“Nexting” and Drama

by F.

We are obsessed with the future and this fact about our psychology explains much of our emotional involvement in drama, I think. Daniel Gilbert, in Stumbling on Happiness, calls this human habit “nexting.” We constantly, obsessively “make future.”

The human tendency “to next” is exploited by dramatists using four main tools, as described by Paul Gulino in his book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach. Gulino encourages dramatic writers to get the audience focused on the future as soon as possible—and keep them focusing on it. He is clearly right about this. You can experience it in almost any compelling movie, novel, or play. And when you start to lose interest in a story, a lack of “nexting cues,” I think, is likely the reason.

The tools are Advertising, Elements of the Future, Dramatic Irony, and Dramatic Tension. The first two of these tools have various names, but “Advertising” and “Elements of the Future” seem to me to be clearest, most logical, and most memorable. These labels come from David Howard.

  • Advertising. This is telling the audience explicitly what will happen in the future. It may not actually happen, but when the audience hears a piece of advertising, we think about the future and expect the discussed event to either happen or not, e.g., “I have to get on that plane at 7:30.” Watch for this in any movie and observe your reaction.
  • Elements of the Future. This is like Advertising, but the outcome is less likely. Examples are threats, predictions, and warnings, e.g., “I wouldn’t go into the abandoned mine if I were you, Billy. There’s a monster in there.” Again, we, the audience, think about the future.
  • Dramatic Irony. This one is more subtle, I think. We learn something that the character doesn’t know (in the revelation scene) and then we wait for the moment when the character learns the same thing (the recognition scene). We wonder how the character will react when he learns, e.g., that he has just killed his father and fucked his mother.
  • Dramatic Tension. This is probably the most commonly used of the four tools. It results from what is called (by Kenneth Rowe Thorpe, among others) a “dramatic question,” e.g., after boy meets girl and falls in love with girl, we wonder, Will they get together? In other words, will the character get what he wants, or not?

The craftsmen are ahead of the theoreticians on this. I’ve read a number of books on how storytelling supposed to work—so-called “narratology”—but they rarely seem to provide any real insight into how and why audiences get involved in stories. They forget the psychology of the audience. This is in sharp contrast to scholars of certain visual arts, like painting. Rudolph Arnheim’s works are both fascinating and useful to the visual artist. Same with E.H. Gombrich’s wonderful Art & Illusion. Joseph Albers is still relevant as well. What’s going on with storytelling?

And now, consonant with the spirit of the age, we get Darwinian approaches to literature—attempts to apply evolutionary psychology to storytelling. The Literary Animal is an example. Such an approach could be really illuminating but what I’ve seen so far doesn’t make me optimistic.

The new “Darwinian approach” to storytelling seems to make the same mistakes other type of “literary theory” have done. Literary theory, much like various “legal theories,” is parasitic on some other theory, which changes from time to time with the fashions. The logic of these theoretical approaches to literature is something like this:

  • Assume literary characters are real human beings, then
  • Analyze their motivations and behavior using Theory X

Theory X can be Freud, Marx, Sociobiology—whatever. I don’t get why this is interesting or illuminating, though I understand why it’s done. The craftsmen storytellers—for now—seem to have the deepest knowledge of how stories work and how to involve an audience. It’ll be interesting to see if this changes.