Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Theory: In Fiction, Curiosity Is Equal With Conflict

You've probably seen this talk, from a few years ago:

I've come to the conclusion that curiosity is as important as conflict in storytelling.

First, consider genre fiction. What would the British murder mystery be, without curiosity? Or consider what William Gibson said:
I wanted the reader to feel con­stantly somewhat disoriented and in a foreign place, because I assumed that to be the highest pleasure in reading stories set in imaginary futures.
Mysteries run on the "whodunnit" question. Science fiction runs on a more ambient curiosity, diffused to the setting rather than localized in a very specific piece of the plot. You're constantly trying to find out how this future setting differs from your relatively mundane reality. Curiosity drives horror fiction as well; imagine a horror story which started out like this:
There's a very specific type of monster that a lot of people don't know about. It's invulnerable to bullets, so shooting at it won't help you, but it's vulnerable to fire, so if you set it on fire, you'll be fine. It's nocturnal, so you might not be able to tell how big it is when you see it; fortunately, we can tell you that it's about eight feet tall, but only weighs about a hundred pounds. It attacks seemingly random individuals on a seemingly random schedule. However, there's a simple principle which allows you to predict whom it will attack, and when.
That would not be an effective horror story. It's more like an animal control manual. Every time you get the facts, the monster gets less scary. When the attacks seem random, that's terrifying. When you can call them ahead of time, they're not. This fundamental fact is the reason why horror video games can degrade into action video games which merely have unsettling artwork: once you understand the monster's mechanics, it's less of a monster, and more just an ugly problem.

The way horror uses curiosity sits in the middle between the very diffuse way sci-fi uses curiosity, and the very concentrated way mystery uses it. With mystery, you want an exact piece of the plot. With sci-fi, you want the world around the story. And with horror, you never find out enough information that you can imagine solving the problem until the characters are trapped in a situation where they wouldn't have access to the solution. But all three of these genres require unanswered questions to operate.

Everything I've ever read on narrative has said that conflict's essential. I've never seen anything which acknowledged the role of curiosity. Never any mention of the balancing act you have to play between revealing too little or too much.

The thing that made me absolutely certain that curiosity is as fundamental and essential as conflict was the television adaptation of The Expanse. As an avid fan of the books, I enjoyed the first few episodes despite their many flaws, but grew more and more frustrated with the show's inferiority to the books. I re-read the first two books just to get the taste of the show out of my mouth, and then I began re-reading the first book again.

This time, I've set up a spreadsheet and I'm filling it out chapter by chapter. The spreadsheet tracks what questions are raised in each chapter, what questions are answered, and — perhaps most importantly — what question each chapter ends on. Because in my re-reading, I noticed that "end on a question" seems to be a core organizing principle in these books. Most chapters end on cliffhangers, and a chapter which doesn't end on a cliffhanger will still at least end on a question.

There's also a column in my spreadsheet for "box within a box," because — to use JJ Abrams's term — The Expanse series of novels doesn't just have you constantly wondering "what's in the box?" Nearly every time you find out, in these books, what you find inside the box is almost always another box. And you usually find that box inside another box right at the end of a chapter. The books switch protagonists on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and every chapter opens by addressing some of the questions raised in the last chapter which "starred" that particular protagonist. Chapters also typically answer a previous question, then raise a low-stakes question, and then open up several new questions, amping up the stakes until they get to a cliffhanger, at which point the chapter ends.

It's a very addictive experience, and it's a cycle which continues throughout the book. The Expanse novels use these Matryoshka stacks of boxes within boxes as a propulsion mechanism, driving you from the end of one chapter into the beginning of the next, making these books extremely difficult to put down. Typically, when a new Expanse novel comes out, I read the whole thing in less than a day, putting aside just about everything else in my life.

I don't write as much fiction as I'd like, so I probably won't have time to apply this insight until 2017. But whatever I write next is going to steal a simple rule from The Expanse: end every scene on a question.