Friday, April 12, 2013

Tension and Boredom

I'm not going to talk about Theology or Sunday School today.

When I was an undergrad a book came out by J. I. Packer entitled "Knowing God." I liked that book (but you won't have to to enjoy this post). Over the course of the years I've used that book to teach Sunday School classes on two occasions. Then I learned that someone at the new church I was going to was teaching a Sunday School class using this book. I was eager to see this work from another perspective. I was excited and enthused at the prospect of hearing something I knew that I liked.

Then I went to the first lesson. And the book was the same as it always had been. So was the subject material. So was me. When the hour of the first lesson was done, I walked out saying to my wife, "that was a singular achievement." I didn't think anyone could make that material boring to me. But he did. The teacher's delivery was a little bit like Ben Stein's lecture in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But the man's delivery was not what made this lesson boring.

WHY it was boring is something I want to share with you. Hopefully, you'll be able to avoid a few simple mistakes and save yourself from writing boring stuff, or giving boring speeches.

I've said before that truth is complicated. And what makes truth complicated are the exceptions, complications, and contradictions. I've likened it to Fractals where within the details of one structure are finer and finer details unimagined when you started out. This is OK, because details can be interesting.

It is also personally threatening, because getting details wrong is a no-no. Also OK, because now that you've got skin in the game you'll be more engaged. Because the truth is complicated, you can't hope to know everything and you can't hope to completely overcome every aspect of your own ignorance. This means that there are always dark corners where surprises might be lurking.

What made the lesson so boring was that the teacher stuck with the safe and well-established. He taught what he knew very well and avoided what he did not. When he engaged his class it was at this same level. This took all the tension out of the presentation. With all the tension out, all of my interest in what's going on went, to.

We naturally try to avoid discomfort and it is natural to try to cast our wish for peace and harmony onto our storytelling. It is natural when teaching to responsibly stick with what's known and non-controversial. Do this and you'll be boring. I've mentioned elsewhere about the 3rd act fail that resulted from prematurely eliminating the tension in the movie Fitzwilly. Ergo, you'll want to look for the points of tension in the material, and by all means maintain that tension at an appropriate level: not too much, not too little.

But there's a tension here, too. I've deprecated the news media and trolls for needlessly introducing ad hominem conflict into political debate. If tension is good, and harmony is boring, then aren't the trolls doing a valuable public service by keeping things interesting? I say no. There are a lot of interesting things in the substance of debate. If you're smart enough to understand them.

Just whipping one side or the other into red-faced, spitting rate may provide a low form of entertainment, like bear-baiting or cat-burning in another age. However, it is as morally repugnant and it's bad karma tends to stifle all polite conversation that might stray into such precincts.

How does one distinguish between good tension and bad tension? Where does being a troll start and stimulating thought end? The question answers itself. When I'm trolling you, I'm suppressing thought by stimulating negative emotions. When I'm engaging complicated truth, I'm making you think about the issues.

This applies to storytelling. I've got to keep some tension in my stories at all times, and I've got to manage the nature of that tension. Is it incidental to the larger story arc, or does it contribute toward it? Your writing needs an engine to move it forward and the tension you put into each scene needs to be tied into it like the Power-Take-Off on the back of a tractor.
(This isn't my dad's tractor, or his buzz saw, but it's close.)

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