I discussed before the central paradox of genre fiction: why do we get emotionally invested in anticipating the outcome when we can guess from the format and the genre how it’s going to end?
The answer is this: because the writer has gotten us to ask
the right question:
Sometimes, as in horror movies, the question is, “Will they
get out of this?” But other times, as in a horror TV shows like “The X-Files”,
the question is merely, “How will
they get out of this?” It was
vital that the show’s writers kept us asking the latter question rather than
the former, or else we would start rolling our eyes, saying, “Aw, come on, we
all know that they’re both going to live!”
The key distinction is that you need to ask a question with
at least two plausible answers.
That means that the question can’t be “will something happen or won’t
it?” This is a story, and in
stories, things happen, so the audience already knows the answer: “Yes,
something will happen.” In The Big Boss, the dramatic question is
“Will Bruce Lee fight or not?” Guess what the answer is?
Likewise, Harry Potter book five devoted hundreds of pages
to the question “Will Voldemort see into Harry’s mind or won’t he?” But this just gets an eye-roll from the
reader: “Of course he will.” If,
as I pointed out here, the question had been “Will Voldemort see into Harry’s
mind before Harry sees into his?”, then we’d have a real ballgame on our
Establishing the open questions up front is important for
the whole story but it’s also important for individual scenes. This is why it’s good to pre-load the
scene: if we know what the hero expects
to happen, then we’ll be focused on that
dilemma, not some dilemma that the writer has no intention of addressing.
Sometimes you have to anticipate that the audience’s imagination
is going to go places you don’t want it to go, and then cut it off at the
pass. This “This American Life” piece is hilarious, but early on there’s a moment where the
subject’s parents tell him that they’ve sent his dog away to a farm upstate. Everybody I know who listened to the
piece simply assumed that this was code for putting the dog to sleep at the
vet. Later, the dog re-enters the
story, still alive, without any acknowledgement of the other possibility.
The producers of the piece should have realized that the
audience would try to get ahead of the story and go off in the wrong direction,
so they had to either shut down that wrong assumption before we could make it,
or acknowledge our surprise when the dog turns out to still be alive.
This is why early readers are
so important. When they say that
they were disappointed because they thought it was going in a different
direction, don’t get frustrated at them for wanting something that you never
promised. Instead, figure out why
they had the wrong expectation, and figure out how to re-set those expectations.
Next, we’ll look at more ways to do that...