Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
As it was probably the case with many of you, during the last quarantine my main – that is, only – activity was binge-watching. Feeling guilty, I deemed it proper to pay homage to my four remaining neurons by reasoning upon this (un)productive activity. In other words, I’ll try to explain to you why you can get to understand, 5 minutes into the movie, that the character you like will die, or murder someone, or both – and give you a few hints on how to bring that time down to 2 minutes.
We must start from generic knowledge. This is the knowledge a reader or watcher (I’ll be using these interchangeably) develops in terms of genre conventions – for instance, the typical tropes or narrative developments of horror or sci-fi. But what is genre? It’s a set of constraints on the production and interpretation of meaning – that is, a set of “rules” that allows a writer to communicate something and a reader to understand something. Generic knowledge, then, entails that the audience knows these rules, but also how authors usually deal with them, which implies all those elements (e.g., tropes, devices) that pertain to and recur in a certain genre. How an author deals with these rules and the generic knowledge s/he expects the audience to have can combine to produce very different outcomes.
A good example of this combination is horror fiction. The audience may be well-read or they may have seen so many films that they know there’s something behind a door, or that a certain music points to danger, and so on. A writer may choose to take that into consideration while working (think of Scream, 1996), but this is rarely the case. What’s interesting, though, is that the two sides – that is, the author and the audience – may work independently from one another, so that a knowledgeable audience may react with laughter to something that was meant to scare them. And this can happen also diachronically. If you have seen recent and violent horror films, the gory side of Psycho (1960) may leave you unimpressed, although the audiences at the time were shocked – the same goes for The Exorcist (1973).
However, I’d rather focus on something more schematic, and easier to analyse, so that you get my point. The so-called whodunit (Who’s Done it), is a plot-driven variety of the detective story, and it focuses on the puzzle regarding the author(s) of a crime. The general structure goes as follows: there’s a crime, someone’s wrongly accused of it, not-very-smart policemen make a mess, some great detective intervenes and solves the crime. This genre is also reader-oriented, because part of the fun is provided by the hints and clues the reader receives, which should potentially help them solve the crime before the detective does. Some argue this genre is similar to comedy, in the sense that the initial disruption of order – the crime – is eventually balanced by the identification of the culprit.
However, all this talk can be reduced to a single picture, since…
Jessica Fletcher and the series she stars in well represent this genre. Each episode of the twelve seasons follows the structure to the letter, even when there’s a frame or if the setting is changed into an historical one. This series alone can provide you with extensive generic knowledge, both in terms of narrative patterns and in terms of visual hints or dialogue clues, music stressing something or hoping to deceive you…
However, if they’re always the same, why should we read or watch these things? What’s the point in watching Game of Thrones, knowing you’re a doomed spectator?
Roland Barthes argued that stories should be writerly, that is, the reader should be an active producer of meaning while they read a text – let’s say it’s about active engagement rather than about passive consumption. In the case of detective stories, this means that, first of all, the story should be easily readable (i.e., the language should be comprehensible – films, of course, have it easier). Secondly, the structure we’re working with should be clear – which means that the detective story should be the primary focus of the story, and everything else (e.g., a love triangle) should be slightly less important. Finally, the story should become a “medium of exchange”, in Barthes’ words: it should allow the reader to participate in its development – in our case, by trying to figure out the puzzle. So, the fun in, say, Murder, She Wrote is precisely a writerly kind of fun: the point is figuring out what happened, and each episode gives you a lot of elements that (should) challenge you in this direction.
The thing is, the more you read or watch, the better you become at participating in the text. You can interpret layers of meaning more quickly, detect hints and clues more easily, make sound conjectures with fewer elements.
This can make you a very demanding audience, and the kind of content that really engages you can change, because ‘simpler’ texts are not as absorbing to you as they used to be. In other words, generic knowledge is like a muscle: if you train long and hard, your resistance grows and you need to run faster or longer than you used to before you start feeling tired.
One thing though: even if it’s Murder, She Wrote, you always read or watch till the end, because part of the pleasure lies in the confirmation of your thesis, both about the culprit and about the way they committed the crime. Thus, assuming this is still the kind of pleasure you’re looking for, the more trained you become, the more challenging you want the text to be.
A good example of this kind is The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair (2014 – there’s also a tv adaptation starring Patrick Dempsey). It’s easily readable and has an accessible structure with a clear focus, but it’s a more challenging medium of exchange if compared to Murder, She Wrote. It sports intricate sub-plots and develops through many flashbacks, different points of view and unreliable clues (e.g., hearsay). Also, there are metafictional sections that reflect on writing in general, but which also prove useful in solving the puzzle. It’s clear the author knows about your generic knowledge, but he doesn’t explicitly challenge you in that way: the matter is treated exactly as if this was an episode of Murder, She Wrote. It’s slightly more complicated, but a well-read reader or watcher can derive great pleasure in the unfolding of the investigation.
A cunning way for a writer to exploit the audience’s generic knowledge is to let them know that the author knows what the audience knows – that is, to assume the audience has certain expectations and that these expectations derive from generic knowledge. What you can do is work with your material as if this was an episode of Murder, She Wrote, but at the same time exploit what your well-learned audience’s expectations could be in order to make the text more engaging. You can play with plot development, give explicit clues that seem too helpful to be trustworthy, make things too obvious or give certain characters features that seem more suspicious than they actually are. You can even add some cross-references to make it tastier. All these tricks rely on the audience’s generic knowledge to point them to details and elements that lead in the wrong direction, whereas the solution is eventually straightforward. As Knives Out (2019) well summarises: “It is not a doughnut hole at all, but a smaller doughnut with its own hole, and our doughnut is not a hole at all!”
However, Harry Quebert – or Knives Out, for that matter – doesn’t have metafiction as its point. It may use metafictional elements, but it plays with genre conventions in the same way as Murder, She Wrote. The main point is still detective fiction, and metafiction is a way of misleading the audience or of giving them a sense of familiarity.
In other cases, instead, metafiction is the point. The authors do play with the audience’s generic knowledge, but they exploit that knowledge for parodic purposes. Here, most of the fun is due to the audience being able to laugh to the tune of “I understood that reference”. The point – well, most of it – is making both you and the author feel very learned and very smart. You can usually have fun even when you don’t get the references, but you won’t enjoy the text as much. Think of The Name of the Rose novel (1980 – this is hardcore metafiction, believe me), or Murder by Death (1976), which is gloriously funny even if you don’t really get the references, but which actually parodies several popular sleuths, such as Miss Marple, Nick and Nora Charles, Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, Columbo. We could say that metafiction is an extreme game of exploiting generic knowledge on both sides of the narrative process.
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