Thursday, October 13, 2005

Suspense and the English Professor

One of the professional hazards of being an English professor is the problem of suspense. It is very, very hard for me to be surprised in a story. When you deal with narrative enough, the details almost don't matter; the pattern is clear.

My wife and daughter hate to watch Monk with me, because I always know whodunit before the second commercial break, and often even before the first. They find it especially frustrating because I know even before there are any clues presented, primarily because the "clues" I notice are narrative clues. Even though I don't tell them whodunit, I will either stop paying attention or simply leave the room, which really frustrates them. It is equally frustrating to me, though, since mysteries hold little excitement for me.

When I went to see The Sixth Sense with a friend, I remember seeing Bruce Willis gutshot, then sitting on a park bench. I leaned over to my friend, already a little angry that the film was falling into place for me, and muttered, "If it turns out that he's dead through this whole thing, I'm gonna be peeved" [OK, I didn't say "peeved," but you get the point]. You can guess how I felt at the end of it.

Stargate: SG1 will always dwell in a good place in my heart because of one particular episode. A major character has apparently been killed, but this is an obvious red herring for a less drastic change to the plotline. The narrative clues all lined up to suggest that we were to think Character A had died, when in fact it was Character B who died. I almost turned it off, and probably only watch the episode through to the end because the remote control was out of reach. Then, LO! In fact, the entire Character A and Character B plotline had turned out to be a red herring atop a red herring (a whole school of herring), and Character C was dead! Hooray! Someone managed to fool me!

But this Stargate episode is a real rarity. I always know, as do most other English professors. So, when I received a reply on an old post about Battlestar Galactica, I found myself unable to respond. The commenter asked:

And replacement or homemade, why is a junior lieutenant a cylon under your argument?

The truth is that I can't explain it, except to say that it fits the narrative mold. Narratives move in predictable ways because, if they don't, they stink (archetypal critics have an explanation for this). I'm not arguing that all the clues point in that direction; I'm arguing, I suppose, that it would be a better narrative if he were. Since the writers have so far avoided bad science fiction writing, I expect them to produce good narrative before tricky or efficient narrative. D'Anna Biers, for example, did not simply have the possibility of being a cylon -- either she (or her cameraman) had to be a cylon for the narrative to work.

So here's the deal: I can't argue for it without putting you through years of study as an English major. But even if I could do so, I wouldn't ruin it for you. As a saavy consumer of culture, you already know how predictable (and dull) romantic comedies can be (Guess what? They get together at the end!) or action adventure films (Oooh, the hero survived! What a surprise!) or horror films (The monster wasn't really destroyed, and could now return for a sequel? Shocking!). Really understanding how narrative works is like already knowing all the spoilers for every story you will ever encounter. You should enjoy the experience, instead.


  1. Heck, I do that with Monk all the time.

    And I ain't no English prof.

  2. Even better (and yes, this is easy), I enjoy annoying my wife and mother-in-law by predicting the plot of various made-for-tv chick flicks and Christmas movies by walking into the room to get something, seeing about 30 seconds, and then spoiling the plot.

    My father-in-law finds it amusing, however.

  3. I never thought of it in this way before, but I do this all the time. Drove my husband nutty the other week while we were watching 'Medium' and within the first 10 minutes, I had figured out the rest of the plotline. (Though I refused to tell him).

    I am not an English professor, but as a voracious reader and writer, it is hard not to see the patterns. I continue to enjoy genre sci fi, fantasy, and mystery, but only when the characters are compelling and their relationships fully realized. If that element in the narrative is missing, then the plot devices become annoying.

    I just recently finished Steven King's 'Gunslinger' series and although I suspected how it would end, the getting there was so well written, that I could forgive him some of his more obvious devices.

    Hey--we continue to be captivated by Shakespeare's tragedies even though we know the stage will be littered with bodies by the end.

    Interesting post!

  4. All you non-English professors who also experience this, just think how much worse it is for us.

    One more example: My daughter told me she was reading a book entitled *Pinballs*. I asked her if it was about foster children. She was surprised, and said, "You already read it?" No, I had never heard of it, but what else could a children's book of that title be about?

  5. Your complaint against Monk is one of the reasons that Columbo was so much fun. We already knew who the killer was and how they did it. The show was about the discovery process Columbo went through. Columbo, as a character in a detective show, doesn't know he is in a scripted narrative and thus doesn't "know" he will find the villain in the end. We naturally do.

    This is a modification of my discussion regarding horror films. When people yell at the screen in my home, I remind them that characters in a horror film don't know they are in a horror film until either the "raise the stakes moment" or the "hero looses it all moment." Which of these is the pivotal moment depends on the type of horror film being watched. Curtis finds out early in Halloween, but in others the "discovery" is later.

    Why do they open the door to their bathroom? Because you would if you didn't know your were in a horror movie.

  6. I would also add that it is genre narrative familiarity that drives people to certain kinds of stories.

    I don't go to romantic comedies to be surprised or saddened. I go to romantic comedies to watch "how" a couple fall in love. Take You've Got Mail they added a fourth act (at least a filmic fourth act, films are often four or five acts, but stick with me here) just to have Tom Hanks have Meg Ryan fall in love with him again. We get one unhappy relationship followed by the successful wooing. That was one of the reasons I like the film.

    Oh and don't complain about formula. Shakespeare was all about formula, but he was also all about compelling dialogue and characters as well as interesting narratives. But anyone who thinks Titus is happy, or Much Ado will turn out sad, is crazy.

  7. Ten years ago, a good friend of mine was the slush-pile reader for a major literary magazine. Once, we played a little game: I'd read the first paragraph of a submission and she'd try to guess the ending. She got it right every single time.

    She did have an advantage, though: More often than not, the correct answer was, "The little rich boy learns a lesson in humility from his poor South American housekeeper."