Tea Party Rules – The Story Contract Bruce Holland Rogers
This is the fifth column in Bruce Holland Rogers’s new writing series, Technically Speaking. For more of his columns, visit his author page.
In the previous column I said that fiction is a special variety of lie because it is collaborative. The reader participates in making the lie into a simulated truth and responds to the simulation with thoughts and feelings as if that simulation were real. Reading a story is not so very different from cooperative play such as sitting down to a pretend tea party with a child. The child is the author. She pours the pretend tea, and we, like readers, pretend to drink it. The tea party allows us to practice our manners and also to experiment with contingencies: What if the tea were too hot, and we burned ourselves drinking it? What would we do then?
There are three main components to a good pretend tea party. You need a host, a guest, and some rules. In the case of a simulated tea set, the pretend sugar bowl and the pretend creamer may each be a wooden block. Agreement that the blue block is the creamer allows the play to proceed realistically, so that a naughty guest who picks up the creamer and drinks all the cream right out of it doesn’t have to explain what he’s doing. He can just do it, and the host can see that this is what he is doing and scold him appropriately. (I am an uncle, and I confess that some uncles often misbehave terribly at the tea parties hosted by their nieces and need a lot of scolding.) Certain kinds of rule breaking within the game can make the game more interesting and fun (such as violating the rules of etiquette), but the rules of the game itself (the blue block is the creamer) can’t be violated without ruining the game.
Admittedly, the rules of a tea party are often revised on the fly. If the host says, “No, you didn’t do that,” then the guest didn’t drink from the creamer, after all. If the host says, “Now the blue block is a flower,” then it can’t be treated as a creamer any longer. But if host and guest aren’t agreeing to act in accordance with the rules, no matter how protean those rules may be, the game is over. Someone may even be tearfully accused of not playing right, of violating the implicit contract in accepting the invitation to tea.
Fiction has to be even more rule bound because it is a harder kind of make-believe. For one thing, one of the players isn’t even present, but is represented by marks on a page. The cognitive task for the reader consists of layered difficulties: recognizing words, understanding sentences, visualizing the events that those sentences name, inferring the personality of characters from their behavior, trying to figure out along with the heroine why it is that she sabotages her best chances for romance, attempting to solve the murder mystery before the detective does, and so on. In short, fiction is a difficult game. Imagine how much harder it would be if the rules kept changing! So the beginning of any fiction has to answer two questions about rules:
What Sort of Game Is This? This is a question about story type.
What Are the Technical Rules? This is a question about how the story is to be told.
The first question can address market category, artistic ambition, mood, or any other formulation of “kind of story.” For instance, is the story a romance? A detective story? Those are market categories, and there are rules peculiar to the category. The romance will play a game of love frustrated and ultimately realized. The detective story will present a mystery and, after a detailed investigation, the solution to that mystery. Or as examples of artistic types, is the story built mostly on plot with little emphasis on language, or is the story firstly about language with little emphasis on plot? The first offers a game that creates, extends, and finally releases tension. The second rewards the reader with the texture of the writing (humor, surprise, elegance). A story might do both of these. Finally, however the questions of category and artistic type are answered, the story will have a mood that might be somber, hysterical, sexy, uplifting, ironic, etc.
In practice, a reader hardly ever stops to ask “What type of story/game is this?” Instead, the reader begins to read and decides that she does or does not like the experience so far. But the reader does have expectations for how the story is going to continue according to what kind of story it is. The reader chose to read a story of this type because she has enjoyed similar stories before, likes the kind of participation that this kind of story invites, and is in the mood for a story with this tone.
The reader is even less aware of the question, “What are the technical rules?” By technical rules, I mean conventions such as point of view. In brief, point of view limits how the reader can get information. In a single-character-subjective viewpoint, the reader can know what one character thinks and feels, but can’t see into the heads and hearts of other characters. In an omniscient point of view, the reader can know the thoughts and feelings of every character, and the reader can also know things about the characters than none of the characters knows. Some technical rules are common, like point of view, and others might be invented for just this one story, such as beginning every paragraph with the letter R.
