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A smart reader is hard to please

7 DEC
2009

About the question whether predictability alone can make a story boring

by Morgoth

As I've read Chapter 16 of Gamble Fish some time ago, I came across an interesting question: Why is it that I liked the chapter despite that I predicted all the twists from the very beginning?

But at first, let's be frank: It's very rare that the reader can figure out the plot and its twists before they show up. So what of these rare occasions where the reader does know what will happen? Does it disturb him? Does it make the plot automatically boring? If that would be the case all authors greatest fear would be the smart reader, the one who's smarter than the author and because of that he can figure out the plot. This assumption basically makes Sherlock Holmes the worst possible critic for the Detective Conan Series, doesn't it?

Let's be even more frank: Nobody of us is actually Sherlock Holmes... Well, but that's not the point of this article. Anyway the real question is: how important or unimportant is predictability for entertainment? We all know that in most cases when one speaks of predictability it's a negative quality speaking of a simple plot not really fit to entertain the viewer by being unoriginal and so on.

But what is the alternative? „Being smarter of course.“ Would be the first answer but that’s easier said than done and well in most cases it isn’t accomplished. Instead the unexpected, the totally unexpected comes into play like when the hero of the story screams „Ha, I have only waited for this moment! Feel the power of my secret weapon named Gausaksklnnjklfsd nobody heard of until now!“. Surely, nobody expected him to have something which he never talked about... Well, it’s of course not as easy as that to fool a viewer and often the reader has enough experience to comment the crisis of the hero with words like „So... how will he be rescued?“ but the real achievement of the author is that nobody will ask „So... when will he use Gausaksklnnjklfsd?. Perhaps the reader might add something like „Damn it, why does it has to have such a strange name?!“, too. Anyway the point is: You are surprised… even if you grumble something like how idiotic the whole thing is with this Gausaksklnnjklfsd.

But does a good story really need THAT?! Is it really necessary to surprise the reader? Some genres need to be surprising only to reveal their classical schema which makes the whole thing not as surprising as the author might want. The reason for that would be experience – the thing the old folk always brags about if they have nothing else to brag about. Well, not that you need necessarily to be old to see through the stereotypical schemata of Shounen-Mangas. The point is that after watching a hundred animes or something like that of one genre, you look at them with different eyes. Better eyes? Not really – a donkey stays a donkey even while changing his eating habits. What changes is the understanding, the ability to predict.

Umberto Eco says that there are two kinds of viewers: the naïve one and the critical one. The first is happy for being able to predict the plot but the latter goes one step further, he not only predicts the plot but compares it also to other instances that he can remember and while doing that he finally can say stuff like: “Nay, that isn’t it. There was a better show that did the same thing. Ye could even say it’s the same thing only done worse.” One could call him an idiot for condemning a series for copying (nearly every series does it after all, it’d be quite a miracle to come up with totally new stuff and still being entertaining). But what I mean is that the critical viewer can base his opinion on something, it’s not like the naïve viewer who says stuff like “Oh, it’s green, I guess. Why? Just a hunch.”. The critical viewer can say: “No, it’s blue. I’ve already seen green and that is definitely not green.”

But what does that mean for the story? Well, it means that the good author builds stories to entertain critical viewers. He knows the schemata and twists them like for example making the hero the weakest person in the series or make a series about the mightiest fighters of the world without showing even one fight or letting the hero fail in saving the damsel in distress. It’s the stuff that you don’t expect because all too often the opposite of it happen. And these are the stories that are really entertaining because both the naïve viewer and the critical one are entertained – the former for not knowing anything at all, the latter for knowing what will likely happen but being surprised by a director who goes the other way.

But what does that ultimately mean? Well, the reason why critical viewers exist is the lacking originality of many works. Sure, nobody can nonstop reinvent entertainment itself and not all series are designed to challenge the critical viewer but an author really shouldn’t forget that a story isn’t only a matter of itself; it’s also a matter of its time as a whole. You can’t stop comparing Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood with the first season and you can’t stop complaining about Naruto for not being what one might expect because of other experiences with that genre. But in the end a critic shouldn’t forget that from time to time an author deserves a little sympathy for trying to meet the high expectations of the critical viewers.

A smart reader is hard to please after all…

comments

Innocency avatar Innocency
Dec 10, 2009

I must thank you for your comment on my profile, it reminded me to read this blog, because I had forgotten to do so beforehand. :)

Out of the two, I think I'm more of what you labelled a "naive viewer" - I can predict plot twists and what they may be, but even if they turn out to be the exact same of what occurs in the actual entertainment piece (in this case, anime), I can still find them entertaining most of the time.

However, this can depend on whether one is expecting a plot twist to occur or not. For instance, a plot twist in a mystery manga/anime is far more likely to actually occur, which is natural (being a mystery-focused story). The fact that a plot twist is almost guaranteed to happen allows the viewer to think "So, what's the single most unlikest thing to happen? Or rather, what aspect of the plot has the capacity to be turned-upside down in order to trick the viewer?" ...Usually the most far-fetched or entertaining prediction is usually the most accurate of what will actually occur. At this point, the only real issue is whether or not the plot twist which plays out will actually be the one you predicted, and if the viewer finds it entertaining.

On the other hand, what about a story which you wouldn't expect to have a plot twist? Like, a regular gun-blazing action movie, or a comedy-themed show in particular. Does the unpredictably of a plot twist's existance AND the plot twist's content make the whole revelation more entertaining?

"Too long, don't read" version; whereas you've talked about the accuracy of predicting a plot twist's CONTENT affecting the entertainment factor, what about the effect on entertainment from being able to predict the plot twist's EXISTANCE? It's a thing to think about :)

Anyways, great interesting blog! :D

Innocency avatar Innocency
Dec 7, 2009

Seems like an interesting read. Shame I can't be bothered reading at 00:32 in the morning, but I shall return to read your blog tomorrow! :D

Omurqi avatar Omurqi
Dec 7, 2009

Ah thanks, that was a good read!

I think there is certainly some truth in this, especially if that "smart" viewer (reader) is trying to look at something with a critics eye. Something being predictable doesn't necessarily makes it bad though. There are a multitude of great stories out there that are not trying to challange the viewers intellect, but are just easy entertainment or have as goal to make the reader relate to events or characters. In those cases being not too original or "crazy never-seen-before" with your ideas might actually help a story forward.

Anyhow, those are just my 2 cents on the topic ^_^

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