Sunday, 28 August 2011

suspension of disbelief

I don't really do telly or films. I've also been finding fiction more difficult to read, although I'm better able to immerse myself in a good book (or audiobook). Trouble is, I can't switch off the knowledge that what I'm watching *is* just made up.

Only certain sequences of chords or notes make coherent songs. Take a 1-4-5 chord sequence, like A major to D major to E major, and you've got Hot Love by T Rex, Silver Machine, by Hawkwind, Any song ever written by Status Quo, and a zillion others.

This is not a bad thing. Without the coherent structure, you're in Stockhausen and freeform jazz territory. This too is not a bad thing. The point here is not a value judgement about the merits of structured and unstructured music, but that a series of culturally developed rules have evolved that mean that certain things fit our expectations of what music actually is.

I think a similar thing applies to fiction. Substitute "story arc" for "melody line" and you'll see what I mean.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote about these. You can read his entire essay, HERE

I've tried to duplicate the graphs.

This graph represents primitive stories. Simple linear tales of battles and hunts. Vonnegut tries to show that Hamlet also follows the same pattern.

This is your basic story. Someone who was doing OK got into some trouble, and somehow got back out of it. Everyone loves a happy ending!

This is the boy meets girl storyline. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. All is good. Then boy loses girl. Things aren't good. Then somehow, after many trials and tribulations, boy and girl finally get together. Hooray!

This one is Cinderella. At the beginning of the tale, her life is pretty grim, then along comes fairy godmother and makes things good, but then the clock strikes twelve and the shit hits the fan, big time, but finally, she finds her prince and they live happily ever after.

This one is Kafka. Or put the downslope at the end, and you have noir.

Anyway, I really struggle with stories on the telly, from soaps to sitcoms. I can't switch off the analysing part of me and simply enjoy it for what it is.

And it's not just fictions either. I see the same arcs everywhere. For example, every week, Sarah Beeny meets a couple who's house is about to collapse around them. Each week it follows exactly the same formula:

Couple have house that has XYZ wrong with it.

Along comes Sarah and has a good poke around to see the extent of the problem. The outlook is pretty bleak, frankly. Not only do they have woodworm, but there's an unexploded bomb in the basement, and there's raw sewage seeping into the kitchen. It will cost at least two hundred thousand pounds to make good the damage, if it's possible at all. The couple shake the piggy bank out onto the table. They have just 86 pee and some fingernail clippings..

But then, local builder and part time explosives expert, Barry "the bomb"  Bloggs steps in and does most of the work for next to nothing, and what they thought was a broken sewer pipe turns out to be a slightly leaky joint that is fixed by simply banging it with a hammer. A quick plastering job, and a visit from the house makover team later and the couple's slum is transformed into a bright and airy palace.

Smiles all round. It's the basic story, witha slightly modified lower start point, every single episode.


Anonymous said...

Or, teen girl meets boy-mid line,marries, bad things -line dips- divorce. Girl now young woman -slightly under mid line- remarries worse stuff happens big dip. Finds herself widowed at 39 but actually moves back to mid line.Hovering just below mid line,woman meets future husband number three and line elevates and reaches happy ending (ignoring the financial graph which refuses at any point to cross into happy ever after).

The End

All film rights remain with the author

Jim Bliss said...

I understand where you're coming from with this, but happily it doesn't interfere (too much) with my own enjoyment of fiction simply because I'm aware that good fiction, like most of what we call mythology, is actually all about revealing the plot arcs that exist in real life. Whether that fiction is in novel, cinematic or televisual form.

Indeed, some of the best fiction of recent years has (in my view) been televisual and has succeeded in playing on this very fact (as well as playing with the viewer's expectation of the medium of TV).

Take (don't laugh, I'm serious here), take Buffy The Vampire Slayer as an example. On one level you've got a brash, silly, action-filled piece of pop culture that is pleasing on a purely visceral level (like a decent rock video). At the same time, it plunges headlong into the depths of our culture's mythology and touches on lots of classic stories that can't help but resonate on a deeper level than the "90210 with Monsters" surface. And then thirdly, it's well-written enough for the story arcs to chime with us on a real-life (monsters as metaphor) level. Plus there's a ton of witty dialogue.

Now, this isn't supposed to be an advert for Buffy (I could name others, but I tend to refer to Buffy a lot because it so completely confounded my own expectations... a dear friend spent almost 3 years trying to get me to watch the show and I spent almost 3 years deriding it, despite never having watched an episode). Rather I'm just saying that it is possible to "see the story arcs" and yet still suspend disbelief. As Gregory Bateson once remarked, "it's all made of stories, you know?"

Sometimes the deepest truths can be found in stuff that is "just made up". Which is why I have such a problem with Richard Dawkins. But that's a whole 'nother discussion!

PS: Having said all that, I should point out that I also watch very little television. Unfortunately 98% of what gets broadcast is utter drivel and would insult the intelligence of a particularly dim bumble-bee. I'm certainly not suggesting Sarah Beeny is revealing profound truths every week. Just that we shouldn't dismiss mythology because we find it hard to suspend disbelief; and that mythology doesn't only happen in dusty books written in Ancient Greek.

Paul said...

I've said there's a hole, Jim. A couple of posts later and I'm exploring the shape and dimensions of the hole, and trying to work out how it got to be there. The second post couldn't have happened without the first. The best fiction moves us. The worst fiction slides by. Delicious hot, disgusting cold. The hole is within. I am incomplete.

I have a horrible feeling that the cure may be to be forced to watch chick flicks until I'm somehow able to reconnect. I don't think episodes of CSI qualify, so I don't feel too guilty about slinking off to my computer when that's on.

Paul said...

By the way, my stepdaughter, Lisa, went throught a Buffy phase. She's as cool as you like. Buffy is extraordinarily well done. There are others too, in every media.