improvise.

by smb on November 6, 2008

Girl meets boy.  Girl falls in love with boy.  Girl and boy have a fight.  Girl and boy break up.  Girl and boy miss each other.  Girl and boy reunite.  Girl falls (back) in love with boy.  Girl and boy have a fight… wash, rinse, repeat.

Christopher Booker,believes that there have really only been seven basic plots in all of fiction.    Despite my admiration for his impressive and exhaustive survey, I am left a bit disappointed by its implications.  I don’t want to believe that millions, even hundreds of millions of pages of myth, legends, stories, histories and dramas can be reduced to seven overarching constructs. I want to believe that our literary imagination springs tabula rasa from the depths of our creative effort. I want to believe that our stories are generated from a combination of a million unique possibilities, not simply a deterministic exercise with less options than I have fingers on my hands.

But then an extended conversation that I had today reaffirmed that simple truth.  Not only do we tend to live out the same grand stories every day, we get stuck in our roles and have a difficult time breaking out.  If I start out as the underdog, it’s difficult to recast myself as a powerful influence.  If you are the father figure, I feel compelled to rebel against your authority.  If you have wronged me, I may not believe you can do anything but hurt and betray.

While they say that if you don’t know history you are doomed to repeat it, I am beginning to believe that it’s also true that if you know history you might feel compelled to repeat it.  Some narratives feel so deeply entrenched, our relationships take on a dramatic quality, as if our interactions are simply a Broadway production to be staged and restaged every evening.

Today, I relived a meeting that occurred before I even met the other people in the room.  The roles were defined, and the parameters of conflict rigid and unyielding.  They said what they have been saying for years, we said what we have been saying for years.  Like any good ritual when passionately performed, our stylized conflict was able to evoke deep feelings – and fanned the embers of discontent.  It didn’t matter that some of the roles were occupied by understudies,  because we had (at some point) abandoned hope of anything but the historically fixed outcome.  Words were exchanged, veiled threats leveraged, and feelings were hurt.  Which sadly, was also consistent with the script.

But what would happen if the curtain opened and you changed the lines?  What would happen if you entered stage left, instead of stage right?  What would happen if you named the plot, and demanded a different ending?  Could you change outcome, even if the other characters resisted?

Can you afford not to?

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

mch November 7, 2008 at 7:36 am

which makes me wonder – when people’s roles are entrenched (or at least they feel entrenched) what’s the motivation to break out? I cling to this idea that clarity and integrity will show people the light…but there’s no real motivation for people to aspire for that greater perspective when often so little is expected of them in the first place.

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