Are you one of those people who can always predict who did it in a murder mystery? Do you tend to spot the plot twists in a drama when you’ve barely set off down the track?
I’m not like that. In fact, I’ve always been totally hopeless at it, not spotting clues until I’ve virtually stepped in them. But I really don’t mind. When I’m reading or watching a film, I like to keep pace with the characters. I let the story build around me in real time and am generally surprised when the characters are surprised. I even stopped watching my favourite soap opera, Coronation Street, after decades of faithful viewing when the writers started to add signposts so that the audience is always ahead of the characters. That just has me shouting at the screen as I try to warn my ‘friends’ off their proposed course of action, and where’s the fun in that?
But since i’ve been writing
books for a living, I’ve noticed that this has changed. Because I now understand the fundamentals of how a story is constructed, I can spot the building bricks. Instead of approaching the experience as a voyage of exploration as I once did, I find myself thinking in terms of story arcs and inciting incidents.
This is particularly obvious in films which never seem to rarely stray from the ‘How to Write a Story 101’ rule book. This is how it tends to go. Everything is fine. Then something happens to set the protagonist off on a particular course of action. Life gets harder and harder, often with small wins that then get snatched away only to find them in an an even worse position, until finally the protagonist cracks whatever it is and we get a satisfactory conclusion, either happy or sad depending on the film’s genre.
The trouble is, when you look at a story in those terms, broken down into its component parts like that, it loses all its magic. It stops being the adventure that we’re sharing with the characters and becomes something else.
Of course, there’s always a place for this kind of comfort in stories. That’s what genre is for. If you buy a romance, the cover a delight in pastels with a welcoming bubbly font, and settle down to read, then you’re going to be disappointed if the pretty, quirky, self-effacing heroine doesn’t hook up with the handsome stranger by the end.
And don’t get me wrong!
I’m not knocking those books that give you exactly what it says on the tin. I read them and watch films that are exactly like that. It’s just that I quite like not knowing where I am. I have no sense of direction in real life and I suppose I must like to read and watch in the same slightly haphazard fashion, with every turn of events surprising me. So, now, when my trained eye can spot the tropes and anticipate what will happen next, some of the delicious innocence of just emerging yourself in a story and letting yourself be led along has been lost.
I have come across very few disadvantages to being an author, but for me, this is the main one. How about you? Do you pride yourself on always being two steps ahead of the characters or do you, like me, prefer to be a little bit confused?
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