Friday, April 5, 2013

A Problem with Metareading


Metagaming is a term used in roleplaying to refer to a mindset in which the player (a real person) recognizes that they are playing a game and has their character (the not real person) act accordingly.

Now when the goal of the activity is to fantasize, it’s pretty obvious how this would be a problem. Metagaming leads players in Dungeons and Dragons to do things like randomly rob a bank, knowing the Dungeon Master will have trouble acting “realistically,” e.g. having the cops arrest him, taking him to jail, have him sit there for six years then go on trial before being let out on a technicality. Or just murdering him.

Certainly, the murdering thing would do the trick, forcing the player to make a new character before telling him to stop being a butt, but then there’s hostility which is not something that benefits the fun.

I recently read an article on Cracked.com called “The 6 Dumbest Mistakes of Supposedly Smart Movie Characters.” Though the article has fairly valid points, it brought to mind the huge issue that writers have to contend with, and that is what I am going to call metareading.

We have this contradiction when making a “believable” world where the person the author has to convince knows the character is in a story, but the character the author needs to motivate does not.

This doesn’t seem like it would be that big of a deal. We’d think that if the character and the world were well written, their actions would make sense to a reader, and that readers, being smarter than the average bear, would recognize that the protagonist wouldn’t understand his own invincibility. Yet, despite our intelligence and respect for the storyteller, readers function mainly by gut reaction, not logic. In that vein, stories have certain “standards of protocol” which the audience expects from fiction and not in real life.

Let’s consider this protagonist’s inability to die. Though he is not technically invincible (in most cases), we are fully aware that Harry Potter isn’t going to kick the bucket in the middle of book three. Yet Harry doesn’t know that he’s schedule for four more novels, being, allegedly ignorant his fate is being controlled by a middle aged British woman. Of course he would be scared; he has a murderer standing in front of him with the ability to massacre him in two words. The problem is that the readers aren’t scared. They are simply standing around waiting to see how he gets out of it. Aristotle defines tension as doubt as to outcome. Harry doubts his outcome, but John Doe doesn’t for one second.

I remember when I was younger questioning this very issue. I’d be watching something like Kim Possible or Shrek and not really understanding why everyone was so worried all the time. Of course, I was like, eight, and anyone older has a better understanding of abstract thought, but for many people, this question can take form in many different contexts. The problem affects relation to mood or motivation, whether it be of high magnitude (life or death) medium magnitude (asking a girl out) or minute magnitude (having a blonde Jewish woman).

Even if the characters are aware of their ridiculous escapes being too good to be true, they would be more inclined to think they’re lucky bastards or there is a scheme afoot than that they aren’t going to die.

Take the red shirts from Star Trek. Every fan watching the show knows the poor soul is doomed, and that is because there is an explicit pattern about it. But we also know the writer’s motivation, meaning that the red shirts are brought along because he wants to murder someone, and it has to be someone unimportant. When looking at this from a character’s perspective, it becomes a little harder to know what he or she would think. Not only do the characters not perceive themselves as unimportant (thus that pattern being lost to them), all they know is that every time a mission goes down, only Captain Kirk and Spock return. Either they would think that the world is a very dangerous place and only the best warriors survive, or Kirk is secretly murdering off the low level crew members. Due to our own egotism, however, it is likely that even after having every red shirt before us dying, we’d still have hope and believe in our own abilities. Or we’d go kicking and screaming before we’d ever go.

Basically, the reader knows the red shirt is going to die. The red shirt can’t act as though he thinks he’s going to die. At least not any more so than Kirk. And though the reader logically knows that the red shirt doesn’t think he’s going to die, she stills screams at the show when he’s too much of an idiot to not know “don’t go in there!”

The argument is, of course, that’s bad writing. Stop having red shirts and problem solved.

Unfortunately, demands for this sort of formulaic writing style is actually fairly high, especially in the movie world.

I’ve had many filmmakers make a comment akin to, “When I’m reading a script, I turn to page 15 and if there’s not an inciting incident, I know it’s bad.”

