LJ 2008-12-19 11:16:00
TV is bad. Movies are bad. Literature is bad. Books that are popular but are not really considered literature are also bad.
But really, the problem is stories. I came up with a good phrase for this, “narrative imperative”, but it turns out that I’m certainly not the first person to coin that phrase. It doesn’t surprise me. It’s a good phrase. I may have subconsciously borrowed it from elsewhere anyway.
People often have a tendency to develop a tunnel vision about situations that cause them to behave in almost pre-programmed patterns that fulfil some sort of typified narrative structure that they’ve come across in stories, whether through TV, movies, or the cumulative effect of every work of fiction to which they’ve ever been exposed. That’s a long sentence, but it pretty much summarises everything I’m about to say, so it’s possible that what follows will be nothing more than filler.
It’s almost a form of mind control – the right pressure applied to the right situation and everybody falls in line, because they can relate to the situation, it’s familiar to them, and they act out parts that they’ve never played themselves, but which they’ve seen played.
In the case of the second girl I ever kissed, I delivered a (perhaps corny) line that could have come straight out of some messed up teen movie immediately before it happened. The obvious next step was for us to kiss. Anything else would be unthinkable, it would go against every narrative convention imaginable, and would undermine what I’d just said. Why would the writers have written that line if we weren’t supposed to kiss?
Or the fourth girl I ever kissed. We were at a railway station, having just had a lovely date, during which she had decided that we shouldn’t pursue a romantic relationship, because I lived quite some distance away, and she had a lot of things she needed to be concentrating on in her life at that point.. And it sort of turns into
EXT. STATION PLATFORM - DAY A train stands at the platform ready to depart. DUDE is talking to GIRL next to the last open door of the train. DUDE So are you sure you don't want to make a go of things here? GIRL I don't think so... sorry. DUDE Is it okay if I try to change your mind anyway? GIRL I think so... FADE TO BLACK
Wait, what? That isn’t where the scene ends. That’s never where the scene ends, unless you’re one of those clever writers who do stuff that’s quirky and unexpected and which resonates well with college kids.
But in most stories, especially the type that you read when you’re growing up, the next part of the script is a stage direction for DUDE to kiss GIRL. The stage direction calls for her to return the kiss. It’s just how these things are, you can’t change that, that’s narrative imperative for you. There is only one way for things to go. The guy delivers his line there with the specific purpose of getting the girl to respond favourably, so as to have an excuse to move in for a Movie Kiss.
Am I selling people short? Am I totally undermining free will here? Not exactly.. There are those guys who wouldn’t make that move, out of being too shy. There are girls who, in spite of that last line, would still pull away, because it’s not what they wanted. But generally, in general, if the two “characters” reach that point, then they get caught up in what you might refer to as “the heat of the moment” and just act out the obvious next step in the story.
It’s possible that you have to be a bit of a romantic to get caught up in that sort of thing. It is therefore entirely possible that people who haven’t a shred of romance in their souls would look at that and be entirely incapable of understanding how people get caught up in that sort of thing. But for most people? That’s kind of how things are supposed to turn out, and they use that as a justification for allowing them to turn out that way.
It’s a form of naturalistic fallacy – the mistaken assumption that if something follows naturally, then it doing so is the morally right outcome. Just because it’s how these things turn out doesn’t mean it ought to be what happens. Of course, that sort of objectivity goes right out of the window once you’re playing out one of those scenes…
It is, alas, part of human nature to act these things out. People want to be a part of the story, because the elegance of a well-constructed narrative is just too appealing. It’s exciting to know that you’re part of something that is Proceeding Correctly, though I can’t fully explain why that might be.
The trick, if you don’t want to get caught up in it all, is not to start the story in the first place. There’s almost a definition of “romantic situation” (if you use the words in their most strict sense) that covers any situation in which there is a “right” outcome, narratively speaking. If you don’t want the outcome, avoid the situations in the first place. If a scene has one logical conclusion, don’t participate.
Because as people, we all love to be part of our own Hollywood stories. And it’s so easy to get caught up in a gripping plot, and forget what we’re supposed to do in a wider sense, while thinking about what we’re “supposed” to do in this scene.
Anybody care to join me in a book burning session? ;o)