Saturday, October 17, 2009

Predictable Storytelling

On this week's Flash Forward they mention a Sufi parable about a man and a boy in a room with a candle. The man asks the boy where the light comes from. The boy blows out the candle and says, "if you tell me where the light went, I will tell you where it came from." Sufism is defined as a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God. It is a Zen like mysticism associated with Islam. Until that episode, I'd never heard of it before. I like it when stories, whether they are on television shows or in books introduce me to new ideas, new concepts and avoid the same predictable elements.

Predictability in Romance

Don't get me wrong. Some stories are meant to be at least a little predictable. If you are going to read a romance novel then you know that in the end, the central couple is going to end up together. That's the point of the story. Man meets woman. Man and woman share attraction. Man and woman share passion and overcome obstacles. They might have a misunderstanding, but then they come together and resolve their issues. It's a very classical story and it is classic for a reason. That's what people want to read. Different twists along the way and interesting characters are what bring people back again and again with regard to the genre.


Mixing it Up

But not all genres should be predictable. Mysteries, for example, by their nature have certain expected elements: a crime, a crime solver, a red herring (or three) and the big reveal. These elements are expected. But what if the main character is the murderer? What if the lover is the enemy? These types of unsettling twists are what keep us invested in the game. The producers of Lost dragged out the mystery to epic proportions spoon feeding dribbles of information here and there to keep their viewers hooked. Some people tune in for the characters, but a lot of people are tuning in for explanations. What is the island? Why these people? Why this place? It's not just about what will happen next, it's about the reveals, the understanding and in its own way - the truth of the show's mythology.

Angelic Interventions

Other works of fiction struggle against the predictable, some with success, and some without. Supernatural is one that keeps you guessing. While it may seem predictable that Sam was being groomed as Lucifer's vessel now, it was hardly the 'end game' one might have expected when they began their journey five years ago. If Sam is Lucifer's vessel and Dean is Michael's, does that mean that Daddy John is going to make an appearance as a vessel for God? That takes the Biblical twists to epic proportion. After all, John is the one who gave Dean (Michael) the mission to save Sam (Lucifer) or kill him.

Perhaps the end game here is not to defeat the fallen angel Lucifer, but to save him and restore him to grace once more.

Three's Company

The British series Being Human defied all predictable conventions. I kept thinking the show was heading in one direction and then it would go somewhere else completely. It was an amazing journey of watching. After the third episode, I stopped trying to guess what would happen based on previous conventions and just went with it. The same can be said for the new The Vampire Diaries, I have read the novels so I know how that version of the story goes. But every episode, I 'expect' certain things because – well those would be the predictable events to occur – and the writers aren't going there. They are going beyond the predictable and that is what is keeping the story engaging.

Most of the time, I don't know what is going to happen next. I can guess. But I don't know. I avoid spoilers like the plague because they give you an expectation of the future. In the second episode of Flash Forward, people aren't making decisions based on what might happen, they are making decisions based on what will happen.

Writers whether they are writing for novels or television are magicians and masters of illusion. They set the stage and sometimes it's not about the rabbit coming out of the hat, but how the rabbit shows up. I want to read books or watch shows and enjoy the reveals of the story, not predict or second guess them. What have you seen or read lately that surprised you?

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