By David E. Sharp
Among my early writings was a theatrical production about an evening of fine dining gone horribly wrong. Faux pas are made. The kitchen catches fire. A food critic dies. Twice. You get the idea.
We staged it in a restaurant with no stage. The audience simply enjoyed it from a unique perspective of being part of the set, seated at tables, eating their dinner as they “eavesdropped” on the events unfolding around them.
With the audience practically in our lap, the cast had an excellent opportunity to see their reactions far more clearly than a darkened theatre would have allowed. I remember one line that made people visibly uncomfortable. Various characters said it throughout the show, and the audience’s squirming increased with every utterance.
The line was: “Nothing will go wrong.” Occasionally, we followed it up with: “I guarantee it.”
I don’t have to tell you why the audience found this uncomfortable. You already know. With that short phrase, we promised our audience that they were in store for a fiasco on a catastrophic scale. And did we deliver? Yes, we did!
I have a theory
I believe that the power of the story is intrinsic to our understanding of the world. And the more inundated we become with stories, the more we learn to recognize literary tropes in a real-world setting. Life doesn’t present itself in the same tight structure as a work of fiction, but that doesn’t stop us from seeing it that way. Indulge me as I present my findings.
Hubris (It’s like asking for lightning to strike)
With deep roots in Greek tragedy, hubris is a longstanding literary convention in our collective subconscious. Typically, it involved a tragic hero committing a transgression against the gods. Remember when Bellerophon rode a flying horse to Mount Olympus without an invitation, and Zeus knocked him into a thorn bush that violently blinded him for the rest of his life. Classic hubris.
In modern terms, hubris marks characters as too self-assured for their own good. Avid readers know you never want to stand close to someone who claims to be unstoppable. Anyone with the audacity to declare, “Nothing will go wrong” is begging the plot to lob a rock into a hornet’s nest. None of us wants to get caught up in the collateral damage, so we make a hasty exit, stage left.
Foreshadowing (Omens and auspices at every turn)
When a story hints at events to come, its readers understand a promise has been made. If the foreshadowed events never take place, readers feel misled.
Real-life can leave all the unfulfilled promises it wants. But that doesn’t stop me from sensing foreshadowing in the events of my own day-to-day. I can’t help reading into ordinary events as though an author had penned hints into my plot. If I stub my toe first thing in the morning, I think, “So this is the kind of day you’re going to be, eh?”
When a random song cues up in my head, I wonder how it sets up the next “scene.” I watch how my personal story threads develop in later chapters. I can’t take a CPR class without expecting afterward that any random passerby will keel over in front of me.
Silly? Of course, it is! But my literary brain does not have an off switch.
Personification (They’re Alive!)
I know I can’t be the only one on this one. Personification is simply attributing human characteristics to anything that is not human. Examples: I have named every car I own and talked to them. Especially when they’re misbehaving. I had a lot of words for my old broken-down Taurus in college. Her name was Cecelia. She broke my heart and shook my confidence daily on my long commutes to school.
But it doesn’t stop at cars. Any object I use regularly is fair game to start getting people treatment. I once sat on a couch without realizing my phone was on the cushion. Once I felt it, I jumped up, picked it up, and said, “Excuse me.” I apologized to my phone! I know it doesn’t have hurt feelings from being sat on. My brain doesn’t care. As far as it is concerned, we all live in a cartoon world where everything comes to life and sings unrehearsed songs with perfect harmony.
Look, it’s not that weird.
It’s not that I’m superstitious. I just read a lot and have trained my brain to look for these things. It’s not going to stop just because I close the book. But these embarrassing habits are only a side effect of the great benefit that a rich reading life bestows.
Fiction increases a reader’s ability to empathize, encourages an active brain, and enhances creativity. My silly view of fatalistic foreshadowing may not give me the insights I think they should. I take much wisdom from the new perspectives and ideas that fiction affords me. Neil Gaiman describes fiction as a lie that tells the truth. Even if it does cause me to start conversations with random objects, that’s a small price to pay.
Besides, my desk lamp is a great listener!
For more on literary devices and the benefits of fiction, check out the following resources: