Monday, June 24, 2013

Can A Story Change Your Life? - The Meaning of Plot-Driven: Naoki Urasawa's Monster

If I remember correctly, a suggestive piece of fan art by the Canadian artist kurot was what originally put Monster on my radar.

There's a certain amount of irony to that fact, as I have to admit, on the basis of the series's own art alone, I probably would never have taken the time to look into it.  That isn't to say that it's poorly drawn; the art is perfectly serviceable and suits the story's demands.  It just doesn't call out from the page like a siren's song, compelling readers' (or at least my) attention the way, say, the precision of Takeshi Obata's work in Hikaru no Go or the sheer moeness of the character designs in Kamichu! or K-On!  Worse yet, Monster touches on none of the usual genres or tropes that populate my fictional wheelhouse.  Yet, like all well-crafted mysteries, it poses a single question at the onset that is tantalizing enough to compel its reader to continuing reading long enough for several other questions to be posed - and in turn, their answers sought.  Before long, the unsuspecting reader is barreling headlong through a 18-volume manga series, unable to turn away until the final scene is unveiled and the mysteries - at least the ones that will be answered outright - are revealed.

In my case, I read through all eighteen volumes in a roughly 24-hour period, only pausing to attend classes.  (I believe this was the Fall or Winter quarter my third undergraduate year.)  The urgency with which I consumed each volume was only matched by the profound impact that another Urasawa work would leave on me, several years later.

Aside from being an exemplar of the mystery genre - albeit in graphic form - Monster also reveals how the plotwork and devices of the genre can be used to enhance the plot of non-mystery stories.  The layering of questions-to-be-answered is, at its core, the most elemental function of plot in storytelling; the audience's interest in "what happens next" is the true impetus behind any story.  That interest can be fostered and maintained with beautiful turns of phrase, depth of character or milieu, or fascinating ideas and events, but the most fundamental motivator is the question that cries out for an answer.  When a story's opening compels its audience to read on, it has posed its preliminary question - "what's going on here?" - with enough intrigue to drive readers past its unfamiliar trappings.  And, by the time that the preliminary question is answered, and the audience knows enough about the characters, milieu, and events to understand the story's context, other questions have been raised which demand their own answers:  "Who is she, really?"  "What will they do?"  "Why is all of this happening?"  And "How will it all be resolved - if it's to be resolved at all?"

Posing and answering these questions involves striking a delicate balance.  Too many questions too quickly threatens to overwhelm an audience, while too few or answering them too linearly may cause them to lose interest.  There is also a danger in tying up every loose end so that the story's resolution is so neat and tidy as to feel manufactured, yet too many loose ends left undone makes things seem unfinished, ill-plotted, or simply leave the audience unsatisfied.  It takes a masterful hand to handle plot in a way that satisfies but never seems  contrived.  Monster helped me to realize that much of the trick lies in carefully managing the seed-and-answer cycle of the questions that your fiction raises along the way.

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