John Evans' Blog

Who Could Believe Such a Thing? – The Role of Disbelief in Narrative

by on Dec.20, 2006, under Uncategorized

Imagine a work of fiction – a novel, a television show, a video game, anything you like. Imagine that one character advances an outlandish theory to explain the unusual occurrences that have plagued the narrative. Imagine that another character expresses surprise, skepticism, disbelief at this theory.

Who is eventually proven right?

The answer is that the outlandish theory is proven correct. Maybe not all the time – but I personally can’t think of a single example where skepticism wins the day. I’ve been thinking about this recently, wondering why it might be so. This line of thought was inspired by Thomas Pynchon‘s The Crying of Lot 49, a strange yet entertaining book.

One obvious way to use skepticism is to heighten tension and drama. If a theory is advanced by a sympathetic character, a character the reader identifies with, then the skepticism becomes an obstacle to be overcome. The reader cheers the character on to be victorious in this conflict, vicariously enjoying the character’s success.

The previous paragraph is built on some assumptions, though. Why should the character with the theory be a sympathetic one, even a viewpoint character? Why should the reader be ready to accept the theory?

If an unsympathetic character presents a theory, the roles will be reversed. By definition (at least my definition), a sympathetic character is one that the reader has an emotional investment in. The reader wants the sympathetic character(s) to succeed. That becomes part of the enjoyment they get from the narrative.

However, the second assumption above sheds a deeper light on the subject. A reader is usually willing to accept an “outlandish” theory as being true in the fictional world of the narrative. They’re willing because that’s what the process of reading (viewing, playing) is all about – coming into contact with new ideas. In certain genres this becomes obvious; take The X-Files. Mulder & Scully find strange occurrences. Usually Mulder advances a theory while Scully tries to explain it away. But this is The X-Files – we WANT to hear about monsters, aliens, paranormal events! We WANT it all to be true, otherwise why would we be watching the show in the first place?

But even outside the conventions of genre, there is an emotional pull toward the rejection of skepticism. The reader is presented with a structure of ideas, often a very intricate one. To ultimately reject this structure would almost be an act of violence, like knocking over a house of cards. In a way it’s almost a dirty secret of writing; a reliable, knowledgeable character says “oh, but that couldn’t REALLY be the reason” – your reader nods, goes along with it but secretly believes that the skepticism will ultimately be disproven.

At the same time there is another drive in certain narratives, the drive to provide plausible alternate explanations. The uncertainity thus provided heightens the tension and suspense of the ultimate resolution. In its ultimate form this can produce a Lady/Tiger ambiguity. I feel like there’s some idea of “fairness” lurking here, as in the idea that the reader of a mystery must be able to guess the ending before coming upon it. (An essay for another time!) Also of note is Lovecraft‘s take on the problem; in his first-person stories, the narrator desperately tries to disbelieve the horrible explanations for paranormal events, until the horrid reveal crushes them with the weight of facts.

So, knowing all this, what can we conclude? Disbelief is a technique that can be easily applied to many types of writing. However, is it possible to have disbelief that is ultimately proven correct? Doing so would be to invalidate all the emotional investment that (I believe) the reader has put into the theory. Not just invalidate, but betray. Is this a bad thing? Well, it depends on what kind of story you’re writing; if you really want to trick or frustrate your reader, it might help. Surprise is good, in moderation (just ask Vince Russo, on both counts). Another way to deal with this problem of “betrayal” would be mitigate the emotional investment. In other words, if the reader doesn’t care about the theory, then they don’t care if it turns out to be true. I guess this is really just a warning to be careful about using skeptical characters in your narratives.

There is one more possibility, however. I believe it is possible to have a theory be proven partially correct. This will both surprise the reader and preserve their emotional investment. Imagine several strange events, a skeptical theory, an outlandish one. Imagine that the ultimate explanation is something even stranger than the most outlandish theory yet expounded. Our open-minded character can say, “Okay, I was wrong, but I was closer to the truth than those stodgy skeptics!”. The character’s honor as a seeker of truth is preserved, even as they are shown to be fallible, human, even humble in the face of what they could not quite grasp. There is opportunity for subtle emotional development here…and that can make for
good writing!

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