Friday, 27 November 2015

Crisis? What crisis?

Story writers are often told to think in terms of tension leading to crisis and resolution. It's a natural tendency both in literature and elsewhere - a person's attention can't be endlessly ramped up, and leaving them in tension leads to dissatisfaction. Emotionally, the reader will be wanting to return to stability, homeostasis. If the writer ignores this, they're limiting their audience.

According to Robert McKee in "Story" the crisis is crucial - "How the protagonist chooses here gives us the most penetrating vision of his deep character, the ultimate expression of his humanity. / This scene reveals the story's most important value" (p.304). He suggests that the resulting resolution can have several uses -

  • to end the subplot
  • to show the after-effects of the climax
  • as a courtesy to the audience ("so the audience can catch its breath, gather its thoughts and leave the cinema with dignity") (p.314)

Intellectually too, readers can be left unsettled. A puzzle or riddle that lacks solution will leave some readers in an unsatisfied state. In "Language as Gameplay: toward a vocabulary for describing works of electronic literature" (EBR, 2012), Brian Kim Stefans lists and describes several types of crisis that go beyond McKee's plot-driven approach -

  • Crisis of ESCHATOLOGY – we are not sure where, in the standard narrative paradigm, poetic paradigm, or essayistic (syllogistic) paradigm, we are located nor can we, for the moment, imagine the end. I think a Sherlock Holmes story provides this. Readers are in no doubt of the genre or of the ontological status of the characters.
  • Crisis of SIGNIFICATION – something has occurred in our understanding of conventional relationships between word and thing. Magic realism comes to mind - readers need to decide whether the strange events are in a Fantasy world or whether they're hallucinations in The Real World. Or "The Matrix".
  • Crisis of SYMBOLISM – something seen to have a merely contingent value is seen to have a role in a symbolic universe. Perhaps the numbers in Peter Greenaway's "Painting by Numbers", or the Ring from Lord of the Rings, or the way that the sleigh in Citizen Kane changes meaning.
  • Crisis of SUBJECTIVITY – the narrative "I", whether of third or first person, has shifted. A realisation that the narrator's unreliable, or a robot.
  • Crisis of GENRE - "Cold Comfort Farm" maybe.
  • Crisis of MORALITY - A standard device, one where the reader can most easily identify with the main character.

Any of these can be intensified then resolved. Some of them need only be resolved for particularly insecure readers - many of us for example can read a story that doesn't resolve the moral indeterminacy it presents. The putative crisis could in fact be a permanent state.

Readers like to see how the crisis has caused the protagonist to change, but many of these crisis above are more to do with changes in the reader, how they cope with their crisis of understanding.

The realisation that there can be multiple crises offers possibilities that aren't often exploited.

  • Is it possible to have a chain of resolutions? After the Wizard of Oz's status changes, there's an avalanche of resolutions, but I suspect there are diminishing returns.
  • Do crises interfere with each other? Maybe it's possible for example to have a crisis of morality in something that hovers between farce and crime fiction, but again there are diminishing returns.

More fruitful perhaps is the idea of synchronised crises, or the idea of one of Stefans' more intellectual crises being used as an analogy for a more traditional, emotional one. For example, in a story where the main character's deciding whether to pick a fun-loving or reliable partner-to-be, a crisis of genre (comic or not?) may represent the life-choice.

In her story collection "Used to Be" Elizabeth Baines sometimes exploits the such analogies. Much as a reader might, after the first paragraph of a story, provisionally choose a template (one of the "seven basis plots" maybe), so a character may choose a role-model or a parent as a framework for their self. When the progress of the novel doesn't fit that framework, a decision needs to be made. The biggest decisions are those that require a change of template - Quest become Tragedy, or a father-figure's influence needs to be shaken off - narratology becomes tantamount to character analysis.

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