Treating reading like a game of Once Upon a Time

It occurs to me that often, when I’m reading or watching a work of fiction, one part of what I’m doing is essentially like playing the storytelling card game Once Upon a Time in my head.

When I play OUaT, at any given moment I usually have a pretty clear path in mind from where the story currently is to my desired ending, using the cards that I have in hand. Which is to say, if the story were suddenly handed over to me and if nobody interrupted me, I could pretty easily finish the story and win.

And I recently realized that I do something similar (though not quite the same) when I’m (for example) reading a story.

I don’t necessarily have a specific ending in mind, but I do often have a general sense of how I would like the story to end up, and/or how I think the author is likely to end the story.

And I often have a rough sort of mental map of how to get to such an ending, using the kinds of tools/tropes that the author has indicated are available in this particular story.

That’s especially true with the romantic aspects of a story—I’m usually on the lookout, semi-consciously, for who the sympathetic characters might end up being romantic with, and how they might get together. (For example: Hmm, this character who I like is a lesbian, and that other character who I like is a lesbian, and they may be the only two lesbians in the story. They’re currently in different universes, but that can be fixed…) (For characters who are clearly not into romance or sex, I look for other kinds of happy endings.)

It’s usually not nearly as specific a path as it is when I’m playing OUaT. And as with OUaT, the story quite often ends up not following the path I have in mind—my planning-out isn’t necessarily an accurate prediction, it’s just a rough map of where I want some aspects of the story to go. And as with OUaT, once in a while I have absolutely no idea how one could get from the current situation to where I want or hope or expect that things will end up.

But still, I think it’s interesting that I approach stories that I’m reading this way.

I don’t know whether I did this before I had ever played OUaT. (I first played OUaT in the mid-1990s, a few years after college.) I think I probably did; I think the find-a-narrative-path approach came first, and I later applied it to OUaT as well as to prose and visual media. But I’m not sure; it’s possible that I learned it while playing OUaT, and later started applying it to other media.

…To be clear, I’m not saying that I have some amazing or unique ability here. I assume lots of people do this or something similar, and I know people who are much better at predicting where a story will really go than I am. The point of this post is just that I hadn’t thought about all this in OUaT terms before.

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