Sunday, January 13, 2013
Storyteller's Rulebook #167: Don't Make Them Say It
Spider-Man pulls this off well. They don’t force Peter to say, “By the way, I’m an orphan, and here’s how my parents died…” Instead, he talks about it the way a real orphan does: When Norman Osborn tells him, “Your parents must be very proud,” he humbly responds, “Well, I live with my aunt and uncle and they are proud.”
This is how actual orphans talk. They dance around the issue. (Not coincidentally, this is how the character can get away with being so mopey without losing our sympathy: because he has some self respect. We only pity him because he doesn’t ask for our pity.) Likewise, people in the CIA don’t say “I’m in the CIA”, they say “I work for the government.” People who go to Harvard often won’t say “I go to Harvard”, they’ll say “I go to a college in Boston.” There are certain things that, for various reasons, people are reluctant to come right out and say.
These evasions make for good dialogue, because one of two things will happen: Either the other person pushes for a straight-up answer, which creates conflict, or the other person figures it out and accepts it, which clues in the audience that we’re supposed to figure it out too. Luckly, we love that moment—where we get to figure out something unsaid.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely possible to be too coy. On the one hand, we all hate it when movies begin with a guy walking up to a girl and saying “So, sis, what’s going on?”, as if anyone says “sis”, but I hate “big house syndrome” even more. You’ll find this in any Chekhov play, where all sorts of people live together in a big house with unclear relationships, and some are clearly friends of the family, but we don’t know which until some start sleeping with others. I’m always so crazy trying to figure out what are all those people are doing there that I can’t follow the story.
But the Spider-Man example is a good middle-ground. Peter says it in a way where he doesn’t have to say it, but we still get it.
(Although, come to think of it, even there, there might be a “so, Sis…” line between Lena Headey and her brother when they first appear.)