So last night we had a gaming session, and though not a lot seemed to happen, I came away from it pretty happy. It's tough with a new gaming world to find your place in it right away. It takes awhile to learn how the new world works. When I was in college, it was easier: a big fight against a cool-ass monster or villain, then phat lootz after, and I'm happy.
It's different now. I'm older, and I place greater value on different things. And our group is made up of writers and avid readers, so much of the joy of the game comes not from big combats, but from moments between characters who have revealed themselves over time. Last night, I had a pretty good moment with lots of conflicting emotions crammed into a relatively brief period of time. I wish I could get something that complex and interesting on the page.
And thinking back over it today, I realize that part of what made it work was that I had set up some expectations earlier. Essentially, what happened was, my character appeared to give another a hug. And in the moment between initiating the contact and explaining what it was about, there was a tension between several alternatives. Was he doing this as a lost child needing comfort (since he had explained that he had no memories beyond a few years previously and had been wandering the fringes of society for as long as he could remember), or was this perhaps a more romantic gesture (since another personality controlling his body had hit on the same character the previous night--perhaps there was a secret crush or something)?
The reveal, when it came, managed to be both creepy and pathetic, and I hope was a surprise, upending the expectations set up while also (I think) satisfying them in a different way.
This plays into a theory I've had about writing for a while now. The trick--the really hard trick--to writing a story that works is to set up expectations and then satisfy them without satisfying them.
An example: in the mid-1970's, Ralph Bakshi directed an animated film called Wizards. It was a satirical look at fantasy and sword-and-sorcery about the clash between the good hippie fairies led by the wizard Avatar and the dark forces of evil led by Avatar's evil brother, Blackwolf. It is set up in the beginning that these are the two most powerful wizards on the planet, so we know, we expect, that there will be a climactic duel between the wizards. And although it seems as if Avatar's powers are all bluff throughout most of the film, we hang in there waiting for him to bust out his Moment of Awesome, because we've been told that he's actually really powerful.
But the confrontation, when it comes, is over almost before it starts, because Avatar pulls out a gun and just shoots his adversary. And yeah, it's funny and it's a shock, and it's in keeping with Avatar's character. And yeah, this exact bait-and-switch is one of the most fondly remembered moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which came out four years later.
But the key difference is, in Raiders, it's a throwaway joke against a character we've never seen before. We had no real expectations. In Wizards, we'd been watching Avatar travel to this confrontation for an hour-and-a-half, only to settle for a swift kick in the balls. Now, knowing it's coming, I can appreciate the joke, but the first time I saw the movie, I was pissed off. Because I hadn't received what I thought I'd been promised.
And I wonder if that's part of what went into a recent study which found that spoilers do not actually ruin a story. I like surprise twists in a story, but obviously a story that depends wholly on surprise cannot become a perennial favorite, enjoyed over and over again. You can only be surprised once.
A well-told story is like a series of promises from the author--"Okay, you don't know what this means, but I promise, hang in there with me and it will mean something later, and it'll be cool, I promise!" So if you promise a fight, there needs to be a fight. If you promise love, there needs to be love. If you promise a solution to a mystery, the mystery must be solved.
But there's a trap, which is that you can't meet their expectations too square-on. There's a reason why the words "dull" and "predictable" so often go together. The story needs to be predictable, but in a surprising way, a way that lets the reader or viewer feel smart while also appreciating the author's ingenuity--"man, I knew something like that was going to happen, but I never thought it would happen like that! That turned out way cooler than I expected!"
It's a delicate balance, and one I'm always trying to do better.