Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Problem with Talking It Out

Okay, Joss Whedon is my hero.  I’ve been r-watching Buffy from the beginning while I’m on the treadmill, and it’s a daily writing lesson on top of a workout.  Today Joss Whedon answered my prayers.  You know how sometimes there is something nagging you about a manuscript, you know what it is, but you quietly hope it will go away?  Well, this isn’t that.  This is worse.  This is more insidious.  This is a bad habit I’ve carried with me since I started taking writing seriously, a habit I didn’t even know I had.  Recently, I got some clues in the form of agent feedback letters, and so I’ve been watching for it in my peripheral vision.

Here’s what I’ve been doing all this time.  Writers are observant and articulate –some of our greatest strengths.  I see all the complexities of my characters’ relationships and all the subtleties of their issues.  And it feels so good to be able to pin those all down in words whether I’m having them hash things out in a big confrontational dialogue scene or moodily brood, reflecting on all the intricacies of their situation.  Problem is this isn’t very good storytelling.

Here’s what is.  Buffy, Season 3, Episode 7: Revelations.  Angel has been spit back out of the demon dimension, and Buffy is keeping him hidden in an abandoned mansion while he recovers.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Post, an ex-watcher, has come to town under the guise of supervising Buffy’s slayer friend, Faith –really she’s after the Glove of Myneghon, which will give her evil powers.

The whole time, I am talking to my laptop screen –which is something because remember I’m on the treadmill.  And I’m gasping to Buffy, “Would you and Angel just talk to each other and work out how things are going to be between you now?”  I can see all the things they have to hash out:

1)    You can count on Angel, Buffy!  He came back from the freaking demon dimension for you!
2)    How can you not mention the fact that you love each other but if you sleep together again Angel will lose his soul!
3)    Giles and the Scooby Gang are always researching your way out of problems.  I’m sure if you looked into it, in the library, you could find a way to be together.
4)    Plus, you should talk to your friends so they understand Angel is good again.
5)    Angel, you’ve got to tell Buffy how betrayed you felt when she slayed you!
6)    And Buffy, you’ve got to tell him why you had to do it and how it tore you up!
7)    On top of that, Buffy, if you really believe you should move on to other less Hellmouthy guys, it’s only fair that you tell Angel why!
8)    And Angel, you’re not going to tell Buffy about what the demon dimension was like and how you were compelled to get back for her?
9)    I don’t think you can just skip over the question of whether Angel should be responsible for his sins.  I mean he wasn’t himself, he wasn’t in control, but he did do those things!
10) And, uh, I know it’s a little existential, but worth a cup of coffee to talk through whether you can/should even really be together, right?

I keep watching because I think Angel’s good now.  I want to figure out all of the above ten points so Angel and Buffy can be together.  But if Joss Whedon puts in this talky scene I want, it kills all the suspense.  And it kills all the suspense because it kills all the interaction between me, the viewer, and the story.  The talky scene resolves all the problems I am waiting to find about if I’m right about.  Good for real life relationships, but not so much for storytelling.

Joss Whedon, being the genius he is, does something else instead.  He shows a brief scene of Angel doing a spell in his brooding mansion.  And again I keep watching because, though I’m sure this indicates Angel is creating the living fire that will destroy the Glove of Myneghon, there is the remote possibility he could be preparing it for his own evil use.  I want to find out if I am right and Buffy’s friends are wrong about him!

When Faith shows up at the mansion to kill Angel, I even want Buffy to tell her Mrs. Post tried to kill Giles and is not to be trusted.  But Joss Whedon sets up the scene so  there's no time for this conversation.  Buffy and Faith have to fight.  Faith has to find out about Mrs. Post by seeing her put on the glove with all the ensuing lightning and everything.  A much better scene than if Buffy told on Post, and Faith was like, “Okay,  cool.”  They kill her, they shrug, they go home, end of show.  Besides, I mean, if you have a glove someone has to put on the stinking glove, right?

Now, I am a little suspicious about TV series because sometimes I don’t think the writers know the answers to my list of questions.  I think sometimes they just keeping manipulating the character dynamics to keep me watching.  In a novel, I think the writer has got to have an idea what those answers are. 

But, it’s okay to let some of these questions go unanswered for a few chapters because it keeps me, the reader, engaged, it keeps me interacting with the story, it keeps me wondering, and talking out loud to the book in public places, and it keeps me turning the pages! 

And, when these problems and questions are resolved, I, the writer, can’t have the characters sit down and talk it out like psychologically healthy people you’d like to be involved with in real life.  It’s got to happen through a scene the reader can interpret, through action.  It’s only fair.  Just because I see all the intricacies of what should be resolved, I can’t leave the reader out.

So, ahhh.  It all seems so obvious, but my abilities as a writer, this acuteness of observation and articulation seduced me to a place where I could pin everything neatly down on the page and forget entirely about storytelling.  Thank you Joss Whedon for taking me to the next level!

One big question I have about this is…does a first-person limited viewpoint make this harder.  It might.  I’m going to think about this in the scenes I write and read next.

When a Character Tells a Story II

Sometimes a character has to tell a story to another character.  It’s something I’ve been curious about for a while and began writing about here.  Being a writer can attract you to characters who tell stories.  My fear, and I think it’s justified, is as soon as a character starts telling a story all the tension goes out of the scene.  Now I’m finally going to get the answers I’ve been waiting for, you know, and the character is just going to tell you.

Recently, I was reading a great new suspenseful YA novel.  Super setting, super premise.  And one of the main reasons I was turning the pages was to find out the story behind the mysterious protagonist.  He kept alluding to history that put him in this awful situation, and I was loving piecing things together.  Then, about halfway through, he finally tells his story to another main character.

The author did a really good job of it too.  She did it just like I would have.  It was a believable point in the plot for him to have to disclose what happened.  The scene is from the listening character’s perspective.  She breaks it up with questions, the listener’s reactions, and the listener’s observations of the story’s effects on the teller.  And it’s the least suspenseful part of the book.

So I had a thought about another way to keep the tension in a storytelling scene.  I’m still looking for a novel that tries something like this, but I wanted to get it down so I could remember to experiment later.  I think I’d like to try having the listener predict what the storyteller might say.  This could happen in dialogue or in the listener’s head.  I think it might work because the reader could be guessing along with the listening character.  Also, it amps up the tension between the storytelling character and the listener –impatience, maybe conflict about how much to share.  On top of that, I don’t think I’d have the storytelling character answer the listener’s questions with speech.  It would be much better to have the storyteller answer with an action –show the listener an artifact, take her somewhere, perform some grand gesture that allows the listener, and vicariously the reader, to reach her own conclusions.