We previously talked about what is good, and I am continuing on what is good for art.
Part of what make art good is the subtlety. Its the delicate changes or indistinguishable shifts in what you assumed. It’s the brush strokes on a painting that you never noticed until you looked at it for the 100th time. It’s the way your significant other pops their neck, something you didn’t notice until a year after your marriage. It’s re-watching West World and noticing the moments in the dialogue that foreshadows the twists at the end of the season. It’s not obvious; you may never get it the first, second, or even 100th time, but it’s there nonetheless. It’s the slow movement from what you expect, to what you don’t.
But what do you expect? What draws you in to examine the subtleties?
It’s the Familiar and the Unfamiliar.
Let’s say I start off a story with character who is a dog. Let’s also say that I give them no human qualities and I write them in a manner that only a dog can understand, what use is it for a human to understand. This is the extreme point, but bare with me. There is no possible way for you to relate to this character. It’s not going to draw you in.
But let’s say I write about a character who is exactly your age, height, weight, gender, has the same job, has the same kind of relationship with parents, and even struggles with the same issues of inadequacy that you do. It’s not difficult to make parallels between yourself and the character. You see yourself relating to the character because you almost are that character. You are drawn in.
But let’s say I begin a story talking about a human being. They are male, short, have a job doing something that isn’t the same as yours, and is about 20 years older than you. How do you relate then? What would you have to talk about if you met this character on the street?
You relate through their humanity. They struggle with existence, with love, pain, sadness, grief, work; all of those things that humanity cannot escape. And you see yourself as a mixture of both you and him, unseparated and mixed together, in whatever the story portrays.
It becomes personal for you.
But let’s say that character lives on the planet Mars. And isn’t human. How do relate then?
This is the part where you stretch yourself. How would you react if you didn’t have gravity? How about if you could move things with your mind? These aren’t difficult things to imagine, but the more you think about them, the more you wander as you wonder. Have you ever experienced them before? No. It’s a stretch of your imagination that draws you to this unfamiliar territory.
If you were just watching a movie about all of the things that you are already familiar with, the setting would be quite boring. So the unfamiliar must be brought in so that you can go beyond yourself. Even if it isn’t a great stretch, maybe the story revolves around buying a boat and other than that it’s the same as your mundane life, there is still the unfamiliar aspect of trying to buy that boat.
Everyone can relate to the human experience. It’s familiar. Everyone can also relate to those things that no one has ever experienced before. It’s unfamiliar. Everyone has to deal with some sort of relationship problem, so we can relate. Everyone also has no experience being hunted down by Orcs, but that’s another thing that we all relate to.
So it’s the familiar and unfamiliar that draw you in. I have to relate to the humanity of the characters, but at the same time, feel stretched beyond myself to their setting. This goes for Portraits and Painting as well as Movies and Books.
So you’ve got my attention; now, what are you going to do with it.
I’m going to trick you into changing your beliefs.
First, let me present to you the ordinary. It is that which you can relate. It is the familiar and unfamiliar.
Second, I am going to combine the familiar and unfamiliar to make something more than ordinary. It is now the extraordinary.
Finally, I make the ordinary reappear, but not as it once was, it is now subtly different. You see, while you were watching the extraordinary, introduced removed the familiar from the unfamiliar, but not all of it. I left some of the unfamiliar in there, but you didn’t notice. Not until later will you realize that you have been exposed to the unfamiliar, and it is now familiar to you.
Confusing? I understand, so let me give you a small example in the form of a parable. Perhaps you’ve heard it before.
You must elect the new leader of the world, and you have three options:
The First Candidate is well know to associate with crooked politicians and consult astrologists for advice. He has two mistresses, smokes heavily, and drinks constantly.
The Second Candidate has been kicked out of office twice, sleeps in till noon, used opium, and drinks whiskey every day.
The Third candidate is a war hero; A vegetarian; doesn’t smoke; has the occasional beer; has never cheated on his wife, and stands firm for his beliefs.
Who do you choose?
The introduction to the situation is the familiar and unfamiliar. The second part follows the intent that you should be led to obviously choose the third candidate. And the the last part is the twist that the candidates are Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Adolph Hitler respectively.
The magic comes from the fact that how things were presented to you made you make assumptions contrary to what you believe. When it is revealed that Hitler is the good, third candidate, you become appalled at your own decision, and begin to question why you chose that in the first place. It isn’t that you still believe that Hitler is the correct choice, but that you had to question it to begin with.
What Subtlety does, is let you figure out the last part for yourself. It gives you all the information, but doesn’t tell you the outright conclusion. If it did tell you overtly, then you wouldn’t have nearly the same experience, and your life assumptions would never be forced to change. If you already know the twist to a movie, then it detracts from the power the movie has on you. Simply spouting the information has little effect, but allowing to settle and take root give the beliefs time to be pondered and considered.
Subtlety makes that which seemed to not matter, truly matter, but only if it is seen.
That’s the beauty of subtle magic.
P.S.- The next part is about good Narrative. I swear, I’m getting around to making a point, but it takes a while to set-up.