Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Stories Will Stop Surprising You

There's a piece of advice I heard somewhere once, long ago.

"Don't read a story about something you're an expert in."

This extends to watching TV shows and movies and probably video games and the like.

The basic concept here is that if you are an expert in, say, mortars you might find yourself driven into a frothing at the mouth nitpickers rage when a roleplaying game book vastly underrates this weapon of which you know much.  Likewise, if you know a lot about a particular skill or subject matter, then you will find yourself nitpicking any fiction involving the subject to death.


Think about this for a moment.

If you're interested in this or a number of my other blog posts, then you are likely trying to become a better writer.

If you are trying to become a better writer, then you are trying to become a better storyteller.

A storyteller is an expert on what now?


The more skilled you become as a storyteller, the more difficult it will be for a fellow writer to really surprise you.  You're never going to completely shut off that growing part of you that analyzes stories and picks out the most likely directions.

There are a surprisingly few basic plotlines out there and if you've made much use out of them, you can usually predict which a specific story will follow with the first few scenes.

As an example of what I mean, while I was in Korea, I saw Jet Li's Hero in Chinese with Korean subtitles.  I speak no Chinese and my Korean consisted of a handful of practical phrases I had to use everyday.  Not to mention the fact that the hangul flashed by too quickly for me to get more than one or two words.

Seriously folks, it took me a Korean-English dictionary and thirty mintues to read the opening dialogue to the first Neverwinter Nights game when I tried to read it in Korean, as compared to two minutes in English.

Anyway, the day after seeing Hero, I was in the teacher's office area and I started to discuss the movie and one of the teachers who saw it with me mentioned he wished that he had been able to understand the talking so that he could follow the story.  At which point I gave the office a scene by scene analysis of the movie and what was happening during each scene.

When I was done, the Korean teacher who did most of our interactions with the bosses and parents for us asked me if I spoke Chinese or if I could read the Korean subtitles.  I responded "no" and he asked how I understood the movie so well.

My answer: "I watched it."

It just seemed so very clear to me that the overly colorful segments were each side's stories about what was happening and I happened to be right.

This isn't to say that you will never be surprised by a story again, you most certainly will.  In fact, I can guarantee that you're developing writers mind will occasionally play tricks on you by convincing you that something is going to go one way when the author decides to go another.

Which is part of why I told you to be familiar with tropes in an earlier blog, so that you can stick it to us arrogant expert storytellers.

In fact, even if you know what's going to happen, a story can still be enjoyable.  Think of how many times the Greek myths have been retold or the story of Dracula and Frankenstein.  We know Snow White lives happily ever after and we know that Arthur, Guinevere and Launcelot have a tragic ending.  We know that Old Monkey discovers enlightenment.

Heck, just imagine all the historical dramas that are done over and over again.

Even more.  Think of how many times you rewatch or reread your favorite movies and books.

Even if the stories have a much harder time surprising you, you will probably come to enjoy them more as you start appreciating the complexities of even a very simple story.

However, you'll probably start developing into this before you realize it and might fall to the temptation of believing that the movie or book is clearly inferior because it is so easily predicted.  You'll need to resist that feeling.  Because the better the writer you are, the more you start to lift yourself out of the target audience.

Like a magician watching another magician, your enjoyment of fiction will come from appreciating the technique and choices of the other storyteller.

Now...when you do find something the piques your emotions and knocks you for a loop...

It will be so much more surprising and wonderful than you remembered.

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