Inside the fictional world, the patterns of plot structure and tension seem irrational. Someone being exposed an inciting event and then three following disasters would lead to a break down and hysterics. Four ridiculously big events that happen to no one happen to me all within the course of a week. What am I supposed to think about that?

Plot structure is formulaic and there is a demand for it. This makes metareading all the harder to prevent. We can’t always take from reality because expectations of fiction differ from expectations of reality.

An average reader could tell the difference between a movie script and a transcript, even if we made it of the same tame subject matter and casual format. That’s because in reality we talk differently than people talk in fiction. And though there have been many authors who attempted to reunite an audience with a realistic conversation (nonlinear, filled with stutters and pauses, repetitive, and inane) it’s not usually interesting.

The real reaction is not something a reader expects or even wants. And despite some believing incorporating an honest response instead of a contrived movie one would be a creative direction, it’s important to remember that films don’t have real gunshots for a reason. People don’t necessarily recognize reality when they see it, and many realistic shows have been accused of the exact opposite.

Then we have to take into consideration the reader’s point of view (an objective, safe place where all the information necessary is being presented and all of the unnecessary information is being cut out) and the character’s point of view.

For instance, if a 40 year old woman was to be introduced to a vampire for the first time as the inciting incident, she had a very different perspective on the world than the reader. See, both learn to understand the “rules” as they experience them, except that the character has had 40 years worth of lessons teaching her that vampires do not exist, and the reader has had fifteen minutes. It would be along the lines of watching The Simpsons your entire life and having them suddenly reveal that they can fly. Not only is that stupid, but unbelievable. You’d think it was a dream, or have to metaread and believe the authors were replaced by monkeys. Either way, it wouldn’t be something you accepted gracefully.

So you have a scene in which this woman is being introduced to a supernatural world for the first time and she, like most people in our world, isn’t buying it. She thinks that it’s a scam, or an insane man who thinks he’s a vampire, even after she witnesses him suck the life out of someone. The reader, who has only been privy to the supernatural laws of the world, feels this is ridiculous.

This was an actual discussion I had with a friend of mine. We were talking about Stephen King’s Jerusalem’s Lot, in which he complained at the woman’s denial. Well, in the vein of grief and shock, denial is a very typical ordeal that people can hold onto a surprisingly long amount of time. My argument is that, when putting myself in that position, as much as I would want to believe he was really a vampire, I would be skeptical all the way until he had proven it beyond a doubt.

Next, the reader who has been given deliberate information and can think clearly (because he’s not in danger) might very well ignore the fact that the character, who has had three months elapse and a million other things happen in that time, might just well panic and not be thinking straight. When the viewer can take an objective look and see things rationally, he may expect the character to do it too. For that matter, we always believe characters to be smarter than us and, well, to have confidence. Where most humans live their life in a state of doubt (Did I make a fool of myself or was I just charming?) characters tend to be able to assess situations very quickly, and, quite frankly, we expect them to do it.

I can’t readily prove metareading happens because it is an internal action. And I cannot say how often it occurs either. The only evidence I have is in the future. Start watching, start talking to people, hear out their criticisms and consider if they are, perhaps, having expectations of fiction that wouldn’t make sense in reality. I know that sooner or later it will come up.

So, as you do wait for evidence far beyond what I can give, it comes down to this: it is not the job of the reader to stop metareading. Sure, he will very much enhance his experience when doing so, but the reality is people mostly metaread because they want to. They’re looking for something wrong. They want the book to be bad. This makes it the author’s job to prevent it from happening as best she can, simply because she cannot count on people doing what they should and actually trying to enjoy the book.

So what does the author do? As I said, she can’t just count on being realistic because we aren’t necessarily going to believe reality when we see it. And, unfortunately, there are people out there who, knowing that the protagonist won’t die, can’t understand why he’s crying.

When I say it is the “author’s job,” it doesn’t mean it is an author’s priority. Necessarily. Sometimes trying to idiot proof a story will ruin it, and that what I’m about to say should be taken with a grain of salt for that very reason. But when it comes to improving a story, it’s a crisp factor to take into consideration.

