Hold Your Collective Breath Dept.

Purchase on AmazonFrom Tolstoy or Dostoevsky:

What makes us “believe” in the reality of a Shakespearean play? What is it that makes Oedipus or Hamlet as exciting to us after we have seen ten performances as when we saw the play for the first time? How can there be suspense without surprise?

Emph. mine. The whole question of suspense and surprise comes up often when we look at, say, movie adaptations of comics or other media. The suspense in some franchise product like Man of Steel doesn't come from knowing, outside of a certain circle of characters, who lives or who dies — it comes mainly from us wondering how that status quo will be maintained, or at what cost it will come.

For further evidence, look to the Star Trek novels, wherein Kirk and Spock are subjected to all manner of hell but somehow close the book back on the bridge with McCoy tsk-tsking at the two of them. Core characters in such works are never killed off or subjected to anything really permanent, except in the sense of what's bounded by the scope of the book itself. There might be some cleverly-executed exceptions to this — e.g., a series of books where some changes are made within the course of the series, but they're reverted or written off by the end, so ultimately they have the same net result: inertia.

Such a product doesn't come off so much as drama, where the course of the drama is theoretically unbounded (anything can happen), as it does seem a kind of a formal exercise, an improvisation on a theme. It isn't that there's no suspense in such a story, but that the suspense is of a different caliber and flavor, one more about how the story is going to be what it is than what it is. ("Will Captain Cool escape with his skin? If so, how??? Tune in next time ... ")

Franchises that have reached a certain equilibrium of predictability can manufacture "just enough" suspense to get by, the way a Waffle House doesn't have to aspire to Pen & Pencil or Twenty-One levels of excellence to stay in business. They don't have to be about whether or not Kirk or Spock will survive, because we all know they do. They can instead be about much smaller stakes, about the how instead of the what, and an audience will still line up lovingly for something in what amounts to a minor key, god love 'm.

Part of why I'm tweezering all this apart as meticulously as I can is because I don't want to fall into the art-snob trap of Trek Book Bad, "Real" Book Good. That's the kind of criticism best reserved for when you're actually comparing those two kinds of books directly in terms of their aesthetic achievments (or lack of same), but it tells you tons less about what the two kinds of books represent. That there can be suspense without surprise seems more of an insight into what kinds of audiences exist for what sorts of work, and less so for the works themselves.

What matters in such a milieu, it seems, is not creating something original, but learning how to infinitely prolong (I won't say "broaden") the things people are already comfortable with. Saves everyone a lot of trouble. Especially the marketing team.

Tags: audiences creativity writing

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2014/04/13 10:00.

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