Sunday, December 7, 2008

Emotional exposition

Film-going adventures... Saw Australia, which was created, conceived, cast, portrayed, written, etc., all by Aussies, and so why does it seem so utterly like a not-great but very expensive 60s-era Western? I mean, really, if it weren't for the accents and the Japanese bombers arriving at the end, I would have thought I was not in the Outback in 1941, but rather in the desert sets of outer Hollywood pretending to be 1890 Arizona. :) Every cliche we love in Westerns is right there, including a totally Eastwoodlike intro of the hero by narrowed eyes (though Hugh Jackman shows far more beefcake than Clint ever did, but then, whoa, seriously better beefcake—is that a body double, or has Wolverine been working out?) devolving into a barroom brawl that spills out into the unpaved street. (Now to be fair, some of these scenes are fun, and there's a beautiful child in a major role, and Bryan Brown! Back again! He was the most fun actor in Thorn Birds, pace all Richard Chamberlain fans. And so cool here! But it was in a Lee Marvin role—just can't get away from the Western influences. :)

Oh, yeah, the "noble savage" in this film is Aboriginal, not Native American, but he still imparts the nobly (not savage) wise Big Emotional Revelation to the clueless (but very buff) hero. What's the revelation? Oh, I forget. It was something about how Hugh was a coward, because he'd been hurt before and was now afraid to love. I think we've heard that before. In fact, we probably SAID that before. The Aboriginal friend pronounces this wisdom in a nobly pontifical way, and Hugh immediately accepts the wisdom and runs off back to his true love (abandoning, apparently, the wise best friend).

This "emotional exposition" scene shows a lack of confidence in the story! And this is something to watch out for in our own books. If we've done our job setting up and developing the character journey, and if we've created scenes that show the emotion, no one should ever have to state out loud the emotional revelation. The character should figure it out for himself because of the events of the story, and especially the event right before realization. (Realization... not revelation, see!) If you're near the end of the book, and you have so little confidence in your emotional arc and character journey and character that you think you need to bring in someone else to lecture out the big truth, then instead of writing that scene, you should be revising your macro-structure. Something's gone wrong in the big story elements, and it can't be fixed by a lecture, however wise. (Australia didn't need this, btw. All it needed was some catalytic event to make Hugh choose to go back to Nicole and the adorable child. That's why I said that it shows a lack of confidence.)

In fact, I tell romance writers—if in the last scene, the romantic couple have to SAY "I love you," you've failed. The reader should know this from how they've changed, how they've grown, and how they've sacrificed for each other. (The characters of course can speak their love – people do, after all—but I'd say first write the scene without those words, as if those words aren't in the language, as if love can only be shown and described without love words. THEN you'll have a great emotionally resonant resolution scene, and you can put in the Three Little Words afterwards. :)

So... no emotional exposition lectures, okay? Make your story do the work. And then if you want the words spoken out, well... try something more fun than a Noble Oppressed Minority wiseguy intoning the wisdom. For example:

1) Put the revelation in the mouth of a discredited character. Hey, if it's the truth, it's the truth, right? Play with that by using the least credible character as the transmitter of wisdom. (I'm envisioning Steve Buschemi or Rob Schneider here.) It will be unexpected, and also force the main character to evaluate the merits of the revelation rather than just to accept Received Wisdom from a beloved and all-knowing thus perfectly credible character.

2) Try a character who is saying this not from some benevolent motive but to further her own agenda. Again, this will add a layer of uncertainty and conflict, making the protagonist have to work at it. Think of Ilsa in Casablanca: "You're a coward, Rick!" She's trying to get the letters of transit from him, not further his emotional journey. Her own motive is suspect—and both of them know it.

3) Something else the World's Greatest Script (Casablanca, I mean) does right is that Ilsa says this but immediately takes it back. This accomplishes a lot—it gets the Revelation spoken, it shows that Ilsa is scared of her own insight, it shows that she's not so stupid that she continues alienating the guy with the letters of transit, and most importantly, it forces Rick to act not with anger but with compassion... where if what she said stood, he'd be defensive and unmoving. Oh, it also shows something about her character, that she really does still love him.

But see, all of the above are making the Revelation not a resolution but a conflict. Should I believe Rob Schneider? Is Ilsa just trying to shame me into giving her what she wants? Do I love her more than my pride? Can I risk loving her especially now I know how far she'll go to protect her husband? All these will lead not to a static scene where something is imparted from on high, but an active scene where the character has to do more than accept the obvious—he has to create his own realization, take his own next step on the journey.

You know, it always comes down to Show, Don't Tell, doesn't it?

That is, if you've got a message to impart, write a bumper sticker. If you're going to create a story, make something happen and cause something else to happen, and let your characters' changes play out in the scenes.



Edittorrent said...

I do love a big emotional crescendo scene in a romance, though. But, yes, I want it to be an active scene.


green_knight said...

first write the scene without those words, as if those words aren't in the language, as if love can only be shown and described without love words

I think this is good advice for anything, not just love scenes, and it might be a good revision tool - if I take out the words, is it still obvious what's going on?

Edittorrent said...

GK, I think we don't trust the reader enough. And for sure, some readers aren't as savvy and want to be told. Hard to aim at them-- often newer readers-- and the jaded sophisticates too!

green_knight said...

I think we don't trust the reader enough

Who said editors don't break into your house and read the manuscripts you stowed under the bed?

The irony is that I like _reading_ books that treat me as if I don't need my hand held, but I used to _write_ the other kind.

I never know just how much I *can* leave out. My current project forces me to skip more, because so much happens that it just does not all fit into one volume; it's an education and a half.

What I am aiming for is something that is layered well enough that every level of reader can get something out of it; but it's definitely hard work.

Edittorrent said...

Maybe we need to artificially constrain ourselves, like say the chapter can only be this many words, and revise out anything "extra," thereby forcing ourselves to cut as much exposition and "telling" as we (in retrospect) realize we don't need. So much of revision seems to require this tricking -- well, maybe it's only required of me. :)