Saturday, August 23, 2014

Denial

If you read about real-life paradigm shifts, disasters, and other large-scale changes, one thing that is strongly evident is the presence of denial. Human beings often resist accepting a new situation, especially a negative one. Usually there is a time when most of the population is in denial, and then acceptance creeps in, a tipping point occurs, and those in denial become the minority. The phase of major denial can be short or long; its presence can have consequences ranging from minor to tragic.

I think denial is built on a few foundations: People don't want to change (or don't want the world to change); it's too much trouble and they're afraid of what they might lose. (Often, people with the most to lose from the change are the most resistant to it.) Or they can't wrap their minds around change and don't know what to do about it anyway, so they choose not to deal with it. Or they don't trust the source that is warning of the change. Or they are suspicious because of false alarms in the past; after all, some predictions turn out to be wrong. But in any story we write where a major change is overtaking the characters, denial is likely to be part of the process.

This can be tricky for writers to manage. Usually, readers are quick to heed the omens and prophecies and predictions and warning signs in stories, because they know those signs wouldn't be there unless they were important. Readers know that something big is going to happen, or there wouldn't be a story at all. The characters don't have this advantage--and can't, unless you are writing meta-fiction and breaking the fourth wall. Realistically, the characters can't jump right into accepting a new normal without some questioning, resistance, nostalgia, if-only thinking, etc. Meanwhile, readers are likely to be shouting at the characters: "Of course the plague is coming!" or "Get out of the way of the tornado!" or "The ghost IS real, you fool!" or "Yes, there WILL be a war!"

A little of this can provide tension and urgency. Too little of it seems false and can break the reader's spell, but too much of it makes readers impatient and cranky. It helps if readers can thoroughly feel the old reality the characters are clinging to, and to embrace it themselves so that they won't want to let go of it either. It helps if the characters' tipping point is logical--an undeniable fact, a trusted source. It helps if the characters test out the idea of acceptance before finally embracing it. And it helps if this phase doesn't go on so long that it just feels like a pointless delay or a stagnation.

4 comments:

  1. Just finding the right amount of denial and acceptance is such a difficult balancing act. This is where the assistance of a good critique partner proves invaluable.

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    1. We all know when it sounds false, but it's harder to know how to make it sound true.

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  2. I think I needed to read this today--not sure which of my current characters is waving at me that its for them, but I'm hearing somebody talking to me! It is tricky--I think the reader's impatience can come from feeling smarter/more in the know than the character, so, yes, the right balance is critical!

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    1. Yes, we often want the reader to be a little ahead of the characters. But only a little.

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