Even though the reader may not ever make a list of all the type rules or technical rules she has detected in the first pages, the reader does rely on those rules to imagine the story and to “play along.” If the story presents the reader with a puzzle, the reader will try to solve that puzzle. If some sentences might be read in different ways, the reader may lean on the rules to narrow the possible meanings. “Sam’s world exploded” probably refers to a metaphoric explosion in most types of stories, but if the story is science fiction, the sentence must be considered as a report of planetary annihilation.
Just as the uncle and niece have agreed to a an implicit contract for playing at having tea, the writer and reader have agreed to an implicit contract. The writer offered the contract in the first few pages by demonstrating what the story was going to be. The reader has accepted the contract by continuing to read.
With rare exceptions, the writer may not revise the contract as the story goes along. To offer one type of story and deliver the ending for a different type, to open with one point of view and suddenly provide information that isn’t allowed in that viewpoint, to cease starting every paragraph with the letter R, any of these can irritate a reader who has been playing along so far. If the violation is serious enough, the reader may angrily stop reading because the writer has stopped playing right.
Starting fiction well means many things, but this idea of an implied contract is at the top of the list. As with all of technique, though, you may not have to think about the implied contract. Readers and writers both get a sense of the implied contract and how it is established just by reading. The implied contract is part of every story, and we may absorb all that we need to know about it by osmosis.
However, when a story violates its contract the reader may feel abused. That’s certainly how I felt when watching the movie that tops my list for Cinematic Stupidity. The movie, Event Horizon, had a promising start: A starship with an experimental drive had gone on its first voyage out of our solar system. When the ship returned, it parked in orbit around Neptune, but calls to the ship from earth have gone unanswered. A team is sent to the ship from earth to rescue the crew, but when the team arrives, the ship is empty. What’s more, members of the team start having disturbing visions while they are aboard the experimental ship.
Everything about the beginning of this movie proposed a science fiction contract. Here was a mystery: What had happened to the crew, and why were members of the rescue team having disturbing visions? I knew how to play along. My task was to try to imagine a solution to this mystery. Because the film strongly signaled that it was science fiction, one of the rules for my task was that the mystery’s solution had to be scientifically plausible, or if not plausible, then its “rubber science” would have to be made to “bounce,” to seem scientifically plausible given some slightly bent rules of science.
I was enjoying the game. I had my own pretty cool solution to the mystery. If my solution had been the right one, I’d have enjoyed feeling smart. If the movie had revealed an even better solution, I’d have enjoyed the cleverness of the writers. But the solution to the mystery turned out to be…supernatural!
I rarely walk out of movies, but I missed the final minutes of this stinker. For me, the contract hadn’t just been violated. It had been ripped to shreds and peed upon.
Event Horizon could have succeeded in entertaining me if it had signaled from the beginning that it was going to be a story of supernatural horror. I then would have played along with a different game. But there was no indication in the beginning of the movie that this was anything but science fiction, or if there were indications, they were far too subtle.
As with so many things in writing and storytelling, the implied contract is subject to the individual differences between readers (and movie goers). There are people who like Event Horizon, and in fact there is much in the movie that is done well. For someone who considers science fiction to be indistinguishable from fantasy, who doesn’t expect a movie about spaceships to conform to the realities of physics, Event Horizon may be completely satisfying. Those people entered the world of that film with a different contract.
Since the contract of a story is implied, it is also inferred. You have control of what contract you are implying, but the reader may infer something different. The writer’s ability to shape the contract is imperfect, but you can at least ask yourself whether your beginning might tend to lead some of your readers to the wrong set of rules.
Believe me, nothing irks a reader more than when the writer stops playing fair. If you do this as a writer, you fully deserve to have a full pot of hot imaginary tea poured over your head.
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