It seems that two vastly different types of writers have emerged over the centuries, and only one of them gets all the hype these days:
“Soundbite writers” and “sonnet writers.”
Yes, I just made these two terms up. One of them is infinitely more chic than the other, and much more likely to be measured in terms of dollar value as opposed to longevity.
You recognize them instantly.
It’s an art (or maybe more of a science), and it depends on effectiveness in order to achieve the end goal—often a reward in money or publicity. But what frequently disappoints me about this style is that sometimes the article, post, or book thins out as you get past the first paragraph or chapter. What promised originality and excitement turns out to be drab and trite after the first thrill. It’s sort of like slurping the whipped cream off the top of your coffee, and finding the drink black underneath. (Sorry, black-coffee fans. But seriously, you do have weird taste!)
What all soundbite writers ultimately have in common is that they’re selling something up front—and fast.
“What about sonnet writers?” you ask. “Is that even a thing anymore?”
They often take a more inductive, gradual approach, revealing bits of information here and there and giving their audience time to chew and digest as the story goes. Often it takes several chapters before you feel like you really have a handle on the story’s world and the major players.
Sonnet writers aren’t afraid to take their time, because what they’re selling isn’t a scenario or a situation—what they’re selling is a character. A lead.
The thing is, though, they’re still selling something. It’s simply a different object than what soundbite writers are selling, and consequently it takes a different strategy—many different strategies, actually.
Think classic literature for a second:
Gone with the Wind
The Great Gatsby
Pride and Prejudice
None of these books start with rapid-fire, on-the-spot action— in fact, many of them have a reputation as being a “slow read.” And yet each of them has earned the title of masterpiece, and has survived for at least a century. It’s not because they don’t sell something. They do. It’s because they sell their lead characters.
Next week I’ll cover some specific ways that master authors have sold their characters, and how you can apply that to your own writing.
Because a character, like a real person, is almost always going to be more memorable than a situation or event.
Do you find it unsettling when people vanish from your life?
“Depends on the person,” you say.
But in general, when people who formerly played some semi-notable or even regular role in your life leave it, you usually have a sense of why.
I find it interesting that media does not always abide by these rules.
Books seem to do this less, because they work as more of a cohesive whole, and the entire plot can be affected if a significant minor character falls through the cracks. Movie series can get a bit dicey. And TV series… well…
We’ve all heard the complaint about a favorite character getting killed off in a show. But getting killed off at least accounts for the disappearance. Classic examples: Matthew’s death in Downton Abbey, Lord Melbourne’s death in Victoria, Elizabeth’s death in Poldark, and so on. If you’re familiar with any of these, then you’ll know what I mean when I ask the following:
Julian Fellowes generally provides a clean break for any exiting characters, but this one could have used some more follow-up. The last we see of Charles, he is going on a six-month trip after helping Mary ditch Tony Gillingham.
Although the final episode of season 2 ends with her getting engaged to Alfred, she never makes a single appearance or receives a single reference throughout the entirety of season 3! Meanwhile, Alfred carries on years later at the palace, chipper and single as ever.
Not that he vanishes, but the fact that he’s still there by the time Geoffrey Charles grows up. That dog has to be at least eighteen years old, considering he entered the show with Demelza in the first episode. Now I’m all for dogs lasting a long time, but you’d think he’d show some age at least by now. My dog certainly does! But, on the other hand, considering his owners haven’t aged in eighteen years, why should he?
Don’t know these shows?
The trend of characters inexplicably vanishing goes way back! I have to admit, I didn’t recognize most of these shows, but here’s an interesting article that tallies the invisible corpses from various shows.
The fact that there are a number of such articles identifying lost characters suggests it’s not just the OCD audience members out there who find this unsettling. I think it bothers us because we crave a sense of continuity and a certain degree of predictability, both in media and in real life—which is understandable.
At least in the case of film series, each character’s reprisal requires the renewal of a contract, so it can’t be because the writers simply “forgot” to write him/her in. So why don’t they make up an excuse for their absence and weave that into the story somehow?
I don’t really have an answer to this, other than they must not consider the lost character important enough to require an explanation. Or perhaps this leaves the door open for the character to return?
One thing’s for sure, though: it’s a sign of sloppy writing. If a character is given enough screen time to develop a memorable impression on the audience, then that character deserves a coherent exit. Otherwise someone out there is going to notice it– and it’s bound to end up in an article someday! 😉
You know, when you finish it and feel like the wind was just knocked out of you—and not in a good way. There’s a number of ways this can happen:
Scenario 1: You’re already feeling miserable and you want a distraction, so you pick up a book or watch a movie you know nothing about… and somehow the experience and the storyline pours salt into the wound, leaving you worse off than before.
