Sunday, April 24, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Part 4: "I Understand You" moments

Okay guys, not much more of this because the book is due some day soon! In the meantime, this one has a negative book example, but not a positive book example  What’s a great book “I understand you” moment?

Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with her love interest or primary emotional partner? 

We’ve all had the experience. You’re sure you’ve met your perfect match. You rhapsodize for hours about everything that made you fall head over heels, but at the end, your friend just shrugs and says, “Are you kidding me?”

The problem, of course, is your hormonal response is distorting your reality, and your cool-eyed friends are evaluating the shelf-life of this new relationship dispassionately, asking: Do these two have enough in common? Will they treat each other well? Do they need each other?

It’s great to capture the subjective experience of falling in love, of course, though novelists have a much better chance of doing that than screenwriters.

Screenwriters can try to cheat, like West Side Story did, by using subjective camera effects to capture Tony’s besotted vision of Maria, but even back then, viewers just rolled their eyes. The camera eye is not the hero’s eye, and we will always see more than he sees, no matter how much Vaseline you smear on the lens.

But in some ways the screenwriter has the advantage, because a well-written story, in any medium, will capture both the subjective experience and an objective perspective on this relationship. Allow the audience to be both the besotted hero and the dubious friend.

So this is one case where you don’t want to “write what you know.” Don’t trust your own distorted memories of love and/or heartbreak. Instead, think back to your friends’ relationships. Which relationships did you root for and which infuriated you? Which ones endangered your friends and which saved them? Most importantly, how did you know they were right for each other, maybe even before they did?

Whether your first draft is one huge love story or the romance is a minor element, once you’ve gotten some notes, you may be shocked to discover that nobody sees what you see in the love interest.

The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but the series has a huge flaw: Nowhere in the course of these seven massive books does Rowling ever put in a single “I understand you” scene between either of the main couples: Harry/Ginny or Ron/Hermione! Ginny is especially thin; she’s basically just “the girlfriend.” Finally, years later, Rowling acknowledged her mistake publicly: Hermione is the one who understands Harry, and they should have ended up together.

Of course, given that your hero starts off with a false goal and a false statement of philosophy, it’s tempting to make the love interest the character lecturing your hero from the start. But then, you risk drifting into another category of alienating character: Just as you don’t want a hero who just says no, likewise you don’t want a stick-in-the-mud love interest, such as the kind you find in Old School, and many other manchild comedies.

Better “I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for the Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.

Sometimes, you can establish they understand each other before they even meet. We know in advance that the heroes in Friends with Benefits will bond because we see they have an ironically shared dislike of relationships. And what could be more romantic than the song that drifts from Maurice Chavalier in the city out to Jeanette MacDonald in the country in Love Me Tonight, uniting their hearts before either knows the other exists?

Just as you must occasionally check with your friends to make sure you’re not blinded by love in real life, you must get notes to find out how well your fictional romance is playing with your readers. Don’t be surprised if you need to give it a firmer foundation.


Unknown said...

I love this observation so much. I've failed at writing love interests before, and the moments of understanding idea explains so well what it means for it to work and not work.

This isn't a book and therefore likely not helpful for your current purposes, but are you familiar with the music from Hamilton? There's a pretty brilliant sequence in the first act that shows Hamilton meeting his future wife, and the story does *not* use this technique--they don't understand each other, and it's a fine but pretty uninspiring love song. During the wedding, the story flashes back to just before Hamilton met his future wife, when he met his future wife's sister, who has been previously established as looking for a partner very much like him. We see Hamilton and his future sister-in-law understand each other instantly and perfectly, and we learn the reasons she doesn't act on it. In just a few lines it sets up a love triangle that plays out over the rest of their lives, with some pretty fascinating moments of payoff.

It was your description of working vs. not-working love stories in a previous blog entry that let me understand why and how it worked, so thanks for that. =)

Brian Malbon said...

This is such a wonderful point, and I think the reason you have so few examples is that if it's done right, it's nearly invisible. I also think that it can often be several "I understand you" moments, spaced out over a short interval. These are so important, because as the characters are falling in love with each other, so is the audience.

The Forty-Year Old Virgin - Andy makes several jokes at Trish's expense, each of which should be insulting but aren't because they are delivered with good humour that complements Trish's self-deprecating sense of humour. Trish buys Andy a bike, acknowledging and accepting his peculiar quirks - who lives in LA and doesn't drive?

Shrek - accomplishes most of it through the "Monster and Me" music montage - Shrek and Fiona share a belch, Fiona traps Shrek a "cotton candy" stick of flies and spiderwebs.

Juno - The living room set on the front lawn, the mailbox full of orange Tic Tacs

For a literary example, (and thank you for including the "primary emotional partner" qualifier), take a look at The Passage by Justin Cronin. Brad Wolgast is an agent working for a shadowy organization and growing more and more disillusioned with the work he's doing. When he's ordered to essentially kidnap a six-year old girl for medical experiments, he winds up on the run with little Amy. Along the way he begins to latch on to her as a surrogate for his own dead daughter and eventually decides to throw everything away to protect her from his own bosses.

