Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Holding Back

I've read hundreds of plays in my lifetime so far--and seen even more films. The one thing that links most plays, as well as plenty of films, together is that moment when some character can't take any more and loses his/her mind. To find an example most of you have probably seen, think of Steel Magnolias for a moment (which was first a play, but then was adapted for the screen).

Remember that scene after Julia Roberts is buried? Sally Field starts crying, screaming, losing her mind. I watched that in the movie theater, and I can still remember how uncomfortable I grew with each passing sob. And then Olympia Dukakis moved in and broke the tension with some brilliantly written humor (I still love the end of this scene for that very reason).

We may certainly see this as the climax of the film--the moment when emotions are at their highest, when the characters are most intimately involved in what is going on with each other, when a shift in the relationships is about to happen or a character is about to go through an epiphany. And such a scene can be very meaningful. However, if it becomes an expected pattern, it is just that--a pattern--and it may be neither appropriate nor effective anymore. And if the emotions are overplayed, the result is even worse.

I am reminded of Armageddon in this--and any of you regular readers already know this is a film I detest--when Bruce Willis is on the rock, about to sacrifice his life to save the earth from destruction (I'm already gagging), and he has an emotional moment with his daughter and the rest of his crew. I know I'm supposed to be sobbing. But I can't. It's so badly done it's annoying, not emotional at all. A scene played over the top can create the opposite effect to what is intended. Again, I think of another terrible movie, one even worse than Armageddon: an older film based on the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast." I found it on the free movies on cable a few months ago, and my kids and I watched it. 

In this version the "beast" was a man who changed into a beast only at night, after the sun went down (sort of a cross between the old werewolf tradition and Swan Lake). Each time he changed--maybe five times through the course of the film (until I couldn't bear to watch anymore)--he went through horrible ranges of emotions, from yelling to crying, bemoaning his fate, calling for his own death, whining, etc. And all the while he was slowly transforming into a beast.

What did my kids do when this happened? Cower in fear? Cry? Nope. They both burst out laughing. They thought he was HILARIOUS. And he was. I had to admit that he produced the best gut laugh I had ever heard out of my son. My kids wanted to watch the film the next day, scanning through to the transforming parts so they could laugh at him some more (they found the rest of the film utterly boring, and for good reason). 

Had the beast held back more, had the emotions been more subtly conveyed, the film might have had a chance (okay, maybe not--the whole thing was terrible, not just the transformation scenes).

Now, imagine the scene in Steel Magnolias if Olympia Dukakis hadn't stepped in and stopped Sally Field's rant. It would have become excruciating... and the whole film would have faltered as a result. 

If you feel tempted to emote (or to have a character do so), consider writing the scene with less. Go Greek instead of Roman. Step back from the emotion a little. You might surprise your readers, and yourself, by the impact you can create if you don't overdo it.

Can you think of an example that fits? Or one that doesn't?


  1. Heck, I have one. In my own book, Curse of the Jenri, Tander's completely freaking, coming to grips with losing his wife, being exhausted body and soul, feeling like he failed her, etc. etc. as he finds her empty bedskin, still smelling of her. (You know, it sounds kind of silly here). And it's the kittens that calm him with their placidity and patience, keep it from being overwhelming.

    I frequently use humor to diffuse emotionally charged situations.

    Something else I have a problem with: repeated climax. Like your BATB reference, if we go through TOO many emotionally exhausting situations(and I certainly flirted with that in the same book), it can get tiresome. I thought The Abyss, which I generally liked, just killed off the main characters (one or the other) too many times, especially to have them all walk away intact at the end.

    Leaven 'em and don't keep heaping them on. Too many climaxes and it just becomes noise.

  2. Humor is one of the BEST things to help this out...

    I agree with the whole climax thing... one really good one is better than pounding us over and over. Even the thriller tendency to have a climax and then have the bad guy NOT BE DEAD is pretty irritating. For heaven's sake, just let the guy die once, and be done with it.

  3. Amen…
    I use anger mixed with action to resolve the moments of overdone emotions or suffering, I find connection to a character is made easier by real emotion and a quick resolution through action driven by anger and powered by loss. We as humans feel anger when we have great feeling of loss or suffering brought on by a great sadness, humor is not a good outlet for myself.. nor can I find away to write from that perspective… if I find I need to end a rant or a long period of emotional upheaval, I use action not only does it bring a scene change but give the reader a sense of action or a way for them to feel satisfaction……….
    I hate when story either movie/play/book have a tragedy of any kind emotional/spiritual/physical/perceptual, and the resolution of said event leaves you feeling cheated or wanting more….
    Thx for your blog… it help me grow and see what I should learn to use/see as a writer… keep up the good work.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Jeff! I, too, often have trouble writing humor. I don't tend towards sarcasm, and I've found that some of my books have little or no humor at all... each of my works has a different tone.