Even if you see it coming, it can still work

April 5, 2016

I’m pretty good at anticipating where a story is going. Once I’ve gotten into it, I can often tell what the next beat or two will be. When watching a film it’s not uncommon for me to anticipate an event minutes, or even tens of minutes, before other viewers do.

That doesn’t mean that emotionally resonant or tragic moments don’t work on me. Anticipation doesn’t necessarily ruin the experience, because of one very powerful tool: self-delusion.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. Since these involve some of the most dramatic moments in the associated works, spoilers ahead.

In my recent Inside Out post, I didn’t tackle the most emotionally powerful moment in the movie: Bing Bong’s death. I watched this with a friend, and when they went to try to escape the pit one last time (“I’ve got a good feeling about this one”), I said “Oh no…” out loud. I knew what was coming. Not just subconsciously, as others did, but consciously—I knew exactly what they had done, and what was coming.

Did that make it hurt any less? Maybe, but I still choked up. I still had to hold back my tears. I still sat there rigidly, not so much as breathing, because it felt like any movement would send the emotions pouring forth.

But why? Why did it still work? Because even though I knew what was coming, I didn’t know know. I didn’t know with the certainty of having seen it before. While my logical self was anticipating, my emotional self was railing against fate, and silently praying it wouldn’t happen. I doubted because I wanted to doubt, because I wanted everyone to have a happy ending, even though I knew it wasn’t going to happen. And because they didn’t give me enough time for my logical self take firm control, it struck while I was still hoping, and the moment worked.

Another example was the most recent anime of Kanon. This is a story I used to say was impervious to spoilers, because I got spoiled for a certain moment—Akiko being hit by a car—and it still worked. More than still working, it worked better, because I knew it was coming, and I dreaded it coming, and when the story was in the final lead-up to the horrible moment I knew she couldn’t escape, it was agony.

The accident happened, and I was stunned despite my foreknowledge—because the moment was done well, for one, but also because being spoiled hadn’t ruined it. That was the moment I first learned this lesson. My fervent wish for it not to happen kept me hoping up until the last second, until the narrative took that hope away.

The key, as with so many other things, is in the characters. If I hadn’t liked Bing Bong and Akiko so much, I would have put my emotional armor up, and their tragedies wouldn’t have worked even if I hadn’t seen them coming. But because they worked their way past my defenses early on, even strong suspicion or outright spoilers couldn’t stop me from lying to myself in the hopes for a happy ending.

If you create characters that people love enough, it doesn’t matter if they can see your hand. They’ll pray you won’t lay out that card, even as they know it’s coming and that it will hurt when it’s revealed.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

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