Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When Surprise Trumps Story Points

Two characters of equal ability are assigned a chore to perform.  At the moment, their age, gender, and background don't matter.  In the moments to come, perhaps all these qualities will matter.  Perhaps not.

We'll call the individuals Character A and Character B.  The individual assigning the task repeats the details of the task, acknowledged how ASAP the time frame is, then says "Go."

Character A, who has been smiling with confidence while the details of the chore were specified, smiles again, says something along the lines of "Piece of cake.  Stand back."

Since there are two characters in this exercise, a significant binary event has been created.  Without needing to hear or consider Character B, you can see two potential outcomes, based on years of reading, listening to critics talk about story, your experiences as a teacher, your experiences as a fiction editor, and by no means deserving the bottom of the triangle, your experiences as someone who had to undergo considerable struggle to be able to get a dramatic narrative to stand up to revisiting and the rigors of editorial work.

Productive writers tend to be like that, suspicious, cynical, curious.  The more productive they've been, the greater their index of potential cynicism and wariness.  The writer has the equivalent of the musician's memory for sound.  

In a class in music appreciation which was the prerequisite to a more nuanced approach to types of harmony and orchestration, you were subjected to an identify-that-work kind of test, which was making you impatient for having to engage in a simplistic strategy.  Using a turntable and a stack of 33 1/3 RPM vinyls, the instgructor would place a work on the turntable, then lower the stylus.

More often than not, you got the identity after the first two or three notes.  Sometime, you required several bars, but to the instructor's exasperation, you continued to be able to identify the tune.  Finally, she came to one, watched with some satisfaction as you remained silent, and no one else was able to recognize the work.  She smiled a patronizing smile in your direction.  "I seem,"  she said, "to have stumped you."

"Actually, you haven't.  I know the piece is one of the Brandenberg Concerti, I'm trying to decide which number."

Had her previous comment to you not have been so arch and accusatory, there would have been no humor, but when you said, "I'm going to go with Number Four, which would be the G Major.  I seem to recall the beginning with the two recorders in a kind of cheery lock step." Even those in the class who'd never heard of any of the Brandenberg Concerti, much less Number Four, did not merely laugh, they guffawed.

The teacher had set herself up for a cheap-shot win with her attitude, but she lost considerable face.  Audiences of any age are only too willing to laugh when an authority figure stumbles.  The authority figure may be an individual or an ingenious role reversal as executed by Charlie Chaplin in a routine where as a boxer, he comes out of his corner at the bell, then begins dancing behind the referee, adjusting his movements so that he is always behind the ref until he gets a chance for a quick pop to the jaw of his opponent.

Character B, listening to the assignment, says, "Gee, that seems pretty difficult.  I don't know that I can do that."

You know immediately who you're going to root for, and you can see possible scenarios in which the story can go.  If well orchestrated, these scenarios will have Character A's smile growing even broader, the possibility of Character B shaking his or her head in frustration.

Most authors who have read enough are also aware of the potentials for mischief that become apparent to you as the two opposing characters, A and B, take on traits related to their behavior.  Much depends of the apparent near-perfect performance of Character A, yet the shrewd reader will understand that A cannot be allowed to win because were A to perform successfully, the result would not be a story,  Call it what you will; it is not a story.

On the other hand, B must not be allowed to win too easily.  We need to have reasonable fear that A might win.  The trick is to get Character B to completing the chore, doing so with infinitely more grace and imagination than A.  The key to this performance, B's performance, rests entirely in the shadow of that great dramatic force called surprise.  The outcome must be plausible, must be logical, must come as the result of some surprise activity, information, or a combination of both.

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