Wednesday, May 11, 2011

why i'm against redundancy in stories

To start with, I will define a "story" as a linear narrative: a tale of "one damn thing after another." There are, of course, stories that aren't structured that way. I am not going to consider them here, because, in most cases, I'm don't find them pleasing.

(I have some theories that elevate linear narratives above other narrative structures, by which I mean that the linear form will most please most readers, probably because readers experience life as "one damn thing after another," but I won't push those theories here. Here, let's just say that I happen to prefer linear narratives, so I'm going to discuss storytelling within the framework of that aesthetic.)

Because I hate the clunky phrase "linear narrative," from here on, I'm going to replace it with the word "story." Please indulge me! I know there are other kinds of stories. But for the duration of this essay, I am using "story" to label just one type of story.

In their purest form, stories move FORWARD CAUSALLY. Event one (at the earliest time in the story) causes event two (at a later time), which causes event three (at a still later time) and so on. Readers have this basic template in their heads. It's a pleasing template, and they notice when a story veers from it, which isn't to say that all veers are bad veers.

Readers don't mind veers -- in fact they sometimes enjoy them -- when they understand the purpose of the veering. For instance if, in a story, Fred goes to a cafe, meets Alice, and then leaves to go to work while Alice remains, the reader will understand (if it's clear Alice is an important character) why the story stays with her and then, later, travels back in time to catch up with what Fred saw on the way to his office. Such a story breaks from simple linearity, but for a clear reason: it can't follow Fred and Alice at the same time, because they are in different locations.

When a writer handles this badly -- say if he makes the Alice subplot boring -- most readers get irritated. They say, "What's the point of all that Alice stuff? Let's get back to Fred!"

Partly, the readers are upset because they feel the writer has broken linearity FOR NO GOOD REASON. (As I am only granted access to my own head, I can't prove this paragraph's assertion. It's a guess, based on some navel gazing and the assumption that many other readers are similar to me. My base assumption is that readers prefer linearity by default but are willing to accept breaks from the timeline if they understand the reasons for the breaks. Readers respond to fictional timelines as they often do to real-life ones: if your friend says, "Let's go to the park," but then insists you take a long, circuitous route there, you will likely be irked or confused if you don't know why your friend wants to walk that way. But if he says, "I know this is not the fastest way to the park, but if we go this way, we'll walk past this really cool building," you may be willing -- you may even enjoy -- the detour. We don't want our time wasted, in life or art.)

Readers also tend to respond well to cliffhangers, which are, by nature, breaks from linearity. Again, they are acceptable (and even fun, in an agonizing sort of way), because (a) we understand the reason for them, which is that the writer is teasing us, and (b) we enjoy that reason -- we like to be teased. (Also, (c) we know we'll get back to the timeline once the tease is over!)

Some readers hate cliffhanger. These readers, I think, have an extremely low tolerance for breaks in timelines: "Dammit! I want to know what's going to happen next?" I have a titillating love-hate relationship with cliffhangers. Since I so love the linear form, I REALLY want to know what's going to happen next. It's agonizing when the writer refuses to tell me. But it's a sweet agony, because I know he's going to tell me in the end. The writer is, in effect, a lover who is flirting with me by temporarily withholding sex.

Readers don't mind stepping off the relentless, forward-moving conveyer belt if there's something worth lingering over. In a strict causal sense, all we need to know is that Claire is crying. But it might be sweet to pause for a moment and watch a tear trickle down her cheek... and then to move on. Most of us like pausing to look at flowers on our way to the supermarket. But, eventually, we want to actually get to the supermarket. So, again, linearity can be stretched, paused, meandered from, etc., as long as we have some sense of the purpose (to watch the tear) and some reason to trust that the author will get us back on track soon.

My next assumption is that we can't attend to two thoughts at once. If Mike has two hobbies, stamp-collecting and baseball, he can talk about one and then the other. He can't talk about both of them at the same time. He can shuttle very quickly between them, but that's still one and then the other -- not both at once. Similarly, a story is either moving forward or it isn't. It can't both linger and move forward at the same time. If it's examining the tear, it's not moving forward; if it's moving forward, it's not examining the tear.

Consider this story:

"Once upon a time, Bill was in love with Mary. He asked her on a date, but she rejected him. So he tried to forget her by moving far away, to France. So he tried to forget her, by moving far away, to France. But, in the end, he was always haunted by his memories."

As you can see, I inserted a very clunky and obvious bit of redundancy. If that doubling is a problem, why is it a problem? It's a problem because it breaks linearity for no good reason. If you're reading the same sentence twice, then you're clearly not moving forward. And the stutter, in this case, isn't interesting. It gives you no new information. It's like a bore who insists on telling you a joke he's told you before. You have to endure it before you can move on.

So, again, in this obvious example, my point is that redundancy is unpleasant because it breaks linearity. We ask, "What's the point of repeating the same sentence twice?"

