Thursday, June 30, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #87: Realistic Emotions, Outlandish Situations (And Not Vice Versa)

I love comments! Every time I check my blog and see comments, it’s like Christmas morning. Every time I see no comments, it’s like getting stood up on prom night.

Mostly, I blog to teach myself things that I need to learn. This is my brain’s workspace, and comments are like having an editor inside my brain forcing me to make my thoughts make more sense. Two days ago, master-commenter “J.S.” added his thoughts to the “Write the Emotions You Know” rule. In responding to his comments, I stumbled into a new, better version of that rule: Realistic emotions in outlandish situations work better than outlandish emotions in realistic situations.

As with all of my favorite rules, this had never occurred to me before, but then I suddenly started to see it everywhere. Usually, in this column, I cheat by cherry-picking examples, but this time, I’ll use a pre-determined test group. Let’s try this out on my favorite Hollywood movies of last year:

1. The Fighter:

  • Realistic Emotion: I could be great if only I could break free of my crappy family…
  • Outlandish Situation: …and become a world champion boxer.

2. The Black Swan:

  • Realistic Emotion: I fear that the only way to succeed in my cruel business is to sacrifice my humanity…
  • Outlandish Situation: …then slowly turn into a swan while dancing Swan Lake.

  • Realistic Emotion: Expert older workers like myself are being laid off in favor of underpaid newbies…
  • Outlandish Situation: …but now we have to work together to stop a runaway train.

4. Date Night:

  • Realistic Emotion: Our marriage has gotten stale and we need to shake things up…
  • Outlandish Situation: …with the help of a lot of guns, corrupt cops, and car chases.

The only exception was number five:

5. True Grit:

  • Outlandish Emotion: I must avenge my dad’s death…
  • Outlandish Situation: ...by hiring a federal marshal and chasing his killer into Indian land.

Four of out five well-made movies agree: Try realistic emotions in outlandish situations!


j.s. said...

When we don't comment, sometimes it's because you've simply said it so well that there's not much to add. Or maybe you've given us a lot to think about so we need to digest it for a while and then comment on a later post.

Anyway, if anything I wrote sparked an idea, that's awesome, because I've learned more from this blog than I have from most other writing teachers, books and peers. And really, I was mostly just paraphrasing you back to yourself anyhow.

A slight tweak for TRUE GRIT that brings it more in line with the others:

"I'm outraged at my father's death...so I will avenge him by hiring a federal marshal and chasing his killer onto Indian land."

I've been thinking about this new rule for a couple hours and it really does seem like a useful way to go about analyzing and/or constructing great stories: to pair a universally relatable emotion with the right outlandish dramatic premise.

Part of the key to the proportionate bigness of any given premise, I think, is that it allows conflicts related to these universal emotions to be acted out in ways that they wouldn't be otherwise, certainly not in real life, which is usually over too fast or never goes in the right order and where most of the conflicts between us and inside us remain invisible.

An outlandish situation seems necessary to externalize emotional truth in a medium -- film and TV -- where stories are primarily about what people do, not what they feel.

When there's a particularly organic fit between the emotions and the story premise/metaphor, then you know you're on to something good.

A few off the top of my head:

CORALINE: Every young child has fantasies that their parents may not be their "real" parents...but only Coraline goes into a parallel world where this becomes literally true.

MADMEN: In corporate America and especially in the image conscious world of advertising, you have to fake it till you make it...but only Don Draper's entire life is a sham.

THE SOPRANOS: Many middle-aged men in management positions struggle with work problems and feel put-upon by coworkers and families that take them for granted...but only Tony Soprano experiences this in the cut-throat world of the Mafia.

Crystal said...

Your blog is hands-down the best one I've ever encountered, and I read your posts before anyone else's - the editors', the agents', the writers'. I don't comment because what you say is so consistently terrific (and I've used it so many times in my own writing) that I just don't want to say anything dumb. Also, I usually need to let things sink in, like j.s. said, and there's really not too much to add.

Keep on keeping on!

j.s. said...

Thinking more about this today and wondering if a key to the right fit between one's realistic emotional truth and outlandish dramatic situation is the choice of an appropriate genre.

Different genres are better at dramatizing different truths. The Western, for instance, is an excellent arena for stories about justice. While the psychological thriller is about the nature of reality and identity.

A big reason for the enduring worldwide popularity of the mystery story could be the near perfect alignment of the reader/viewer's realistic emotion (I must find out why all this has happened...) with the detective's outlandish situation (...because if I don't, someone else will die!).

Jim said...

What Crystal said.

As Matt's father, I usually refrain from commenting because of my close relationship and bias. But I must say that Matt's blog makes me very proud. I'm so glad others agree with me on the high quality of thought, writing, and effort Matt puts into Cockeyed Caravan.