Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Day 6: Moments of Humanity

Okay guys, the book isn’t due until Monday, so we can do one or two more. Even though this is one of my marquee pieces of advice, I still don't have enough examples. And I just realized to my horror that I pulled Aladdin right out of “Save the Cat”, so that has to go. Any ideas for books for any of these?

Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on?

Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so it’s tempting to simply hit the ground running, and instantly start dumping problems on their heads until they’re ready to stand up and do something about it. But you can’t assume we’ll automatically bond with your heroes just because we’re told to identify with them. The audience is actually inclined to distrust and reject your heroes, for all the reasons listed in Part I.

We won’t go anywhere with your heroes until they win us over. Logically, we know this is fiction and we shouldn’t care about a bunch of lies, but you need to overcome our resistance and make us care, against our better judgment.

So how do you do that? You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will break through that resistance and bond us to the hero. This is the moment the audience forgets this is fiction and starts to believe in the character.

The moment of humanity can take different forms:

Something Funny: This is easiest to do in first-person novels, of course, where the hero can win us over on the first page with a snarky point of view. In movies, this just means cracking wise, usually in a perceptive way, as with the heroes of Casablanca, Ocean’s Eleven, Groundhog Day, and Juno. This can also bond us to characters who are scared to be funny out loud, but have a very funny, perceptive, and self-deprecating voiceover, such as the heroes of The Apartment, Spider-Man, and Mean Girls.

An Out-of-Character Moment, where we realize this character won’t just be one-note. This may seem odd: How is it possible to introduce your character with an out-of-character moment? It takes very little time to establish expectations before you start to upset them. Jokes are written according to the “rule of threes:” something happens twice, which establishes a pattern, and then the third time something different happens, which upsets the pattern. That’s all it takes.
  • Tony Stark in Iron Man proves himself to be a boastful alpha-male billionaire in the first scene as he boldly shows off his new weapon to a group of generals, but then he asks to share a Hum-V with some soldiers and becomes self-deprecating and gregarious, making jokes about gang-signs in selfies.
Compassionate: This is tricky, because you want to avoid generically benevolent “save-the-cat” moments, which actually alienate an audience. The best compassionate moments are ones that are also out-of-character moments:
  • Aladdin has a great song about being a fun-loving thief, but after he gets away with his bread, he reluctantly lets starving kids beg it off of him. This is a clear-cut “save-the-cat” moment, but it only works because it’s out of character. If he had stolen the bread for the kids, we wouldn’t like him as much. That would actually be more sympathetic, but less compelling.
Otherwise, compassionate moments should be rooted in the hero’s own sense of emotional vulnerability. Ben Stiller stands up for Cameron Diaz’s mentally disabled brother in There’s Something About Mary because he feels like a fellow outcast. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place in The Hunger Games because she feels she’s already hardened herself, and whether or not she survives the games, she doesn’t want her innocent sister to lose her humanity, as well.

An Oddball Moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the story in a good way.
  • The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the suspect if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.
  • Blazing Saddles: Ex-slave, track-layer Bart is ordered to sing an old slave song as he works, so he smirks and breaks out into an anachronistic rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You.” We now love this guy. 
Comically Vain: A variation of the “laugh-with” funny moment is the “laugh-at” moment in which the character is comically vain.
  • Han Solo in Star Wars is wounded that Luke and Obi-Wan have never heard of his ship.
  • The hero of Rushmore imagines he is a math genius and the hero of the school, only to wake up to a more modest reality.
  • Ted on How I Met Your Mother describes to a girl in a bar his imaginary wedding in an adorably deluded way.
  • Annie in Bridesmaids sneaks out of her lover’s bed in the morning to do herself up, then climbs back in so that she’ll look like she’s woken up looking beautiful.
A Unique-But-Universal Moment that has nothing to do with the story, where the character does something we’ve all done, but we’ve never seen portrayed before.
  • My favorite movie, the silent drama The Crowd, begins with a dead-simple example: Our hero is nervously preparing for a date in front of the mirror, when he notices a spot on his face. He keeps trying to rub it off, to no avail, until he realizes that it’s a spot on the mirror.
  • Modern Times gets us on the side of the Little Tramp by introducing him as he’s working an assembly line, and can’t take his hands off for a second, but he has to scratch his nose.
  • William Goldman, in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, writes about how nobody was bonding with the hero in his movie Harper, so he added a brief scene in the beginning where Harper gets up in the morning, starts to make coffee, and realizes that he’s out of filters. Harper thinks for a second, then fishes yesterday’s filthy filter out of the garbage, brushes it off and re-uses it. Suddenly, the audience is ready to go anywhere with this guy.
  • In the case of The 40 Year Old Virgin, it’s the very first shot: Andy tries to pee while coping with a painful morning erection. That’s certainly a unique-but-universal moment I never thought I'd see portrayed onscreen.
No matter which kind you choose, these moments of humanity are essential for building quick identification. You have a very short time to get your audience to say, “I love this person” before they give up and tune out.


