal you set for story, which is to take us all--characters, readers, and writer--somewhere we have not been before, whence we make some discovery, then attempt to transport it back in time to the moments of first reading.

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