Monday, April 4, 2011

Note to Self: No! Don't go in there!

You ever been watching a movie or TV show, and you know there's a dangerous, evil beast lurking somewhere, and the characters ought to know it too because they just discovered a mangled body or something and the door's ripped off its hinges and broken into matchstick-sized pieces and you can hear breathing from the darkness, either inside or outside—and the idiot in the movie picks up a butter knife to defend himself and walks through the freakin' doorway ANYWAY, and you just want to scream DON'T GO IN/OUT THERE YOU IDIOT, but you don't, because you no longer care what happens to that character because he's too stupid to live, and the only tension is because you know there's blood and screaming and crunching noises coming in the near future and frankly, it kind of grosses you out?

*pant pant* That was a looong sentence.

Have you ever noticed that? I see it all the time. It's a standard part of television, like montages and laugh tracks. And like montages and laugh tracks, we see it so often that it almost works, sometimes.

Well, self, it doesn't work in writing. Actually, I'm sure in some circumstances it might, but for the most part it either makes your characters look like idiots or simply deflates tension from the scene. This was pointed out to me in my own writing, recently. A little more recently, I noticed this mistake in Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games book.

Yes, I said mistake. Maybe it works for some people, but not for me.

In theory, the reader knowing something that the characters don't is a kind of dramatic tension. The reader knows there's a monster waiting outside. The character is either completely oblivious or suspects something but doesn't quite know what or where. If the character is the protagonist, the hero, and should by all rights be smarter than the reader, then one of two things will happen:

1) The reader thinks, "Okay, Jade would know if there were really a danger here, but she's not concerned, so I don't need to be." *Hissss* There goes the tension.

2) The reader thinks, "I've lived this entire book in your head and seen nothing more than you have, and you still haven't figured it out? You're a moron, Katniss!"

Note to Self:  Either make the characters just as smart and scared as you want the reader to be or don't let the reader in on things the character hasn't figured out. (Or make sure there's no reason that the character should know about the monster, but that's only an option in third person with multiple POVs.)

Ideally, the reader should figure out what's going on a page before or exactly when the characters figure it out.

Disclaimer:  The Imaginary Friends blog makes no claim as to the suitability of this writing advice for any purpose whatsoever, including, but not limited to, writing better and entertainment.

4 comments:

  1. Great post, Ben. I especially liked that first sentence/paragraph:)

    P.S. Is the picture in your background your ensemble cast? That thought just occurred to me, and if so, I LOVE it. The image conjures up the exact same feeling as the manuscript. Nice.

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  2. I never got a good grasp of who Katniss was, and I think this is why. Collins worried about the plot before the characters, which made the books such a fun ride, but still. I am a sucker for thinking there's always a way to do both well.

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  3. Thanks, Krista. Yep, that's them. (They) Notice the silhouette on the far left (if you can see the whole background) is the one I use on Twitter. It's Peter. (But it's not my silhouette. Just a stock image.)

    Jaimie, if you figure out how, you'll let us know, right?

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  4. Just finished this book and snap! Too true! I felt like Katniss was an idiot at least three separate times while reading!

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