Aren’t you a curious person? Oh, we all are – residents of the planet densely populated with social media stalkers, lurkers, and gossips 😉 When faced with a narrative, we are just as nosey as with real people – particularly hungry for a generous dose of mystery, unpredictability, unexpected twists.
Chronology and explicit disclosure of all details make stories predictable and bland. A good friend of mine M. is exceptionally proud when he can predict the ending of a soap opera episode. Over the years (he is in his late 40s), he has recorded enough cliche cause-effect story bites on his memory’s hard drive and now he retrieves these predictable patterns in an instant. His fun does not consist in being puzzled but in getting the same puzzle sorted out again and again.
A bit disappointing to me. This is not what we crave for in a story. We want to get immersed in it – intellectually and emotionally – and overwhelmed by what we don’t (!) know. It is delicious to have all these question marks lighting up over your head, as the story unfolds, no?
Back to the story creation strategy: When you get a raw story, chronologically a virgin, you want to slice up this chronology, chop it up, re-arrange the pieces and … hide some bits as special treats for much later. That’s instinctive and that’s good news. Think of chronologically ordered lessons – how soon do you and your students get bored stiff with the predictable PPP or TTT pattern repeated daily, weekly, monthly… ad nauseam?
Chronology and full transparency should be charged with and convicted of the cold-blooded murder of a mystery. A mystery only occurs in a narrative when a plot withholds important information and when the narrative has meaningful gaps – moments of story silence planted on purpose.
As humans, we are intrigued by these gaps and get instantly absorbed in working out the missing bits – we are immediately challenged and engaged intellectually in filling in the blanks to solve the puzzle. We can’t help it, as a species. These information gaps in stories provoke curiosity and trigger anticipation. They often let us come up with more creative solutions than the original.
And that is what we want from our students in the story-rich classroom, don’t we? That is what keeps them immersed in learning rather than daydreaming somewhere on the outskirts of the educational reality metropolis.
Learning + mystery = engaging experiences.
David Bordwell, when discussing the art of film, mentions retardation principle as a strategy for narrative creators: delay the revelation of some information to create mystery and suspense.
What information can you temporarily conceal or ‘retard’? Genre, features of characters, events, relationships (between characters and events), props, incentives, features of location, circumstances, side plots… Anything can be withheld for deliberate release later on. What matters is how significant the retardation gap you create is – in other words, how effective it is at sparking curiosity and anticipation in your students.
In a way, creating narratives for the classroom is the art of illusion. You never share the whole story – your narrative only reveals parts of it. Concealing the rest does the trick.
Now, enjoy reading “Did You Mean?” – a story where retardation principle was applied generously.
Photos: Denny Luan and Ali Syaaban via unsplash.com