Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Suspense and Solid Stories

"Of course, I'm being rude. I'm spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don't have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It's the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me." --the narrator, Death, in The Book Thief

The book I am currently reading, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, has a particular quality that I adore. Not only does it not rely on suspense, it deliberately flouts it. It tells you that something will happen, and then it deals with the details of it later. My first taste of a book that did this was Slaughterhouse Five, which completely throws suspense and linear story out the window. Among other things, the narrator keeps pointing out that someone named Edgar Derby eventually gets shot to pieces. The first time it is mentioned I found it almost appalling, but it soon became meaningless, almost humorous. Vonnegut regularly refers to him as "poor old Edgar Derby" as if the only thing that matters about his character is the fact that he eventually gets shot to death, and yet, as if the death hardly matters at all.

People generally like to avoid spoilers. I understand this to a degree. I have seen Fight Club, after all. The first time you see it, if you don't already know the twist, you see the story one way and receive a tremendous surprise. The second time you see it, you see the exact same story in a completely different way. It is a story well-crafted. However, there are plenty of cases where the so-called "spoilers" are essentially worthless, in that they don't change the preceding story at all. Consider my experience reading Harry Potter.

I wasn't allowed to read Harry Potter when I was younger. By the time I was in high school and the sixth book was out, my parents didn't care anymore and I was finally curious enough to try the series. I was still in the first chapter of the first book when my dear friend Casey said, "Oh, you're reading Harry Potter? In the sixth book, Snape kills Dumbledore." I didn't know who either of these people were, and by the time I did, it still didn't affect the story preceding the event. Poor old Dumbledore. But it didn't make a difference that I knew it was coming.

One of my main troubles with stories that rely on suspense, or that rely on the audience not knowing something, is that I like to re-read books and re-watch movies. If I like a story, I want to experience it again. Yet, if the foundation of the story is the element not known, then I can't possibly enjoy it a second time, unless I am a profoundly forgetful person.

Therefore, what I seek is the story well-crafted. I seek a story with good characters and with jokes that still make me giggle when I hear them for the thirtieth time. I seek a story with layers and small details, things I might not catch the first, second, or fourteenth time. I seek a story that takes place somewhere I'd like to go and can't, like Narnia or Middle Earth. I seek a story that tells the truth through fiction. I seek a film that is beautiful or a book that evokes beautiful images. I seek the stories that still come to mind even when I haven't read or watched them in ages. I seek solid stories with a solid foundation.

Of course, there are many things besides suspense that can destroy a story, for me. If it is told poorly, if most of the characters are awful, or if I can't relate to the premise, I likely won't be interested. But the issue of suspense, of the story that focuses on the end instead of "the machinations that wheel us there," is an issue that can bring any otherwise-decent story to its knees.

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