enjoy the mystery

“Spoilers!” – Riversong

  • Rosebud is his sled.
  • Bruce Willis is a ghost.
  • The Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks.

For those who haven’t seen the movies that the first two spoilers refer to, I apologize. If you don’t know the third, you’ve only yourself to blame. One of the biggest reasons we love stories is because to some extent we want to be surprised. I read somewhere that the formula for a good book was to give the reader 75% of what they expect and 25% of what they never saw coming.

Do you read the last page of a mystery whodunit? Do you fast forward to the end of some Joss Whedon series to see which character he decides to kill off? Do you just want to hear the score before you get a chance to watch the game you recorded? Or are you the person who posts “No spoilers! on their status update the day after the latest Sons of Anarchy episode?

I suspect most people don’t want to know the ending of the stories they enjoy beforehand. There are certainly joys to revisiting tales even after you know the ending – how many times have you read your favorite book, watched your favorite movie? But when you find someone who hasn’t experienced it, don’t you feel a twinge of envy? They get to see what happens for the first time, and that can be such a joy.

The Narrative Life

“What suprise? ‘Vader’ means ‘father’ in German. His name is literally ‘Darth Father’” – Pitch Perfect

This being the case, why do we stress so much about not knowing what happens next in our own lives? Do we really want to know? Sure, we can have plans, just like we plan on reading a thriller or a mystery or a self-help book. We can root for the protagonist and hope that the villain gets their due. But why on earth would we want to know where we’re going to end up?

Not only that, why would we stress about it? Instead, I think there’s a responsibility for the author to make sure that it’s a good book. One of the more frustrating things about some movies are when you get to the “big reveal” and you say to yourself Wait a minute. That doesn’t make any sense. The teller of a tale has a responsibility to lay out the pieces of the story in a way that when you get to the end, you did see it coming – or at least can find it plausible.

The nice thing about reality is that it’s not deterministic. There are many different endings possible from each set of circumstances (watch the movie “Clue” for a brilliant illustration of this fact) and that means that there’s always room for a “twist” ending, for the story to be whatever the director decides.

courtesy BS Wise, flickr CC
Don’t forget: the lens you look through matters, too.

Surprise! The Director is You

Ok, not much of a surprise. You probably saw that coming a mile away. Or maybe it is a surprise, as it is to me, since I started this little commentary with the idea that we are the writers of our own tales.

Upon reflection, though, it’s far more like being a director. You are given a script, and various influences – locations, costume designers, lighting, actors – to make the movie look and feel the way you envision it. The more complex the movie, however, the more rewrites and revisions and edits and new scenes you need…but that’s how masterpieces happen.

Sure, there are directors whose vision goes directly from first draft to screen almost unchanged. Just as there are some people whose lives seem to simply be planned out from birth, with few surprises or twists. But if you listen to the director’s commentaries or read books about the process of making movies, you hear about the changes, the surprises, the serenditous coincidences and world-ending obstacles that had to be overcome.

Not all movies are good. Not all directors are open to the input of others. And some movies just don’t work out due to things like budgets or actors dropping out. You can take the metaphor as far as you like, but what it comes down to is this: you are in the process, right now, of directing the story of your life.

It’s fine to have an idea of the story you want to tell – in fact, that’s probably a good idea. But don’t stress about the ending. It will inevitably reveal itself. Do what you can to make this chapter, this scene, more beautiful and moving, and trust to the process.

Leave the spoilers to the ones who come after.

Speaking of knowing the ending,
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