Actually, that question is incomplete. Things can only have "points" in some context. It's meaningless to ask  "What's the point of a hammer?" A hammer has -- or doesn't have -- a point in contexts such as doing-carpentry or baking-a-cake. "What's the point of bringing a hammer to the cinema?" (The context is the cinema.) "What's the point of repeating information if the goal is to move forward -- unless there's some compelling reason to pause or sidetrack?"

Here's another example:

"Once upon a time, there was a huge, really big castle."

This irritates me for the same reason the last example irritated me. Even though "huge" and "really big" aren't literally the same words, they are close enough, and "really big" doesn't add any new information that "huge" didn't already add. Since you can't experience two things at once, when you're experiencing the repetitiveness of "really big," you're not moving forward. And so the pleasure of linearity is broken "for no good reason," which feels unpleasant.

Or does it? Some readers will complain that I'm nit-picking in this case. "Okay, maybe the writer could have omitted 'really big,' but Jesus Christ! It's just two words! Just skim past them!"

Other readers will (truthfully) say, "those extra two words didn't bother me." Which leads us to an interesting point about aesthetics: as soon as you posit an aesthetic rule, even if people agree with it in principle, they won't always care about it -- or even be affected by it -- in specific cases.

Let's say that we come up with an aesthetic rule that notes in songs should be sung "on key." This is a rule many people already agree with. Off-key notes sound bad. But if, while you're listening to a song, a dog barks right at the moment the singer went off key, you won't hear her lapse, so you genuinely won't be bothered by her violation of the "don't sing off key" rule.

You also might not be bothered by it if you happen to not be paying close attention, and you also might not be bothered by it if the song is deeply meaningful to you (or the singer is beautiful). You don't have mental bandwidth to perceive the bad note AND some competing pleasure. (Most of us have, at some point, been so dazzled by special effects -- or sexy actors -- in a movie that we haven't been bothered by its lackluster plot.) It's even possible that, for a moment, you WERE bothered by the off-key note, but the rest of the song was so good that you forgot that you ever were bothered.

(There also tends to be, for many of us, a social aspect of art -- a real or imagined relationship between us and the artist. People tend to "forgive" artists for lapses. "Well, she sang off key, but she has a cold, so it's understandable..." What is one actually feeling when one notices an artistic blunder but forgives the blunderer? One might be completely honest, in such a case, if one says, "The blunder didn't bother me." Being "bothered" is a negative emotion. If one doesn't feel anything negative -- because one is experiencing warm feelings of forgiveness -- then one likely isn't bothered.)

But rules are still useful. When we tell our children to look both ways before they cross the street, we don't mean, "Because if you don't, you will DEFINITELY be run over TODAY, when you cross this SPECIFIC STREET."

We mean looking-both-ways is a good rule of thumb to follow, in general, because if you don't follow it, at some point you may be hit by a car. We also realize that kids shouldn't try to apply to rule on a case-by-case basis, because they don't have all the information they need to know whether any specific case is one when it's worth applying the rule. For instance, a particular street may look deserted, but you never know when a car will suddenly zoom out of a driveway.

Aesthetic rules work this way, too. Yes, a reader might be able to ignore -- in fact, he might even not notice -- a tiny bit of redundancy. On the other hand, he might notice it and be bothered by it. In general, it's just good to avoid redundancy. That way, there's no chance a reader will be bothered by it.

(If you don't notice a small blemish in a work of art -- say you don't notice a little mustard stain on a dress (or you do notice it but aren't bothered by it) -- that doesn't mean you're inferior in any way to someone who does notices and is bothered by it. And if you do notice it, you're not inferior to people who don't. It's THERE! Anything perceivable may or may not be noticed by a given person.

It's reasonable to say that the dress would be better without the stain, even if the stain doesn't bother some people. The people who are bothered will stop being bothered if the stain is removed, and the people who were never bothered will remain unbothered, because it's not the case that they enjoyed the stain: they just weren't negatively affected by it. By removing the stain, the dress has a positive effect on more people than it had with the stain. And no one is bothered by the stain being removed.)

Is all redundancy bad? No. Like all breaks from linearity, redundancy can be pleasurable if the reader senses a purpose for it: and if the pleasure that purpose brings exceeds the pain of not-being-able-to-move-forward.

"Once upon a time, there was a giant. He was big, and I mean REALLY big. You may be thinking of him as big-as-a-house or something, but he was way bigger than that. His knees brushed against the clouds. He was one huge mother of a giant!"

Here, redundancy is obviously and purposefully slathered onto the prose in order to evoke a feeling of immensity.

What's important for artists to understand is the effect that redundancy always has: it breaks linearity. It's also important for artists to understand that audiences crave and expect linearity. There are often fun effects artists can create by thwarting and subverting expectations. They should just be aware of what they're doing. If redundancy is creating an interesting effect, great; if redundancy is just in the story because it hasn't been pruned out, it's a weed. It's a mustard stain on a dress.