The scene in question involves a back country fair. It begins with Wolgast deciding to take an hour out of his way to let her have a little fun - although he still fully intends to deliver her to his masters afterwards. She first asks to ride on the scariest ride in the fair, and the expressions of joy and terror on her face as the ride spins begins to soften his disposition. When she then asks to ride the carousel, the slowest ride in the park, he makes his decision to abandon his partner and escape with her. I don't have the quote with me, but it's something like "The Octopus was for the part of her that was afraid. The carousel was for the part of her that still wanted to be a child" or something to that effect. I'm not doing it justice, but it's the most crucial scene in the novel, for if we don't get Wolgast's growing love for the girl we won't accept the risks he's willing to take for her, and then the rest of the vampire/apocalypse adventure simply has no emotional spine.

There is also an "I understand you" moment in Coraline, but it's between Coraline and her main antagonist, the Other Mother - still her primary emotional partner. It comes when Coraline, trapped by the Other Mother and desperate to find her parents and get out, challenges her to a contest. If she loses, she says, she'll stay and let the Other Mother love her. If she wins, she and her parents go free. It's only by truly understanding that the monster really does love her in its own twisted way that she's able to create a situation that allows her to defeat it.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Again, it's been a few (coughcough) years, but I remember these:

1984 - Winston and Julia have been having an illicit affair. Though it's sparked by her note saying "I love you," it only becomes real to us when they're in their secret apartment and share memories (e.g., the long-forgotten rhyme "Orange and lemons/ ring the bells of St. Clements") and observations. At one point they're watching a "large, sturdy" prole woman hanging up her laundry and singing love songs. To this point, we know that Smith believes in the importance of the proles, and he admires her and her vitality. Julia, watching the same thing, declares that this woman is beautiful. She sees what he sees.

Huckleberry Finn - Huck flees from his terrible father to an island in the river. He must be free from the tyrant who would probably end up killing him someday. He runs into Jim, who had just found out that he was going to be sold down the river. (Literally.) Jim too had to be free from the tyrannical system that would probably end up killing him someday. A lot of the early interactions between Huck and Jim on the raft would qualify.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Farenheit 451 - This uses the reverse of the technique to show a terrible marriage. Guy Montag's life is widened and deepened by his exposure to literature. He attempts to share it with his wife over and over, and she cannot connect. Their marriage unravels as he realizes that they don't understand each other at all.

The Great Gatsby - Maybe it's when Nick goes to Gatsby's party near the beginning of the story. He wanders around, observing the ridiculous behavior, and stops when he finds a man about his age who also holds himself separate from the party. This is the host himself, Jay Gatsby. Both of them are fascinated by the spectacle of the wealthy but don't feel at home in it.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

One of my favorite scenes in movies was a darkly comic version of the Gatsby scene. In Singles, Linda is at a college party and feeling very out of place. Andy (later described, all too well, as "Mister Sensitive Ponytail Man") rolls up and, in a knowing, smarmy voice, introduces himself by saying "You know, it's okay to loathe these people."

A wonderfully skin-crawling moment. He's forcing a "moment of understanding" to manufacture a connection and she falls for it. You can't help but scream at the screen in horror.

Mark said...

Much Ado About Nothing, II, i. Benedict and Beatrice are at a masked ball and (apparently) do not recognize each other:

"Benedict: What is he [meaning, "who is Benedict?"]
Beatrice: Why, he is the Prince's jester, a very dull fool; only his gift is in devising impossible slanders. None but libertines delight in him, and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy, for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him. I am sure he is in the fleet; I would he had boarded me.
Benedict: when I know the gentleman, I'll tell him what you say.
Beatrice: Do, do, he'll but break a comparison or two on me, which, peradventure, not mark'd, nor not laugh'd at, strikes him into melancholy, and then there's a partridge wing sav'd, for the fool will eat no supper that night."

I love this deeply. They (well, just Beatrice in this example, but Benedict in others) know each other so well that even as they profess to despise each other, it is obvious to every reader/viewer that they'll end up together

Mark said...

Now that I've written that, I'm thinking that a lot of my favorite "understand you" moments are characters seeing through each others' bullshit

I don't have quotations, but that is certainly what happens in Pride and Prejudice (for both characters) and Jane Eyre (Jane seeing though Rochester's bluster).

Then, of course, many of the great tragic love stories are exactly because of the lack of "understand you" moments. Gatsby is most certainly acting purely out of his own private version of Daisy. Anna Karenina fails to understand anything about Vronsky (and vice versa) (though you'd probably get a different opinion from readers who find that novel more romantic). Again, this might be controversial, but imho Romeo and Juliet is largely about the title couple being in love with their idea of love, which is why it is a tragedy, and not the much deeper love story that Much Ado is.

DeVore said...

I thought about Anne of Green Gables. Later when they are friends, you know that he gets her in a way that not a lot of people do, but even while she is still convinced they are enemies, they are constantly put together by their mutual scholastic ambitions as they fight to be first in school.