Sunday, December 17, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Juxtapose the Melodramatic with the Mundane

It’s hard to care about melodrama. When characters are feeling huge emotions about huge events, the natural tendency as a reader is to roll your eyes and say, “Whoa there, it’s too big, too much, too silly.” All we know are our piddly little lives. We don’t know what we would do in these shocking circumstances and we can’t imagine.

So it’s hard to write big shocking moments without losing your audience. But here’s a trick: juxtapose the melodramatic with the mundane. Here’s Katniss when her sister’s name is called:

  • There must have been some mistake. This can’t be happening. Prim was one slip of paper in thousands! Her chances of being chosen so remote that I’d not even bothered to worry about her. Hadn’t I done everything? Taken the tesserae, refused to let her do the same? One slip. One slip in thousands. The odds had been entirely in her favor. But it hadn’t mattered. Somewhere far away, I can hear the crowd murmuring unhappily as they always do when a twelve-year-old gets chosen because no one thinks this is fair. And then I see her, the blood drained from her face, hands clenched in fists at her sides, walking with stiff, small steps up toward the stage, passing me, and I see the back of her blouse has become untucked and hangs out over her skirt. It’s this detail, the untucked blouse forming a ducktail, that brings me back to myself.

We’re in the same position as Katniss: Only the untucked shirt makes it real to us. It’s too hard to comprehend the horror that a twelve-year old will be sacrificed in a future gladiatorial game. It’s absurd. It’s too big. But an untucked shirt is small. We can comprehend that. It’s real. And if it’s real, juxtaposed with the other, then the other must be real as well.

A twelve year old, telling us about the wild gladitorial dream she just had, wouldn’t mention that untucked shirt. It’s too mundane. That’s the sort of detail you would only notice if you were actually there. So when we see it, we’re suddenly actually there.

The more outlandish your scenario, the more important it is to include little glimpses of mundane details, just to make it real.


Anonymous said...

while I agree that some mundane details are necessary, your reasoning sounds like the very first thing you came up with to make it sound profound. So probably unrelated to the real reason that may even be as simple as: you need details that the reader wouldn't think about themselves (otherwise no point reading it), some of them will be mundane.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Contra Anonymous above, I think Matt nails it exactly. The farther from lived experience a story is, the harder it is for us to put ourselves into it. We can still enjoy it for many reasons, but we won't feel it as much.

In other words, while nobody knows exactly how it feels to ride a talking polar bear into a desacralized church to behead the Dragon of Eternal Sorrows*, we do know exactly how it feels to have something stuck between our teeth, and combining those two events makes the fantastical side feel more possible. The celery string between the molars is your point of entry to the fantasy.

For proof, take humanizing, everyday details out of a melodramatic passage and see how it reads. Or, in a passage that lacks them, add them in. The impact of trivia is not trivial.

What's more, the details that you add to the scene need to be details that the audience can relate to easily, or it doesn't work. Take the scene from The Hunger Games above and replace the "ducktail" detail with some fantastical folderol instead -- "her veeblefetzer was humming in the key of F" or "the smell of well-talcumed iguanas wafted through the air" -- and the scene loses its emotional impact. Because it won't feel real.

*In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that know exactly how that feels. Refer to my upcoming memoir BURNING FIST OF THE CRIMSON DEATH-EMPEROR for details. Yes, celery was involved. Look, life is a journey, okay?

James Kennedy said...

I agree with Harvey. And Anonymous, your comment "your reasoning sounds like the very first thing you came up with to make it sound profound" is lazy and ungenerous. I criticize Matt all the time, but the last thing he is is pretentious.

Anyway, Anonymous, this technique Matt points out of undercutting and therefore legitimizing the melodramatic with a mundane detail is pretty well known. Students in basic lit comp courses often learn it from reading Orwell's nonfiction account "A Hanging". Excerpt:


It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working - bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming - all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned - reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone - one mind less, one world less.


Orwell never would've been able to make the point so forcefully without that puddle.

Unknown said...

Great example, james. I'd never read that.

Matt, this is neat, because I'd just been pondering this subject after rereading A Simple Plan, by Scott Smith, and marveling at the same technique:

"Across the street one of the neighbor's kids was smacking a tennis ball against his garage door with a hockey stick. The ball was wet, and every time it hit it left a mark."

When I read that I absolutely felt like, "that’s real, so the rest of this must be real as well." (Not to mention how it vividly sets the scene and puts me right in the middle of it, hearing the sound of a wet tennis ball hitting a garage door.)