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The kinds of questions we ask ourselves - Not only impossible, but fatal

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July 27th, 2016


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01:08 pm - The kinds of questions we ask ourselves
I am still thinking about this essay, now several years old, which constrasts the kishoutenketsu structure that characterizes traditional Chinese and Japanese narratives with a traditional western plot structure that relies on a conflict-driven plot characterized by a protagonist trying, failing, and eventually succeeding at something.

I don't think it's necessarily useful to divide things so neatly. Kishoutenketsu literally means something like 'arising, development, turn, resolution,' and this idea of a 'turn' or a 'twist' is broad enough to encompass Eastern and Western narratives, high-conflict narratives and low-conflict ones. My book on writing (very cheesy and commercial, and certainly not low-conflict) Boys Love novels says that you should use kishoutenketsu as a plot model. But then I think about a Yoshimoto Banana short story that I read several years ago. The viewpoint character is a girl who lives next door to a boy who's well-off but whose family life seems mysterious and sad. One day, circumstances lead her to understand the boy's family life much better; then he moves away.

By the standards of the conflict-plot model, this is a bad story. The girl isn't really driven by her efforts to help the boy or find out more about his family life; these are just things that happen. (If you were hung up on the conflict-plot model, you'd say she gets things too easily.) But the story works because really, there are two kinds of questions we're asking through the course of a narrative that generate tension or suspense. There's wanting to know what's going to happen next; and there's wanting to understand what's going on now. If a story like this one works, it works because we feel like we understand a little more about the boy and his family; and it works because we feel like that knowledge is meaningful in the context of the story; and maybe we feel like we understand a little more about the ways in which families can be sad or cruel or complicated. It's not driven by success or failure, but by revelation. Or epiphany.

This is where the Western/Eastern thing breaks down, because epiphany-driven storytelling has been the model for Anglosphere short stories for the last hundred years. And even if we think of Hollywood blockbusters, even in hugely conflict-driven movies, it's often the epiphanies that generate the most resonance -- isn't "I am your father" the key moment of any of the Star Wars movies? Even very traditional conflict-plot stories are driven by much more than the conflict, by much more than the protagonist's success or failure -- they're driven by a situation with mysteries that need to be understood. And a lot of that is lost when we try to cram stories into a conflict-plot model that reduces events to a try-fail cycle.

This is true even when it's really just a conflict-plot model with a Freudian overlay: we've got to dig up the hidden trauma, search out the mystery at the center of the problem, so that we can beat the Big Bad. But even then, I think it reflects something important -- the idea that we'll succeed not by being the cleverest or the strongest, but the ones with the deepest understanding of things. Perhaps, if we're lucky, by being the ones with the most empathy.

But there are also stories where understanding things better doesn't really get you anything, except for understanding things better. These are the stories that often feel aggressively anti-narrative to me, in the same way that Japanese fiction often used to feel anti-narrative to me when I started reading it. And at worst, these kinds of stories can feel meandering and pointlessly sad. But at best, I can relate better to the people in these stories: people who don't know what will make them happy; people who don't have much of anything concrete to fight for or fight against; people whose action in the world often consists in watching and waiting and hoping to get a better understanding of themselves and what's going on around them. These are the stories that say, if the conflict-plot model doesn't work, if you're not going to win or lose at life, what else matters? Where else can we build meaning, or find meaning? The epiphany story is bigger than an assumption about the cruel and brutal truths at the center of the universe. Kindness can be a revelation; the moments in Miyazaki's movies of quiet and natural beauty come like revelations, even in a movie as violent as Princess Mononoke.

The conflict-plot story is fundamentally a story about how you can win as long as you have enough strength or guts or will. That's not my story; it's not most people's story, I think. I want a story that decenters its protagonists, a little. A story with enough room for the cruelty of the universe and also its beauty. A story where, in the middle of all the other conflicts that are going on, the protagonist can sit down and breathe in the fresh air and see things at a different angle than they did the night before.

This entry is also posted at http://owlectomy.dreamwidth.org/494853.html. Please feel free to comment here or there using OpenID. The Dreamwidth post has comment count unavailable comments.

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