Tuesday, October 16, 2018

I'm going to work through some items which were lost in comment moderation limbo:

From Adrian:
Recently, I've been noticing how much of television drama starts with the effects and most of the story involves the revelations of the (often surprising) causes of those effects. The easiest example of this is the police procedural. We open with a dead body (the effect), and the story centers on the detective figuring out who killed them and way (the cause of the death). Of course, there's a framing story with a more traditional cause-then-effect structure: The detective finds a clue (cause) which leads to a witness (effect). And the witness provides a bit of information (cause) that leads another clue . Et cetera. But it's not just mysteries that start with effects and work backwards to the causes. I just watched a new ensemble TV drama that started with an inciting incident that caused the rest of the cast to wonder why it happened, which leads them to wondering about their own situations and relationships (effects). Most of on Three Acts: Three "Things' That Can Increase the Coherence of Your Conflict

I just saw a film-- Bad Times at El Royale-- which made me think of what you mentioned about effect first, then cause. In the late 1960s, four people show up at a derelict Lake Tahoe hotel (literally half in Nevada, half in California-- I've been at the model for this... it's been closed for a long time, but used to be a Hollywood and mob hangout).

There's just one person working there, a young shy man who handles all the jobs of the hotel.
There's a vacuum cleaner salesman with a fake southern accent and a lot of casual racism and bonhomie.
There's a Catholic priest who is really slow at answering questions like "where is your parish?" and "what is your name?"
There's an African-American singer (the great Cynthia Erivo, who is actually British) who arrives with two big bedrolls with those egg-shell foam rubber mattress. (She's going to use them to soundproof her room so that she can rehearse.)
There's a foulmouthed hippie chick in fringed leather jacket, who let's just say is not into hippie peace and love. Very soon she is seen to carry a girl into her room and tie her to a chair-- kidnapping.

Each one immediately seems suspicious-- why are they here? 

And the film unfolds with slow revelation, with each contradiction in character being explained-- why they're here, what they want, where they came from.
So even as the film moves forward and they interact, it also moves from the "effect" (each of them arriving at the hotel) back to the cause (what event caused them to come here).

The only one who has a really straightforward reason is Darlene, the singer (she's got a singing gig in Reno, and so wants to prepare),

The back and forth and backforth again kind of slows down the pacing,  but this is a "noir film", so that slower pace does build suspense.
Anyway, as I was watching, i thought-- this is what Adrian meant!


1 comment:

Adrian said...

Thanks for circling back to this. I bring it up because I sometimes find myself putting the effects before the causes in my own writing, but I often read articles that advise always putting the cause before the effect.

In my case, it's usually on a much smaller scale, when we're in the head of a character who acts on a reflex:

I was jogging up the hill when I stopped suddenly. [effect] Something wasn't right. An odor overwhelmed me, almost made me sneeze. It was too hot for people to be using their fireplaces, and a barbecue seemed unlikely in the middle of the week, but I definitely smelled smoke. [cause]

OK, not my best writing, but it illustrates my point. The character acts before she recognizes the stimulus. In these cases, I find it natural to illustrate the character's own surprise by inverting the effect (her reaction) from the cause (her conscious recognition of the stimulus). Am I doing it wrong?

As for the TV and movies that start with the odd situation(s) and slowly reveal the backstory without any sort of chain of cause-and-effect driving the story, I'm not a big fan. In can be a good way to build suspense and keep me engaged, but eventually you have to have the characters in the present reacting to stuff. They characters should at least be reacting to the revelations. If the revelations are purely for the reader or audience, it feels too gimmicky. (The show in my example was the pilot episode of A Million Little Things.)

When Darth Vader tells Luke things he didn't know about his family tree, it's a huge surprise for everyone and it adds depth to our understanding of Vader's motivation. But it's not just twist for the audience's pleasure. It raises the stakes for Luke and that's the critical moment in that movie where he chooses to turn away from the Dark side.