Right off, before I forget, check out Live to Write Another Day over there in the right-hand column. It’s the blog of a friend of mine where she offers tips, suggestions, and recipes for folks trying to survive the life of a starving writer. I only make such a blatant plug because she asked me to contribute a recipe and let me put up some photos from my trip to Egypt. So go learn how to make koshari, save yourselves a few bucks, and look cultured doing it.
But back to the business at hand...
While I’m sure several of you saw this title and immediately started scrolling for the Ingrid Bergman pictures, I’m afraid this week’s topic is a bit more subtle than that. Plus, I’m still figuring out how to post pictures.
So, what better way to discuss subtlety than to once again fall back on the world of Star Trek for an example.
The original series and Next Generation each had similar first season episodes that were linked between the two shows. You may not know them by title, but even a casual viewer would remember the stories. The Enterprise crew(s) is infected with a virus that loosens inhibitions leading to constant displays of laziness, lust, and even savagery. You may recall a shirtless Sulu with a fencing foil, or perhaps Tasha Yar in some bizarre casual wear trying to seduce Data. The original series did the story about two months in. Next Generation did their version the second week they were on the air. These episodes were “The Naked Time” and “The Naked Now.”
All well and good, you’re saying, but this is not the nudity I tuned in to see.
Y’see, Timmy, in both of these cases, the point of the story was to give us a better glimpse at who all these characters were beneath our first impressions. What were they really like at the core. Were they lonely? Repressed? Hiding awful secrets? Those first impressions are very important, don’t get me wrong, but we all know what catches our attention is the stuff underneath. A quick glimpse of bare skin is always far more fascinating than the most elaborate and inspiring outerwear.
So, since I’ve already established the nudity I’m speaking of is metaphorical, not literal (and actually watched the hit counter go down now that I’ve clarified it), what does this have to do with Casablanca? Well, Casablanca is a very famous film which is not chronological. On the off chance you haven’t seen it (in which case you should have another window open to your Netflix queue right now) there's a very large flashback smack in the middle. The story rolls back the clock several years to Paris, just as the Germans were invading, and it’s immediately striking to the audience what a different character Rick is at this point. He’s laughing, charismatic, generous--the complete opposite of the man we’ve come to know in the first hour of the movie. We get to find out what happened between him and Elsa to make him become that man, and we realize the kind of person he could’ve been if things had gone a different way. It’s probably one of the most memorable flashbacks in cinematic history.
The only reason this sequence has that kind of dramatic weight, however, is because it’s not at the beginning of the story. There's a reason it's in the middle. It's so we can meet Rick the bitter, sullen drunk and so he and Elsa can have all those subtle looks and sharp words. If we already knew why he was like that, about the relationship between them, or how she had crushed his heart, it would’ve changed everything.
One mistake I see quite often, in books and scripts, though, is that aspiring writers try to front-load their characters. I learn everything there is to learn about Wakko in the first seven paragraphs after he’s been introduced, or his first five minutes on screen, so there’s nothing to learn later. Which means Wakko is only going to have a surface-interest for most people for the rest of the story. To fall back on the nudity metaphor, it’s hard to be titillated an hour in when we got to see everything right up front. What excites us and gets us anxious is waiting for it. To put it even crasser, sometimes putting out on the first date leads to something, but more often than not it doesn’t.
Part of the reason this approach fails is it goes against our instincts as people. Throughout our lives we’ve all met people, but we rarely learn everything about them all at once. I’m sure most of us have had one or two of those “and we talked for six or seven hours” conversations, but even those are stretched out across time and they also don’t cover everything. More to the point, we’ve also had that uncomfortable situation where someone we’ve just met starts telling us way too much information about themselves. In real life and in fiction, getting all sorts of information right at the start just feels unnatural.
Here’s another great example. One or two of you may have seen a little movie called Pitch Black. There’s an early scene when the mass- murderer named Riddick is handcuffed to a pole in the crashed ship and escapes in a... well, it’s a very memorable way. Especially because of the sounds. I won’t ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but needless to say it establishes--without a single line of dialogue--how very determined Riddick can be once he sets his mind to something. His character is solidly defined in that one scene. Everyone who’s seen it knows exactly which moment I’m talking about, it’s that perfect.
However, it isn’t his only defining scene. There’s one much later on, a quieter moment when he explains his religious views to another survivor of the crash. This time around, there are hints that Riddick wasn’t always so kick-ass and vicious, and that as low as he may seem now, he’s actually dragged himself up in the world. If this tiny bit of backstory had come out when Riddick was introduced, it would’ve been melodramatic at best, and at worst would’ve gotten the script tossed in that big pile on the left. It’s more powerful later because we’ve come to known the character one way and are now being shown there’s even more to him. The first bit makes us like the character (for one reason or another) but it’s the second bit that helps make him memorable.
I’m going to end this with two observations made by friends of mine about other forms of art. First is Dave, who was an incredibly skilled painter I knew in high school. This guy could’ve been doing book covers at age seventeen, and as it turns out he was a big fan of doing the Boris Vallejo-type paintings, the ones with bronzed women in chainmail bikinis that make Xena’s outfits look like a parka. When I asked him why he didn’t just do nudes, he smirked and said “Nudity isn’t sexy. It’s what you don’t see that gets you turned on.”
The second observation was from Brad, who was my boss on a long-ago martial arts show called Vanishing Son, the first television series I ever worked on. We were on set one day talking about a recent X-Files episode and a beautiful lighting-camera trick they’d pulled to get around standards and practices, allowing them to show a brutal murder on screen. I lamented the fact that we never did anything as clever, even though our show was loaded with such potential moments.
“It’s because all we do here is porn,” sighed Brad. “Doesn’t matter what kind of show it is. Porn is when you show everything. That’s all anyone here knows how to do.”
So, mull on that until next week.
Speaking of which, next week is Halloween! Or close enough, yes? A good time to talk about some scary stuff.
Until then, go write.