The problem with metareading, as I said before, has to do with the reader’s intension when he does it. Like the guy in the Dungeons and Dragons game, he’s not robbing the bank because he’s “playing his character” (though that’s what he says) he’s robbing it because he has no respect for the DM. Or, on the flip side, a reader might be trying to give the benefit of the doubt and just can’t because the continuity issues are that bad. In both parts, the solutions are the same.

Number one, hide your motivation. This is pretty much true in the majority of writing. We want the readers thinking inside the story, i.e. “I want the villain to get punched in the face!” not “The writer really wants me to want the villain to get punched in the face!” Latter thoughts (unless of course the reader is trying to have these latter thoughts) mean that reader is not absorbed in the story, he is metareading, constantly being reminded that this is a story written by someone.


If you’ve ever watched a made-for-T.V. Disney movie, you’ve probably seen an example of this done badly where a bully is clearly a bully for the sake of being a bully and not really for any benefit outside of that.

The best way to hide the writer’s motivation is by having multiple motivations. When a character does something, he has a reason he did it: an objective, if you will. Objectives don’t always have to make complete sense, and they can be vague and irrational. In fact, they are often not even understood by the character himself.

Other motivations, however, can include more writer’s motivations, which means that by diluting your reasons it makes them less clear. So, we have Draco get into a nasty fight with Hermione so as to make us hate him a little more. But not only that, it also 1) Motivates future pranks. 2) Informs us of Hermione’s background. 3) Informs us of the historical bias against Mudbloods. 4) Leads them both to getting into trouble which explains Hermione’s absence at an important moment. 5) Foreshadows how Hermione will deal with a similar problem in the future, thereby legitimizing it.

(I’d like to point out that I’m making this up. I don’t remember Harry Potter well enough to give a real analysis.)

Not only does this indicate a hell of a lot more thought (which is a quality considered when determining “good” writing), it makes it seem less contrived, in a strange way.

Next is basic writing chores like continuity issues. Continuity is extremely important because readers’ trust is hard to gain back. You make one little mistake about calling a stalagmite a stalactite and instantly you’re an idiot. If you’re lucky, you’ve already earned enough respect for them to get over it, but even so, you don’t get that many strikes.

Then understand common writing traditions in order to clearly indicate when you are going against them. A case in point is the likable protagonist. We assume, as readers, we are supposed to side with the main character. There are many books where that isn’t the case, but if an author is going to go that route, she really needs to indicate that it is deliberate.

When reading The Devil Wears Prada, I started on page one as a friendly audience. I really enjoyed the movie. But before the first chapter was over she had lost me, simply due to a few minor discrepancies that could easily be attributed to the personality of the protagonist, not a mistake on the author’s part.

There was nothing in it that the benefit of the doubt couldn’t cover. She was driving an 80,000 dollar car in which she couldn’t even ask her boss where it was without getting fired. Yet she was smoking in it. Okay, maybe Miranda smokes in it too. Within the first chapter she ruins her shoes, her pants, and then a second pair of shoes. Alright, she’s an idiot, but maybe the author wants me to think that. She is Jewish, but also blonde. Fine. There are blonde people who are also Jewish, or maybe she dyes her hair. Whatever. But then she proceeds to have a tiny bedroom, goes out without measuring it, and then thinks a queen bed would fit. Okay, I would never measure a bedroom either—or at least, not until I read that—but even I, as a person of the exact same age and experience, knew that fitting a double bed into a regular size room is pushing it. Again, perhaps I’m not supposed to like the character.

The protagonist could have been an idiot, it could have been a character choice, but it seemed more along the lines of the author making decisions that she wanted to make (such as the blonde hair with uncommon genetics) without having a full view of the world first. Basically, it felt like a lack of thought.

Had she wanted to really make it seem like the character was stupid, she is going against tradition, which means she has to prove it’s deliberate. When an author recognizes certain expectations (by metareading yourself) and then referencing them as he ignores them makes it seem less like he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and more like he’s creative.

The problem with metareading is the problem with writing in general. In order to create a good story we must combined elements of what people want and what people will believe, of the peculiarity of truth and the comfort of expectation, and know when to pander to jerks and when to tell them to go screw themselves.