Scenario 2: You’re kind of coasting along, feeling “ready for anything,” so you start a book or movie that you know has some heavy stuff… only to find out you’re not as invincible as you thought.
Scenario 3: You know the story has the capacity to depress you, and so you wait until you think you are emotionally stable enough to handle it… but it ends up tugging on heartstrings you didn’t know you had and sending you reeling.
My recent experience of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls somehow did more than all of these combined.
It depicted, more accurately than I have ever seen before, the critical pieces of slowly losing a parent.
The attempt to persuade yourself the treatments will work.
The attempt to keep functioning.
The underlying anger.
But most poignantly, the secret wish that it would all just end.
I think I went through about eleven tissues.
How does this happen?
It’s a strange tonic.
This is not to say that a story itself can single-handedly provide healing from any major loss. Of course it can’t. But inasmuch as it can emotionally re-break you, it can also re-heal you, if it is told a certain way and if you are ready for it.
A year ago, I could never have watched this movie, because everything was still too fresh. I would have been more sad, more depressed, and more angry than I was before. But now, for some reason, now—I was ready.
How do you know when you’re ready?
There is a lot of research out there about the grieving process, and the different stages of grief (if you want depressing content, just look there!), but it all varies depending our different personalities, circumstances, beliefs, and other factors. The thing is, we just can’t break it into a formula. So what one person finds therapeutic (though tear-jerking) at one year, another person may need seven years before they can derive anything beneficial. Or maybe never.
Some people are more naturally resilient to moving stories that would break other people’s hearts. Or some people can appreciate sadness in a story without feeling prodded toward depression. But for some of us, there’s a wound that needs to be kept in mind. I’m certainly not suggesting that we avoid anything that might make us cry—sometimes we need to cry. But there’s a difference between tears of release when something resonates with us, and tears of fresh pain when something digs deeper into an existent wound.
But if you are the kind of person who finds any comfort in stories, I highly, highly recommend this film. At some point during your journey of healing, when you are ready. It is much more than a realistic portrayal of terminal illness. It is a beautiful allegory of a much higher Truth, a much higher Being, that anyone experiencing grief is invited to call upon and, in doing so, receive healing.
Admittedly I was mostly interested in seeing Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones starring opposite one another again (after first seeing their acting chemistry in The Theory of Everything, I couldn’t pass this one by). But within the first few minutes, the inductive plot development, accompanied with character clues through flashbacks, brought together so many different concepts that I’ve spent time on recently, that I simply had to keep watching.
Who made the ascent with him, however, is where the story takes a major artistic turn. In the movie, Glaisher (Redmayne) takes his trip with the widow of a former French aeronaut—a sprightly young woman named Amelia Wren (Jones). This is where the story got a bit creative, to say the least.
It turns out that Glaisher was accompanied on this particular mission by another male scientist, Henry Tracy Coxwell. While I suspected that Amelia’s character may have been embellished, I was a bit surprised to learn that she never existed. Instead, she was drawn together by a number of real women in aeronautical science, and named after Amelia Earhart, whose adventures would not come for another 60 years.
Overall, the movie takes you on a riveting (and dizzying) journey above the clouds with these two, as they discover uncharted territory in the sky, each other, and themselves. Facts aside, it made an inspiring statement about going where no other has gone before, and pushing oneself to the highest achievements possible—all while recognizing one’s own limits.
In creating Amelia’s character, the writers portray a woman defying the limits imposed on her gender by an otherwise male-dominated field. And yet as Glaisher and Amelia climb higher into the atmosphere, they must both come to terms with their physical and mental fragility against the forces of nature. Well, actually, Amelia somehow stays conscious for almost half an hour after Glaisher faints from oxygen deprivation, so apparently she wasn’t as fragile as he was. But still, she eventually loses consciousness at 36,000 feet.
The warning here echoes of the Icarus myth. It’s all well and good to reach high (and we ought to), but we cannot forget our own weakness and frailty as humans. Not as women or men, but as humans.
A bit, in my opinion. I generally dislike politically charged movies, but in this case what stood out wasn’t the exultation of women over men, but the shared impediments and ingenuity of both genders.
While I was a bit disappointed to learn that Amelia Wren never existed or set the record alongside James Glaisher, I can appreciate the creative choice to invent her. Placing both a man and a woman in the balloon enabled the film makers to communicate a message about people as a whole:
Our unique gifts and callings ought to be pursued—but we must always remember that no matter how high we soar, we can never change our basic needs as humans.