The subtlest -- and therefor most-treacherous, because it's hardest to weed out -- form of redundancy is when the repeated information is coming from two different sources. This tends to happen most often in "multi-media" productions, such as film and theatre (and comic books, etc.) If a story is being told through a combination of dialog, images, sounds, etc., then it's possible (even probable) that redundancy will creep in when two different aspects of a work meet.

For instance, in a play, a character might say, "That's the reddest car I've ever seen." If the set also contains a red car, we have redundancy -- and not interesting, meaningful redundancy. Remember, my base assumption (which you can disagree with) is that our brains can't attend to two things at once. So even if the line is spoken simultaneously with lights coming up on the car, the audience will still experience the line first and then the visual second (or the other way around). They will experience "red car ... red car," which breaks linearity.

Now, you may be thinking, "Well, what is the director supposed to do? The play calls for a red car and there's a line about the car being red." (One thing the director COULD do is cut the line, but let's assume that, maybe for legal reasons, he doesn't have that option.)

There may be nothing the director can do. One can't always solve all problems. And this might be one of those problems that the audience "forgives" or doesn't notice.

But it's still a problem. It's still a violation of my aesthetic rule. One's goal, when creating art, should be to do one's best. You don't go to hell if you allow redundancy into your art. You're not a "bad artist" if you don't solve lapses that are out of your control. That's not my point. I am not judging anyone. I am just trying to explain why I think redundancy is -- or can be -- a problem, and why, as an artist, you should try your best to root it out.

This multi-media quagmire becomes worse when, as is usually the case, multiple artists are collaborating. Both the costume designer and the playwright are trying to tell the same story. It is very likely that rather than dividing up aspects of the story between them, they will overlap and both give some of the same information. The natural person to watch for this is the director. He should say, "We don't have to tell that part of the story with costumes, because we're already telling it with words."

(Sometimes it's fun to experience the same information in different ways. So it may be that HEARING ABOUT a red car and SEEING a red car doesn't feel like redundancy. But be very careful -- if you share my aesthetic -- because this can quickly become an excuse. ANY time two different aspects of a multi-media piece are giving the same information, they are giving it in two different ways.

Imagine someone asked you to do the dishes and then held up a sign with "do the dishes" on printed on it. That would just feel redundant -- and possibly insulting. My general rule of thumb is to not excuse redundancy just because they same information is being communicated in two different ways. That, itself, is not enough to excuse it.)

If you agree with me that redundancy is (or can be) a problem (or if you don't, but you enjoy trying on other people's aesthetic shoes, even if those shoes don't fit), you may enjoy grappling with what I call The "Macbeth" problem: you're a director, staging "Macbeth," and -- like me -- you're against redundancy. Given that, how do you present the witches?

In the play, when Banquo sees the witches, he says...

What are these
So wither'd and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth,
And yet are on't? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

If, before or after he says this, the audience sees wildly dressed, women with beards (and chapped lips, etc.), there's redundancy happening.

Maybe it wouldn't bother you, but if you were hired to craft a production that would please me, what would you do?

You could cut Banquo's speech, but it's a pretty good speech. Most Shakespeare lovers -- myself included -- love the plays at least partly for their poetry. Cutting this speech is a little like cutting "Send in the Clowns" from "A Little Night's Music," but it is a possible solution.

But if you kept the speech, is there any way that you could present the witches that wouldn't be redundant? (You're not allowed to eliminate redundancy by injecting confusion. If the witches look young, beautiful women, would that "work" or would it just be perplexing, given Banquo's description of them? As much as I hate redundancy, I prefer it to confusion.)

Remember: not all redundancy problems are solvable (which doesn't make the non-solvable ones "not problems.") Is this one solvable or not?

Since I haven't yet had the pleasure of directing "Macbeth," I haven't solved (or tried to solve) this problem, though I have some ideas about how I might solve it.

But if I was directing the play, the problem would pop into my head, because I consider part of my job, as a director, to be rooting out redundancy (and keeping the play chugging down its linear track, unless there's a compelling reason to veer away from the track).

As an editor mercilessly strikes out unnecessary adverbs (even if leaving them in wouldn't bother most readers), I mercilessly cut -- or try to cut -- all redundancy. I look at each moment in the play and ask myself "Is there any redundancy here?" and, if there is, I kill it if I can -- unless it's serving a clear purpose.

It's hard, because it's not always just a matter of "kill your own darlings." I am often forced to kill other people's darlings. That hat the costume designer worked on for a month... or that little thumbs-up gesture the actor loves so much (which isn't needed, because he also says, "Good idea!")... They are darling, darling darlings. But they're redundant darlings. So they have to go.