I say in my checklist that characters should be both emotionally and physically vulnerable, but is that true in The Farewell?
Billi is very emotionally vulnerable, but physical vulnerability barely comes into the story. But there is just one brief, odd moment that injects a hint of physical vulnerability. We see Billi come home to her New York apartment and jump for her life when she faces every New Yorker’s greatest fear: Hearing someone inside their apartment. Then she realizes the “intruder” is a bird …but there’s no window open, so how did a bird get in her apartment? She can’t figure it out. She opens a window and shoos it out, and the mystery is never solved. But later, in her Chinese hotel room, it happens again with another bird.
What does the bird represent? The symbolism is thankfully left vague. (The bird is death? Her conscience? Her fear of not fitting in? Her grandmother?) But I think the main thing it accomplishes is giving the heroine just a moment of fear and physical vulnerability, which increases our bond.
Even if your story takes place almost entirely on the emotional level, it’s good to include at least a little moment where the heroine feels physically vulnerable, just to ground things.
When I give people notes, I often worry that they’ll hit a note too hard. Sometimes I give a second set of notes on a project and I see that they have. If you read something like my checklist and think, “Oh, yeah, that does sort of feel like it’s missing, I could add a moment like that,” see if you can find the subtlest possible way to add that element. Just a hint goes a long way.
"If you read something like my checklist and think, 'Oh, yeah, that does sort of feel like it’s missing, I could add a moment like that,' see if you can find the subtlest possible way to add that element."
The "just a hint goes a long way" mindset applies to so many aspects of writing (and is universal to other arts too) and is especially important when keeping checklist-style "rules" in mind. It's probably one of the major reasons using the checklist after writing the story works better than using it during the first draft. Not only is it easy to get paralyzed from all the advice the checklist provides, it also risks making a big deal of each item on the list (see on this blog: Silence of the Lambs 3rd-4th quarter subtle transition, Bridge of Spies "this is your gift", The Force Awakens Rey receiving compliments & Mark The Martian Watney not receiving any, John Carter vs. The 50-foot apes, etc.) Ranges from simple dialogue lines, small character interactions, action scenes, other stuff.
This example in The Farewell is an interesting way to implement the feeling of physical vulnerability. It was likely probably written in for the symbolism, but *stayed* for the subconscious character identification it provides (and the setup-payoff structure it has with the China hotel room).
My god, you just synthesized 11 years of blog posts.
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