The fact is, if you’re in my generation or younger, it’s a safe assumption that you have taken at least several. Okay, yeah, I just dated myself, but I’ve probably already done that in previous posts.
For those of you who precede my generation (millennials), I don’t mean a quiz that measures your knowledge of a character in a story—I mean a quiz that attempts to identify which character you are most like.
Think of it as a personality type quiz—except that the results are confined to the cast of characters in whatever book or movie in question.
As an eager victim of these quizzes (for better or worse), I never cease to find them simultaneously amusing and horrifying.
What about Star Wars?
Ever wondered which Mean Girl you secretly are? (I did once, and then it told me I was Karen…)
The point is, people find these quizzes fascinating—otherwise the internet wouldn’t be oozing with them. But why do we bother with them?
For a good laugh?
To pass the time in the waiting room?
Or are they really just another mind-numbing activity?
I mean, you’re not going to figure out who you should marry or what you should do for a living based off a quiz on Buzzfeed. But what these quizzes do give us is a license to do what we already subconsciously do no matter what:
The truth is, no matter the genre, the time period, the actors, or any of that, we always look for ourselves in the story. We try to find a character with whom we can identify to at least some degree, in whose welfare we become invested. (See my article on La La Land.) If we never find this character, chances are we find the entire book or movie pretty boring. Sound familiar?
As a rhetorical concept, identification receives a good deal of attention in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives and Walter Fisher’s writings on the narrative paradigm. In sum, Burke argues that the degree to which Person A identifies with Person B affects how much influence that Person B has over Person A. Building on this, Fisher proposed in his narrative paradigm that if an audience identifies with a character in a story, then their emotions and opinions about the story will be shaped by whatever happens to that character.
So in short, any time we see a movie or read a book, we are looking for a character who we think represents us.
Does this mean we’re all narcissistic? Maybe a little. But think about it—how would we ever learn or glean anything meaningful from a story if we never “placed ourselves in the characters’ shoes?”
We do this already any time we open a book or put on a movie, without even realizing it. But the popularity of character quizzes is a testament to this.
No matter how silly the questions or ridiculous the results (okay, my Disney villain was Jafar, which is convictingly accurate), we derive some pleasure out of whatever shallow self-examination and comparison the quiz offers. We enjoy walking through the mental paces of the questions, trying to figure out what we would do if placed in the world of the story, and who our friends would be in that world.
And even if we end up being compared to a ditzy snowman (yes, my overall Disney character was Olaf), we can at least laugh and see our quirks in a new, humorous light.
I mean, let’s be honest: any time you read a great book or finish a great movie, somewhere in the back of your mind you wonder if there will be more –unless, of course, the author is dead (and no, fanfiction does not count). If this were false, sequels wouldn’t sell the way they do.
Why is it we want more? Is it because the story left things open-ended? Is it because it was a cliff-hanger? Or is it simply our voyeuristic curiosity to know what the characters do with the rest of their lives?
Whatever it is, it has led hundreds—nay, thousands—of writers into plotline pandemonium (or frankly, lameness) and character catastrophes (or frankly, contradictions).
With each new installment the writers attempt to perform CPR on a corpse, failing to realize that they are the ones who killed it in the first place.
It might feel incomplete, but if it has no life on its own, then adding Part II or even Part VIII isn’t going to breathe life into it.
At this point, I tread dangerously near the edge of controversy. I would avoid naming names, but alas, it’s impossible.
Take for instance Andrew Lloyd Weber: the man is a brilliant composer and storyteller through music. But I cannot bring myself to watch The Phantom of the Opera’s sequel, Love Never Dies (even though I sang the title song in my junior recital). Although *some* of the music in the sequel is comparably beautiful to that in the second, as a continuation of the story, it destroys the characters—not to mention, it robs any meaning from the original’s iconic “All I Ask of You.” Where is the beauty in the commitment Christine and Raoul make in Phantom if they throw it all away in Love Never Dies?
Okay, maybe I’m plunging off the edge of controversy now.
But Pirates of the Caribbean… I’ll defend the choice to make the trilogy, but I think everyone can agree that the first was capable as a stand-alone. It had a complete plot arc, a somewhat complete character arc (at least for Will), and a signature swashbuckling finish that left ends just open enough for a sequel or two. But even without the sequels, it would still have been a good film.
