This Blog was written before the Corona virus arrived in the U.S. In fact, I had several blogs already prepared when our world fell apart. I have considered whether to set these next few blogs aside and write solely about what we are all thinking and talking about, but I’ve decided that it might be a relief to think about, talk about something else.
As a fiction writer, I have long turned to plays and films to learn about story. I find them almost as important—and sometimes more transparent—than the novels I parse and absorb and enjoy.
Because the truth is that fiction is not so much an imitation of life as it is an imitation of other fiction.
No one learns to write stories once and for all. Every story presents its own challenges. And every challenge seems to require different answers.
So I am always, consciously and conscientiously, critiquing technique wherever I encounter story. And the less perfect the technique, the easier it is to carry lessons back to my own work.
If a story is exquisitely put together it is difficult to examine the bones of craft that support it. It’s the moments when the bones show through that supports my own understanding.
Certainly one of the reasons plays and films work better for me for that purpose than novels is that they are more spare and thus show their inner workings more readily. Also, I’m less apt to learn from a novel’s bad example simply because it’s easier to put a novel down when the bones begin to show.
In any case, I have come to treasure plays and films for what they teach me.
Recently I watched Hidden Figures, a biographical drama about black female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the space race. It was an easy film to watch. Knowing the story was based on real women and their all-too-real experience with racism made it especially compelling.
But the film reminded me again and again of the difference between drama and melodrama, a vital distinction to carry back to my own work.
Drama rises out of character from within. Melodrama is imposed from outside.
In drama, a character acts because of who she is. She does exactly what she would truly do and can’t be forced to serve the story. In melodrama, the train comes roaring toward any beautiful maiden who happens to be tied to the track.
Again and again, the film Hidden Figures converted the long, slow grind of racism into bursts of abrupt physical action.
For example. A Black woman, a brilliant mathematician upon whom the project depends, is not just shut out of the White-men’s meeting. After she has delivered the information that will save the project, the door slams in her face.
Another. No Negro restrooms are available when this same woman is moved to a different division where she is needed for more important work. Thus she is repeatedly shown running full out, carrying all her work with her, notebooks flying out of her arms for extra effect, the camera sped up to enhance the effect, to a distant part of the work campus to use the facilities. Always this marathon is performed in high heels. Sometimes in drenching rain.
And when her supervisor finally understands why this brilliant mathematician is missing from her desk for so long each day, he doesn’t just change the rules about restrooms. He takes a sledgehammer and knocks the “Negroes Only” sign off the wall while everyone stands by watching.
Yes, I know. Films are, of necessity, visual. Much can be told in a novel. With words on the page a character’s thoughts can even carry us forward. In a film all must be converted to action. The question is, though, what kind of action?
A flicker of expression passing across a face is visual, too, and sometimes an expression can register more powerfully than a slammed door.
By the time the closing credits were rolling, I had noted a lot of over-the-top moments in which action obliterated nuance.
Moments that will stay with me, I hope, next time I’m tempted to send one of my characters dashing in high heels through drenching rain, notebooks filled with classified material flying in every direction.
Or the next time I forget who my characters are and reach for the strong moment, the obvious moment for the effect I am seeking.