Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Sometimes You Need an “I Don’t Understand You” Moment

So your hero is going to cheat on his or her spouse, and yet you still want him or her to remain sympathetic to the reader. It’s a tall order, but stories do it all the time and get away with it, so why not you?

There are two things you need to avoid: You don’t want to make the relationship worthless, and you don’t want to make it too good. If the relationship is just terrible, then neither we nor the hero are going to feel any pain at the infidelity, which robs this plot development of its power. But, on the other hand, if the relationship is just wonderful, then we’ll never forgive your hero or understand his or her motivation.

You need to show that things are okay between them, but there’s a fatal flaw. I’ve talked before about how you should cement relationships with an “I understand you” moment. Well now’s the time for its opposite, the “I don’t understand you” moment. This is the moment in an otherwise root-for-able relationship where we get a brief glimpse of an unbridgeable chasm, and we empathize with your hero’s yearning for something more.

After writing this piece I watched Battle of the Sexes this weekend, wherein Emma Stone cheats on her husband with a woman, but we barely glimpse the husband before the affair begins. I thought, “See, this movie could have used an ‘I don’t understand you’ moment,” but in this case I think the movie still works without it, because repressed gay affairs (especially in period pieces) have a built-in implied ‘I don’t understand you’ element.

(And as it turns out he does sort of understand her, as he ends up being pretty cool about it)


Unknown said...

This actually reminded me of how one of the characters in Orange is the New Black has a mail-order Russian wife he literally can't understand.

I said...

Hey Matt,

I just purchased your book, Secrets of Storytelling. The material is excellent, and your insight extremely valuable.

I look forward to reading this blog.