The hole they dug themselves into with this one was the introduction of a fourth. Not only did it have an inferior plotline, but the new characters it introduced were one-dimensional tropes pulled off the front-row shelf—even if they have the faces of Penelope Cruz and Sam Claflin. That being said, the fifth was a slight improvement from the fourth, but I don’t think they can ever match the glory of the trilogy. Basically, in making the fourth, the directors opened a can of worms they seem reluctant to close back up again… even if it would be best for the world of cinema.
And then there’s Star Wars… I won’t say much here, because I never saw the prequels and stopped watching after the seventh and Rogue One, so I’m utterly unqualified to give any assessment. But I do know the creation of the latest two trilogies has caused simultaneous enthusiasm and eye-rolling.
It makes me wonder, as do these other cases, what exactly is it that makes a story ripe for a sequel? Aside from those cases where it’s obvious that the story will be a saga (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.), what components set up a stand-alone for a second installment?
What are some stories out there that could have done fine without a sequel?
Which ones could have used a part II? And which ones absolutely should never have received a follow-up?
The first time I saw the film, I struggled simply to keep up with the plot twists—as any normal human probably would. But what I could follow quite lucidly was the development of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, as the movie inevitably swerved deeper and deeper into the layers of his subconscious. The thing is, for all his cleverness in infiltrating the minds of other people, Cobb remains a fugitive from his own mind—or more specifically, what (appears to be) his memories.
As the plot of Inception progresses, it becomes clear that Cobb is running from something in his past (or what he believes is the past) while simultaneously trying to carry out his mission of planting an idea in someone else’s mind. Eventually we learn that this dreaded memory is the death of his wife Mal, which he attributes to the “fact” that he suggested to her that the life they created together was in a world of sham. While we never really figure out (at least, I still haven’t) whether Mal actually committed suicide, the part that haunts Cobb throughout the entire movie is the simple idea that he is responsible.
There is a lot to dissect in this movie, what with all the layers of reality and unreality, which I obviously don’t have the space to do here—and also just don’t have the mental elasticity to do!
Basically, if we have strong enough feelings tied to our perception of an event, that event becomes real to us and we begin to treat its memory as such. And because we derive so much of our identity from our memories, these events (whether real or unreal) feed into our view of ourselves.
We see this fact illustrated all the time in movies and books. Think about it—how many flashback scenes or reflection scenes have you seen where the character’s memories are used to show you something important about who he is? And it’s really only the emotional memories that do this, isn’t it?
That’s part of what Inception is telling us.
And while this blurring of lines could lead to all sorts of philosophical theories and discussions (postmodernism, subjectivism, and surrealism, to name a few), at the very least it encourages us to consider how much of our personal identity is based off of our emotional impressions of the past—or what our minds have construed as the past.
How has our acceptance or denial of responsibility for past events shaped our personal identity?
And what are the implications if our assessments are actually wrong? Does this mean our identity is built on a lie?
See, I thought that writing this might help make some sense of the movie—which to some degree it has—but now I’m realizing that I really ought to watch it again. Which, if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. But you better strap yourself in, or you might get lost! Actually, just be prepared to get lost, because I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to. 🙂
If not, do NOT read any further or you will forever rue the day that you let me spoil it for you.
I briefly explained the two types of recalling that stories use in order to either reveal information or to reiterate it in the minds of the audience. If you didn’t read last week’s article, it might be helpful to get the background, because I’m going to dive right into this week’s topic:
In this type of reflection, the story takes a moment to immerse the viewer/reader in the recollection of past events/characters that we as the audience have witnessed. It is reminding us of an event or person that we actually saw or met in the story, and inviting us to remember that experience along with the character currently engaged in reflection.
But what does this accomplish?
Nostalgia, grief, regret, anger, fondness, satisfaction… the list goes on. But usually we are supposed to be experiencing whichever emotion the character is also experiencing. (I mean, how often do we see a flashback in the character’s life and think “Wow, I can’t believe he’s not over that yet”?).
Most moments of reflection only happen with characters we can identify with, because they are the only ones whose memories we consider significant. And consequently, they are the ones whose emotions we will empathize with! So basically, the more we relate to a character, the more easily the storytellers can make us experience that character’s emotions. To put it mathematically,
More relatable character = More power over our emotions.
“Okay, but where are you going with this?” you ask.
Valid question. A question it took me 82 pages to answer in my senior thesis.
Here’s where La La Land comes in.
You know that flashback sequence where Mia and Sebastian see each other in Sebastian’s new club after five years of going their separate ways? If you go back and watch the movie again, you’ll see that scene after scene leading up to this moment, we have been given intimate glimpses into their inner thoughts, feelings, and desires (especially Mia’s). These glimpses enable us to perceive the moments of fear, embarrassment, awkwardness, disappointment, and excitement that make them human. This 2-hour long process prepares us for the wild ride at the end.
