In the Balance: The Basics Part V

Welcome to the fifth and final (most likely) installment about the basics of writing. There are many more things to discuss–dialog, creativity, writing mechanics–but this is all that’s necessary to understand writing in terms of plot prediction. After this, we can get into the game.

It is now time for the ever important but very abstract and difficult to describe notion of balance. As far as I know, balance isn’t truly a technical term. But that’s okay.

Balance is like Harold Crick’s comedy vs. tragedy tally book in Stranger Than Fiction. It is an invisible tight rope that every writer walks on while crafting a story. There is a perfect combination of comedy and tragedy, predictability and unpredictability, simplicity and complexity for each story. Add a little too much of any element and the writer heads right off into thin air.

Comedy vs. Tragedy
Let’s take a look at the first combo: comedy and tragedy. In every story, there has to be some comedy–events that are good, happy, positive–and some tragedy–sad, negative. One will dominate the other, but both elements are there. If they both weren’t present, the story would be flat. Frodo’s comfortable life has to be interrupted by the evil Ring. Luke’s annoyingly simple routine has to be interrupted by his aunt and uncle’s deaths. Terry McKay has to be hit by the car on her way to the Empire State Building. These are the things that create the rising action (remember, part II of plot).

However, if the story is shaping up to be mostly a comedy and it ends tragically–say, Terry McKay is killed in the car accident instead of just being paralyzed–the story doesn’t work. It goes outside of the expectations that have been shaped by the genre (romance, in this case) and the other events of the story. The same is true for a tragedy, like Hamlet. The entire time, there aren’t many comedy tallies being added to the book. If the final duel were interrupted by the evil king/Hamlet’s uncle admitting that he murdered Hamlet’s father, Hamlet choosing to forgive him, and everyone living happily ever after, it would feel awkward.

Predictability vs. Unpredictability
There is a certain level of predictability and unpredictability expected in stories. In a romantic comedy, the guy is supposed to get the girl. Things are supposed to turn out happily. However, there can be twists added along the way–Terry McKay gets paralyzed, for instance, which isn’t a common occurence in romantic movies. These twists are what keep things interesting. Other things, like Hitchcock films, would fall very flat if they were too predictable. North by Northwest would not be nearly as interesting without all the intrigue and constant twists.

Simplicity vs. Complexity
The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy immediately comes to mind when discussing this. The first film was simple–there were twists, but the story was rather straightforward. The other two were decidedly more complex. The plot was less straightforward, and sometimes it was difficult to determine whose side everyone was on. It’s not that the level of complexity in the last two was a bad thing on the whole, but it didn’t work well for the series because it was such a mismatch. Some stories work better by being more simple and some need the complexity but finding the right balance between the two is vital.

So what does all of this have to do with story predictions? Well, in most stories, there is a balance between the above elements. Closely observing the above makes it more clear what direction events will take.

And now you’re ready to play the game.

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