Zig when they expect you to zag

I watched Inglourious Basterds last night. My wife had never seen it before. It was probably viewing number fourteen or so for me, but even so, it had been a couple of years at least.

Most films I watch I don’t watch again. Some of them I do watch again, but they fare slightly worse with each viewing. And a very select few that I watch again just get better, and better, and better. Tarantino’s films are firmly in the latter group.

There are a lot of things that make Tarantino Tarantino, but if I had to pick one thing that sets him apart from 99% of filmmakers – and artists in general – it’s this:

He plays with his audience.

We want tension. Then we want resolution.

Storytelling is a uniquely human phenomenon, and it is based chiefly upon just two elements: tension and resolution.

We crave the thrill, intrigue, and stimulation of the rising tension, and then just at the moment when it’s about to become more than we can handle, we crave the comfort and familiarity of resolution.

If you raise the tension and then resolve it, then you have told a story. But you haven’t necessarily told a story worth telling. In order to do that, you need to zig when we expect you to zag.

Almost all art is pretty shit.

Most novels aren’t worth reading. Most films are bland and mediocre. And most music sounds like a badly disguised cover version of something that was already fairly unoriginal to begin with.

Why? Because the artist – being unaware, unable, or simply unwilling to do anything else – sets us up to expect a zig, and then… a zig is exactly what we get.

Mediocre artists don’t know how to play with their audience.

Their approach is completely passive. They make their work, and they hope that somebody will like it. They see their audience not as a collection of equals, as unique three-dimensional humans craving a real experience, but as inferior faceless automatons, nothing more than an inconvenience. In the end they just hope that they can make enough of these idiots fall for the hype and make their work financially viable.

Great artists, on the other hand? They respect their audience. How do I know? Because they put effort into creating an incredibly rich experience for them. By making them expect one thing, and then giving them something pleasantly different.

They expend an incredible amount of time and energy setting us up for a particular zig, and just when we expect it the least, they hit us with a zag.

Don’t confuse this with merely being wacky – there is nothing clever or innovative about zagging just for the sake of zagging. The key is in the set-up: go the extra mile to make us expect a particular zig, and when you give us a zag instead, we’ll keep coming back for more.

What Tarantino does

All good artists know about zigging and zagging, but even so they seem to see it as a necessarily evil to the piece of art – something that distracts from the higher and more important aspects of their work.

Tarantino, on the other hand, sees it differently – all the other stuff is there to serve the tension and resolution of the story, not the other way round.

So he’ll set up a scenario, and as though he were slowly but surely turning a pressure knob clockwise, he’ll gradually raise the tension between the characters on-screen.

If all he did were raise the pressure, however, we’d be bored to tears before long. And so every now and then he’ll dial it back. We get a false sense of security, a breather. Then a few moments later, something new is revealed – the pressure is back on, and this time it’s even higher!

After several of these cycles – raising the tension, easing it off a bit, raising it even more, easing it off again… we are now on the edge of our seat – when is he going to hit boiling point?!

And hit boiling point he does. Eventually – like that brief pause before the rollercoaster descends at full speed – he jams that knob all the way clockwise. There is an explosive climax – the details of which we could never have predicted, but that now we think about it works perfectly.

Where are people expecting you to zig?

Think about your art. What about it is predictable and safe? And what is shocking and subversive?

For any work to be truly masterful, it requires a blend of the mundane (the setting up of a zig) and the extraordinary (the unexpected delivery of a zag.)

It’s not necessarily to make everything you do surprising and capricious – that soon becomes just as boring as a boring piece of art – but a few well-placed zags, when everyone is expecting a zig, and suddenly your work will come to life.

You are finally making art.

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