It’s simply the last, most powerful moment of recollection we experience through their eyes, and it leaves us as dizzy as they are. Because after all, isn’t that life?
We blunder and soar through experience after experience and decision after decision, collecting these memories that all have different emotional associations, and the minute we stop to look back on them as a whole, we realize how tangled up everything is. This doesn’t make it meaningless, it simply makes it mixed.
So how do Mia and Sebastian feel at the end of their reflection? Well, it’s hard to say—by design.
Don’t take my word for it, read the script! The directions in the script are actually written so as to make it unclear exactly what sentiments these two people have at the end, after strolling down memory and imagination lane.
I used to think I missed something, and that was why I couldn’t decide how I felt about the ending. It was this confusion that motivated me to study the film for my senior Rhetoric and Public Address thesis. But after doing the research, after dissecting the film scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot, line-by-line, I realized my confusion wasn’t because I’d missed something. It was because the flashback sequence did its job.
There is a huge stack of research that I don’t have space to include organically in this article, but if you are even remotely interested in the overlap between film theory and psychology, I highly recommend you peruse the sources below. The kind of exciting news is that Hillsdale College is working towards publishing my thesis, so a more thorough discussion of this topic and its implications will be available before too long!
But for those of you who have already seen the movie, please let me know your thoughts!
Did you leave the film feeling satisfied with the ending, or like you’d just taken a punch to the gut? Do you think the film makers achieved their goal? What effect did the reflection sequence have on you?
And if you read to the end without watching the movie, well, shame on you. Still watch the movie though. 🙂
Carroll, Noèl. “The Power of Movies.” Daedalus, 114, no. 4 (1985): 89-92.
Dannenberg, H.P. Coincidence and counterfactuality: Plotting time and space in narrative fiction. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
Lambrou, Marina. Rethinking Language, Text, and Context. New York: Routledge, 2019.
Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
Roese, J.N. and J.M. Olson. “Counterfactuals, causal attributions, and the hindsight bias: A conceptual integration.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 32 (1996): 197-227.
Russell, James A. The Psychology of Facial Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Soules, Marshall. Media, Persuasion, and Propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
I don’t mean staring into a mirror. And I don’t necessarily mean long, soul-searching contemplations on our inner being. I simply mean pausing to acknowledge or recall the past and its events. This could lead to a deeper thought process of comparing the past with our present, or even tracing the development of the present from the past—but it all starts with a simple pause triggered by something.
Perhaps it’s a visual object, like a family photo.
A smell that takes you back to childhood.
A song that reminds you of someone or some season of life.
Whatever it is, it temporarily immunizes you to the bombardments of the present and transports you backwards in time—for better or worse.
Maybe it’s something you don’t want to remember, but there it is, all the same. Or maybe it’s the kind of memory that makes you wish you could literally, and not just mentally, relive the experience.
I find it interesting that many stories (in fact, some of the best) do this.
We as the readers or viewers are invited to participate in that to whatever degree we have shared the experience.
This “sharing” of experience pans out in one of two ways.
In a sense, it’s a flashback whose purpose is to reveal information to us, not to recall it with us. A classic example is the flashback in Once Upon A Time in the West, where we see what Henry Fonda’s character did to Charles Bronson’s character long ago in order to explain why Bronson has been seeking revenge the entire movie. Or even It’s A Wonderful Life, in which the entire first hour and a half are, technically speaking, a flashback on George Bailey’s life in order to explain what has brought him to his present situation.
In this type of “reflection,” the reader or viewer does not actually engage in the act of recollection—we only perceive that the character is reflecting.
Take the film Up. At the beginning, we see a very brief but powerful montage of Carl Fredricksen’s married life with Ellie, before he is widowed and goes on to live out the main adventure portrayed in the story. When he rediscovers the old photo album near the end of the movie, we feel that we have lived those memories with him as he pages through. We can not only appreciate his nostalgia sympathetically, but empathetically, because we were “there” when he had those experiences. Ellie is not only a part of Carl’s memory—she is also a part of ours.
There is more to be said on this, which is why I’ve decided to make this topic a short series of posts. But for now, I want to open the discussion and see what you think about these two types of reflection that occur in storytelling.
Are certain kinds of stories prone to using one of these forms of reflection?
Are there some examples of books or movies that do just fine without any such pauses of reflection?
In either case, I think it’s noteworthy that so many stories play to our sense of memory in order to draw us in. Perhaps it’s a testament to the universally human nature of reflection, whether or not you consider yourself a sentimental person.