Certainty is the Enemy of Story

“What would happen?”

It’s one of the first questions humans learn to ask in their lives. What would happen if I put these pink stubby things in my mouth? What would happen if I put the thing on the floor in my mouth? What would happen if I rolled off the crib? What would happen if I sneak up on my older sister and suddenly scream right behind her?

And, once she got good and mad at me and chased me across the house, I found myself asking the second question humans learn. Why?

Stories are an attempt to answer these two questions in ways that others understand and enjoy. One of the most important parts of accomplishing this is making sure the audience is interested in the answers to the questions we’re asking. Of course the questions we’re asking are rarely what they appear to be on the surface of the story and that’s a very important part of storytelling but not the part I want to look at today. Rather I want to talk about the way certainty undermines this aspect of storytelling.

Suspense is often overrated as an important part of storytelling. A thriller like Rear Window would lose much of its impact on repeated viewings if suspense were vital to its impact. Instead, the film is just as good, maybe even better on repeated viewings. At the same time, you can’t let certainty creep into your storytelling, at least as regards your core conflict. Let me give some examples.

Captain Jean Luc Picard is a very principled character. He has standards for himself, for the crew of his ship, for his allies, for what constitutes good behavior and so forth. He’s very certain of those principles. However, onboard a starship far from friendly faces and often in the depths of space away from any refuge at all, surrounded by undocumented phenomena and unfamiliar lifeforms and cultures, how Picard can best live up to those standards is always in doubt. Often people who the Captain trusts a great deal will give him conflicting advice about how to best uphold his principles, or will fall short of them and put his principles in conflict with his human compassion and force him to find a resolution to that conflict. These are just a handful of the uncertainties Picard and the crew of the starship Enterprise face on their adventures.

In contrast, Indiana Jones doesn’t really have to struggle to balance his principles or figure out how they apply to his circumstances. Indy knows Nazis are bad, and putting artifacts in a museum is good. What he’s never sure he can do is find the artifact, get past the deathtraps defending it and do it all without the Nazis catching him and sending him off to the Big Sleep. The uncertainty is in whether he can do what he needs to do in order to reach his goals.

Finally, Sam Spade is a hardboiled detective, he’s got fast hands and a faster mind and he is going to find the Maltese Falcon and the person who murdered his partner. What’s less certain is what he’s going to do when he finds them. Murder his partner’s killer in cold blooded revenge? Keep the Falcon for himself, give it to his client or turn it over to one of the other interested parties for more money and an easier life? When he finds out the person who killed his partner is the girl he’s sweet on, will her turn her in? These uncertainties about Spade’s moral character keep each confrontation Spade finds himself in interesting.

Take a look at a story and you’ll find the conflict hinges on the things the audience is uncertain about. It’s very hard to have conflict centered on things you are certain of. Picard is never going to turn away from the Federation and become a space pirate. In the one story where he turned up as a space pirate even eight year old me knew it was some kind of ruse (I didn’t use that word though). That story hinged on Picard’s love of history and peacemaking nature serving as the key to stopping an insurrectionist plot on the planet Vulcan, and the lengths he had to go to in order to maintain the ruse while still serving his principles. There’s just no conflict in stretching out whether Picard is a pirate or not – no one in the audience will believe that for a minute and we’d think the characters were dumb if they bought in to it as well. This is also a big part of why stories where superheroes “quit” then come back often feel flat – we know they’re coming back to the job at some point because that’s the heart of the story. There’s no uncertainty about what will happen and we’re just anxious to get it over with.

Allowing these elements that are almost forgone conclusions to seep into your story hurt it. A lot. Sometimes you can think of a clever dodge – look at Spiderman 2 for example, where Peter’s temporary retirement was driven by a loss of his power about which we were (naturally) uncertain of the cause and cure. But for the most part, focusing on the parts of your character that are givens, certainties that you have no intention of changing, is not the core of a good story. You have to put the emphasis on the uncertainties that will challenge your characters and keep the audience invested.

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