This past weekend I relaxed and enjoyed watching some movies with one of my roommates. One was a spy movie, the other an action movie, and both were quite fun. In fact, I was quite impressed with the scripting for both films. While we watched, I commented on the framing and foreshadowing: "Nice set up." "Oh, no! He's going to die? I liked him." "Wow, that was clever." "I didn't expect that at all."
JJ mentioned afterward that he was surprised at how frequently I knew what was going to happen next. (My family has also complained about this sometimes, too, regarding both books and movies.) The interesting part came next. JJ said, "I can tell when I'm watching it which parts are going to be important later, but I never know why they're important until it actually happens." He then asked me if I was able to figure things out because of being a writer.
That got me thinking, and I've decided that the answer is probably yes. A lot of reading and a little writing has given me a sense of how stories are constructed. In addition, familiarity with different genres and the rules governing them is crucial to my approach to books or films. There may be something inherent in it, since I am naturally analytical, but for the most part I think it is experience-based.
JJ, and most people who watch movies, pick up on what the director is doing: seemingly unimportant information given just before a scene cut; focus on a specific character when another in a group is speaking; recurrent shots of an important object. These are good techniques because they draw attention, and there are many more that I don't know the rules for but are certainly written down in some compendium of "how to reach your audience--tips and tricks."
The difference, apparently, is that I have also gleaned some of the rules about how narrative is built. The genres we have are self associating and self reinforcing, so there are some very stiff, though breakable, guidelines that direct their stories. (More on that another day, perhaps.) Most people recognize when the rules are being followed, but perhaps not everyone knows quite how they connect to each other.
I heard of an author who said she didn't enjoy reading anymore because she always knew everything that was going to happen after the first ten pages of a book. I found that very sad, and hope it never happens to me. Even if books were to lose their surprise elements for me (which I'm confident they won't), I don't expect to lose my love of reading, for two reasons. First, I like books for so much more than plot--there are also emotional investments, language gymnastics, and personal discoveries, to name a few. Second, as a writer I am not only more critical of stories, I am also more appreciative. I may be quicker to point out specific flaws in some of my reviews, but I think that is only because I have learned to recognize (or at least assign) reasons for why I don't like the work. Concomitant with this, I have become more appreciative of artistry and of well-executed work. There are tens of thousands of writers out there, most of them better at it than I am, and as a reader/writer I am able to gape in awe at not only the finished product but also the skill that produced it.
Moral of the story: Read more books.
Want to know what happens next? Want to like movies better? Read more books.
Hm. This did not end up being the expected post about chapter break usage, but I think the title still fits.