Grand Hotel: Dialogue and Engagement, Part 1b: Participatory Engagement

Now we're getting into the good stuff. It's fine to watch somebody interesting do something interesting. That's a big part of what stories are for. But the sidelines only go so far. We want in on the action. We want to take part.

What do you do when you start a new school? You orient. You look around. What's different from your old school? What's the same? What should you be aware of? Where's your desk. Where's the exit? Where's the loo? Who are the nice kids? Who are the bullies? What does your teacher expect? What are the rules?

All this matters in real life. It matters in stories, too. At the beginning of a story, a sequence or a scene, we want to know what's what, what we're dealing with, how things work. Is there magic? Is there tech? Do people get killed around here?

The last three are story-level questions. If aliens are going to abduct us, there'd better be a smell of that in the air. We don't have to know it's aliens on the wind, but there'd better be some scent the aliens answer for. We want to know in the first eighth of the story that people can get abducted here and that something like aliens might be to blame.

But we don't want to be told that. We don't want to bang our heads on a sign that says "Caution: Alien Abduction!" We want to figure it out ourselves. We don't want some teacher or classmate to give us a talkative tour. We want to peek and poke on our own. We want to orient ourselves.

In real life, we like signs and tour guides, because we usually have other things to do beside work out the workings of the world. But in a story, working stuff out is half the fun. It's one of the few things we get to do there. In real life, we face the crises, make the decisions, resolve the dilemmas, take the actions. In a story, the characters do that. So we want to do more of what we usually do less of in life. Orientation is one of those things.

This is one of the things that puts us deeply in a character's shoes. We see what they see and we sweat to make sense of it. Characters usually know tons about the world they live in--and they take most of it for granted. If they tell us directly about anything, it will be the things that stand out in importance or oddity for them. There will always be some telling, but the telling can be shaped so that it shows us or lets us see something else, something the narrator is not focused on, but which we pick up on and add to our model of the story world.

And that's half of what I want to say about Interpretation. It's part of Orientation.

As I recall, the gist of Intepretation came to me at an elementary school one evening. My kids were playing on the rope and mast, beside the basketball court, and my wife and I were walking hand in hand around the track. I usually go for more vigorous exercise, but it was a warm night and I didn't want to make my wife's nose rinkle. We were walking and I was thinking about somebody blindfolded and tied to a chair. How would they know whether their abductor was jabbing them with a finger, a pen or a knife? They wouldn't, but they would combine the stimuli they were receiving into impressions, and they would interpret those impressions to mean a knife was plucking at their ribs.

I realized that in order to recreate the victim's experience for a reader, I would have to "write through a blindfold"--describe the experience based on impressions and stimuli, not on interpretations. I would have to give the reader the material to interpret, but not the interpretation.

And then I realized that interpreting was the reader's job, not mine: that my job was providing stimuli and impressions--an experience, not a report. This was a major insight that allowed me to understand exactly what I had been trying to do without realizing it: provide experiences, not reports. Now that I knew what I was trying to do, I could consciously do it--and consciously train myself to do it better.

Interpretation is closely related to an oft-named but seldom clearly explained concept called subtext. Subtext, in general, is the unstated goal of any narrative unit. It's what is not spoken but is heard. It's what we gather from what we observe. It can be incidental or deliberate on the part of author, narrator or acting character, but it is always read between the lines, seen through the cracks, inferred from what is told or shown. Subtext makes stories fun. It makes them experiences instead of reports.

This new understanding led me to add a layer to to the old writer's maxim "Show, don't tell." I call it "Let see, don't show."

Suppose you were touring a castle. Some things you would want told to you, things you wouldn't be able to figure out on your own: names, dates, events. Some things you would want shown: rooms, furniture. And some things you would like to discover for yourself: cracks in the walls, blood stains behind tapestries. A good tour guide understands this and tells you only what you cannot find out alone. And leads you to signifcant rooms where you see things meaningfully combined. And lets you strain your own senses to see and hear--and maybe feel--the ghosts.

And finally we come to what I call the "Unified Equation of Narrative:, the "Central Equation", what draws everything together, the secret to everything that holds our attention.

Why do people watch sports? This question puzzled me for years. Empathy, Belonging and Fascination are big factors, of course. They project themselves into the players' sweaty shoes and project their feelings into the players' brains. They ally themselves with certain teams. They admire certain players and detest certain others. They orient on the sport, the games, the teams, the players. They interpret stimuli and impressions from footage and commentary or in the venue itself. But all of this would be paint on the wall but for one thing: Prediction. It's Prediction that makes everything fun, from sports to gambling to stories. It's Prediction that brings a painting to life.

Here's how it works.

In any combination of world and character, there are possibilities. Some things can happen and some things can't. This is the essence of genre. In science fiction, you can be abducted by aliens. In fantasy, you can be turned into a toad. In romance, you can be irresistible to an acknowledged hunk. In realism, the first two are impossible and the third is unlikely--at least for me. I tend to attract babes.

And that leads to the second part of the Equation: probability. We establish what's possible and we determine its likelihood--its probability. As I explain to any English-learner who'll listen, Possibility is what can happen, Probability is its relative chance of happening, and Prediction is our guess about which possibility will happen.

Now we're ready to rip up the Hook of Grand Hotel. We'll start with problems in the shooting draft.

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