Thursday, December 29, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #115: People Lie About Their Feelings

So I finally finished “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and WOW. That may or may not be the greatest TV epic ever, but it certainly had the best finale of any TV epic. (It helps that many such shows have had terrible finales.) (And boy oh boy does this one do a great job of addressing the great hypocrisy.)

Nevertheless, I want to focus on an uncharacteristically weak episode that stuck out like a sore thumb in the otherwise brilliant final season. Four of the villainous characters take a vacation at a private island… Now obviously, the fact that a kids’ show is willing to devote a whole episode to its villains, who each have their own complex and ambiguous characterization, is a sign of its greatness, but the creators still have to stick the execution and, unfortunately, they blow it. For the last third of the episode, the four characters simply sit around a campfire on a beach and, one by one, with little prodding, explain their own baggage and insecurities to the others.

This is “characterization” at its worst. Never have your characters talk perceptively about their own feelings. In real life, people do not understand their own feelings. And even when we think they understand those feelings, if we’re asked about them, we will usually lie. Do you like that boy? No! Are you still in love with your ex-wife? No! Do you feel appreciated by your grown children? Of course I do, what a silly question!

Our mouths lie about our feelings, but our bodies betray us. Make your characters reveal emotion entirely through behavior. If a character baldly states, “I want to stay a kid forever,” that’s bad dialogue. On the other hand, if the character asks, “Why won’t you treat me like a grown-up?” while wearing Spider-Man pajamas, or cutting the crusts off his sandwich, or sticking his gum under the table, then you’re on the right track.

Unity of word and action is unironic, but good storytelling should always be ironic, because life is ironic. If word and action match, then you, as author, aren’t showing any powers of observation. Your audience need not even look at the visuals you’re showing them, because the character is simply telling them what’s going on. If the audience is asked to believe them, then there’s no way to interact with your story.

Your audience wants to play sleuth. They want to make their own observations about your characters, instead of being forced to listen to and accept the characters’ observations about themselves. Stories thrive on tension, both external and internal, but the most important source of all should be the tension between what people say and what they mean.If you want to reveal a character’s baggage, then find an active and ironic way to do so. Nowhere was this done better than in the first three seasons of “Lost”. In each episode, we saw a character’s baggage flood over them through a series of flashbacks, which were ironically juxtaposed against a painful dilemma that that same character now had to face on the island. Only the audience knew how that baggage affected their ultimate decision, because they kept their conflicted feelings to themselves.


Beth said...

I just finished that series, too, so that episode is fresh in my memory. The beach scene is weak, but isn't Azula the only one who lies about her feelings? (Azula: the ultimate villiness) Maybe the scene would have been better if they were walking, instead of sitting?

Thanks for posting about it, though. The Last Airbender is amazing! One of the best heroic boy quest story ever! Part of me regrets that the movie version sucked, but then again, I don't know how any writer could have sqeezed everything from season one into a two hour movie.

Matt Bird said...

What I meant was that, for the scene to be believable, everybody SHOULD have lied about their feelings --the other three are way too forthcoming and even Azula is relatively honest about her vulnerabilities in this scene.

As a general rule, even good friends are reluctant about (and often incapable of) confessing their true feelings to each other. This group of distrustful villains would be especially reluctant to do so.

And even if they did, it would still be an inert scene. A scene like this could work if Azula tricked the other three into revealing their true feelings and then used them against them later, but that's not the point here. Really, this is just an info dump to let the audience know what's going on inside the characters.

Tellingly, none of them ever uses this info against the others, even though each of the four double-crosses the others at least once before the season is done.

Bill Peschel said...

I loved "Airbender" (even the beach episode, but I was experiencing it, not dissecting it), but absolutely hated the ending. Hated it hated it hated it.

(Spoiler alert) The source of the Airbender's power was a switch in his back that gets turned on by accident? Really. Did I see that? If I'm wrong, tell me, but in order for him to access his power, you had to hit him in the right place like a rock-em, sock-em robot?

The perceived faults in the beach scene is nothing compared to that.

Matt Bird said...

SPOILERS CONTINUE: It didn't seem like a deus ex machina to me. The way I saw it was that Aang had been suppressing the bloodthristy spirit of his ancestors, until the injury to the long-established wound on his back rendered him comatose, at which point his ancestors took over his body and started kicking ass, but he overcame them in the end and chose a different path. It had been established ever since the first season premiere that the Avatar state was nearly all-powerful but dangerous to Aang's body and soul to use, and I thought that the finale was right in line with the expectations that had been established.

Beth said...

MORE SPOILERS: My husband and I have been talking about this alot. I dont think it was a switch in his back. It was a chi point that was blocked. The only hint about this is Tai Li, the perky villaness, who can block a benders powers by hitting their chi spots. So my guess was that all his Avatar bending powers were blocked by the back injury, and getting hit there was like an intense chiropractic session that restored his powers. There was that whole episode with the guru where they talk about how chi flows through the body.

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Anonymous said...

I have no idea if you’ll see this, but, when I use this technique, is the lie on purpose? If it is, should there be internal monologue about it? Probably depends on the situation and the weight of the lie.

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