Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Wonder-Full Stories 2 - Threats to feelings of awe

When wonder is part of your story, it becomes memorable. It adds impact and builds connections with readers. If you look at the stories people take as there own, often to the point of obsession, you’ll often find scenes that create a sense of awe.

I think writers need to clear a space in their writing for wonder because there are story elements that may work against it:

Expectations - A lot of writing guidance is about setting up expectations and fulfilling these (sometimes with a twist). This is basic to much of storytelling, but it can tie things down to the mundane and reduce the range of possibilities. It also can provide a level of preparation that may be necessary at times (to avoid cheating the reader), but suggests too much. Wonder sneaks up on people. It usually shows up as a surprise. And I’ve frequently found that it is preceded not by hooks and questions being raised, but by quiet scenes that have authenticity. These scenes build trust and put readers into calmer states without boring them. I call such scenes gentle segues.

Distractions - This one goes for writing as well as reading. I don’t think wonder can be appreciated and conveyed by writers who don’t clear out the noise and commotion of life from time to time. And writing that reminds people of these or gives protagonists tasks that are too familiar works against stepping away from the commonplace.

Negativity - There is important and inspiring work that deals with negative issues. And protagonists who aren’t seriously flawed can’t have dramatic character arcs. However… wonder seems to require appreciation of the positive aspects of life. It seems to reward optimism and a focus on what is good and nurturing. When pain, betrayal, temptation, and cruelty are around, wonder seems to move out of reach. In particular, moments of loss — which have real virtue in storytelling — are the opposites of wonder. (Complementing loss and wonder in a story is powerful, but very difficult.)

Ego - Voice and perspectives enhance writing, but, when the ego is around — and especially when it is too controlling — everything gets framed and contained. Wonder and boundaries, especially those driven by ego, don’t go together.

Spoilers - Remember the point about surprise and the unexpected? It amazes me how often writers create scenes that, taken by themselves, could create wonder (and sometimes actually do in early drafts), but kill them with tips and setups that undercut the surprise. I think this is motivated in part by the intent not to cheat. But mostly, I think this dross is added because the writer or a critic/reader/editor is disturbed by the wonder experience. And needs to diminish it.

Small scope - Cramped stories don’t leave much room for wonder. On the other hand, there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film has an enormous canvas for storytelling and it makes heavenly bodies part of the story. Having a larger scope doesn’t make wonder inevitable, but stories that focus on infinity, vastness, and nature are ahead of stories that are too close to daily experiences. Spectacle isn’t required. One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, could find wonder in a garden. But, while being in the moment enhances most stories, stepping out of the moment allows for wonder. Any story that supports awareness of eternity is likely to find wonder.

Humor - This may seem strange, especially since I focused on The Fisher King, a film Terry Gilliam (a Python, no less), when I kicked off this series. But I think humor tends to bring things down to size, and wonder is the opposite. In addition, humor is often driven by anger, which is a negative emotion. Gilliam creates a space for his scene. It includes gentle humor (dancing nuns), but nothing broad. And it is loving and accepting, without a hint of anger.

Humor is good to end this post with because it illustrates that this list is not set in stone. As I thought about genres that discourage wonder, my mind went immediately to heist films, which are about thrills and twists and turns and, ultimately, greed. Then I remembered the ending of Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven. When the gang gathers around the fountain, it’s ethereal. I remember how I felt wonder at that moment. So anything is possible.

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