Brian Malbon said...

Coraline: unique but universal, also maybe comical - Coraline is a little girl who's moved with her family into a new building with several oddball neighbours, none of whom can seem to say her name right. They call her Caroline. She's very polite about correcting them even though the fact that they never seem to hear her approaches the absurd.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

For "Something Funny," there's the first paragraph of Huck Finn:

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly--Tom's Aunt Polly, she is--and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

1984 begins with Winston Smith dragging himself to his miserable home for lunch from a soul-crushing job. We see that he lives in a lunatic totalitarian state. And during his lunch break, he sneaks into an alcove away from the omnipresent surveillance...to write in his diary about a movie he saw and how much he wants to have sex with a coworker. Petty, and yet terribly human and also a gigantic risk. He's asserting his humanity in a world bent on crushing it. We, uh, we can relate.

Catch-22 begins with Yossarian in the hospital with an illness that "fell just short of being jaundice" that he was able to keep going through trickery so he could stay there. Then comes this passage, which is a strange "moment of humanity" as much as it is "something funny," at least to me:
After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital, Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew saying that he was in the hospital but never mentioning why. One day he had a better idea. To everyone he knew he wrote that the was going on a very dangerous mission. "They asked for volunteers. It's very dangerous, but someone has to do it. I'll write you the instant I get back." And he had not written anyone since.

There's a line from The Sun Also Rises that I feel is a little unique-but-universal moment of sorts. Your mileage may vary. Chapter one begins with the narrator, Jake Barnes, talking about a friend of his, Robert Cohn. Shortly after relating secondhand Cohn's stories of boxing at Princeton, Barnes writes:
I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together, and I always had a suspicion that perhaps Robert Cohn had never been middleweight boxing champion and that perhaps a horse had stepped on his face, or that maybe his mother had been frightened or seen something, or that he had maybe, bumped into something as a young child, but I finally had somebody verify the story from Spider Kelly. Spider Kelly not only remembered Cohn. He had often wondered what became of him.

I suspect the "mistrust of frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together" is either idiosyncratic or unique-but-universal, depending on who you are.

Mark said...

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you wan to know the truth." --Catcher in the Rye. This is funny, and it also is "unique but universal", I think, especially for the young readers who so love(d) this book for precisely this kind of straight-talk

Oddball moment:
I've always loved the beginning of The Big Sleep, where Marlowe states that he's a detective, on his way to be "calling on four million dollars", and then is immediately sidetracked into the witty banter with Carmen ("Tall, aren't you?" she said. "I didn't mean to be." . . . ."What's your name?" "Reilly," I said. "Doghouse Reilly.") It's all funny, sure, but it also is very out of the ordinary of what we expect from the beginning of a detective novel.

My favorite opening line of all time is Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy - funny, oddball, and makes me want to listen to absolutely everything Tristram is going to say:
"I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me."

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Pride and Prejudice has a few moments with Elizabeth Bennet worth noting.

One of her earliest moments comes at the initial party with Messrs. Bingley and Darcy, when she overhears Mr. Darcy refuse to dance with her because she wasn't beautiful enough and, as she had to sit out two dances due to a lack of men present, which to Darcy gave her the taint of rejection. Her response to this: Mr. Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings toward him. She told the story, however, with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous. Rather than take the affront badly, as expected, she makes light of it. Given the weight of marriage established in the story already and Darcy's vast wealth, this is an out-of-character moment. She did what?

A later scene crucial to our appreciation of Elizabeth is in Chapter 7, when her sister Jane sends word that her visit to Mr. Bingley's house has been extended by her catching a nasty cold due to recent rain (a result of her mother's machinations). Elizabeth decides she has to see her sister right away, and takes off walking the three miles to the Bingley estate, to the shock and dismay of both her family and the Bingley household:

Elizabeth, feeling really anxious, was determined to go to her, though the carriage was not to be had; and as she was no horsewoman, walking was her only alternative. She declared her resolution.

"How can you be so silly," cried her mother, "as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there."

"I shall be very fit to see Jane—which is all I want."

"Is this a hint to me, Lizzy," said her father, "to send for the horses?"

"No, indeed, I do not wish to avoid the walk. The distance is nothing when one has a motive; only three miles. I shall be back by dinner."

"I admire the activity of your benevolence," observed Mary, "but every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required."

"We will go as far as Meryton with you," said Catherine and Lydia. Elizabeth accepted their company, and the three young ladies set off together.

"If we make haste," said Lydia, as they walked along, "perhaps we may see something of Captain Carter before he goes."

In Meryton they parted; the two youngest repaired to the lodgings of one of the officers' wives, and Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.

She was shown into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise. That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother's manners there was something better than politeness; there was good humour and kindness. Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion's justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.

With this, Elizabeth Bennet is Our Heroine, one of the most beloved in English literature.

Anonymous said...

From memory, the opening scene with Harper wasn't written for the audience, they just needed some additional footage to run under the opening titles. The rest was a happy accident.