(Continuing with the Plot Structure Series. Still working on the opening "Set Up" section of the story. Chcek out Part 1 - Overview. Part 2- Opening Image. Part 3 - Character Intros 1. Part 4 - Character Intros 1b. )
I didn't end up writing about what I thought I was going to write about. I meant to write generally about how you introduce characters, different methods and techniques, how character entrance can be a "wow" (or memorable satisfying moment) in and of themselves.
However, I found myself riffing on a theme I started last week when I talked about opening images.
You know how I said last week that you can't immerse your audience in the story with just one paragraph or image, because there is just too much information for them to know before they actually can see the whole story? So you've got to start simple, and lure them in, maybe with only one bit of info at a time?
Well, characters are like worlds. They are complex, they have surprises built into them, they have backstories and motivations -- some of which are obvious, and some of which even the character doesn't understand.
So introducing a character is a lot like introducing a whole story. You start with something simple, usually the aspect that is most relevant to the story. Or at least the element that is most relevant to the situation at the start of the story.
And with the three movies I'm going to talk about today, the thing that gets introduced first and foremost is conflict. Even though I was going to hold off talking about the "Inciting Incident" that starts the story later, it happens that with all three of these movies, the inciting incident really is the situation itself. These characters start out in conflict, and the story has already begun before the credits end.
In The Heat Of The Night - again
Last week we talked about opening images of In the Heat of the Night. In middle of a hot night, a train pulls in to a small own in Mississippi in 1967, and an anonymous black man in a suit gets off.
We don't really get to meet that man. So is it really a character entrance? Or is it more of a teaser of an entrance? At this point, it sets the stage for something interesting to happen.
Then we get more stage setting: while we do meet most of hte most important characters in the next ten minutes, we start with secondary characters. The counterman at the late night diner, the cop on the beat. They annoy each other, we get the feeling of a hot night and short tempers and we see a glimpse of the meanness we expect as the counterman lies to the cop about whether there's any pie or not.
Then we get a quick survey of town as the cop gets back in his patrol car and makes his rounds. We another character or two, in ways that reflect how they will be involved in the story. Then the cop finds a body.
And then we finally meet the secondary protagonist: the Chief of Police (Rod Steiger). In some ways, you could say that he is the first protagonist. He and his town have the most to learn. But I'll revisit this because most of the plot points actually fit with Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) as the protag.)
We first meet the chief standing over the body, chewing gum like he'd like to chew off the heads of everyone around him. He doesn't seem like a soft spoken guy, but he is reserved, thoughtful and keeps his voice low. He is in charge. Everyone defers to him. He asks immediately pertinent questions and gives immediately important orders.
This entrance is actually pretty low key. Later we will see a man who is belligerant, and derisive. That later image would be a stereotype of hte obnoxious small town Southern police chief or sheriff. But the guy we see standing over that body, while he doesn't seem like a nice guy, is a professional dealing with a problem.
And the fact that we see this first gives us a sense that this is the most important aspect of his character. So we give him a little leeway when we meet him again....
In the meantime, we get a reminder of Virgil Tibbs -- our passenger from the train at the opening -- waiting in the trainstation, when the chief decides that the killer is likely to be someone passing through town, and he orders his patrolman to check out all the places a vagrant might be, including the pool hall, and the train station.
And that's when we finally meet the passenger from the train, but even then, we don't get to meet him as a person quite yet. The cop (Warren Oates) sees a black man sitting in the depot, and he immediately pulls his gun and hauls him in. Tibbs doesn't even say anything. He is surprised, for just a second, disbelieving. But once he realizes what is happening he is completely correct, expressionless.
And he doesn't say a word or do a thing. He's like the civil rights activists sitting at a segregated lunch counter -- exerting complete self-control and correct behavior.
And so we still don't know him.
All the same, we know enough. He's a guy in a situation with a problem. Just the fact that he didn't believe it for a moment when the cop pulled a gun on him tells us that he has nothing to hide. But we know he has a lot to fear.
It's only when we bring these two protagonists together that we actually get to meet these two characters, to know who they are.
Here is the scene where we actually meet the characters for real. Especially Virgil Tibbs. He hasn't said a word until this moment. Nor has he done anything that tells us anything about him as an individual. Heck, he doesn't even move until about halfway through this scene.
And you could say the same for the chief of police -- he was reserved and busy with a crisis at the moment we met him earlier. Now we can see him in his regular habitat. We can see the attitudes that Virgil Tibbs is disrupting. He is now ornery and bigoted and not particularly likeable. And yet, he is not stupid. He knows when he has made a mistake.
The thing that is interesting here, is that the moment when Virgil Tibbs finally moves -- he sets down his suitcase and faces the chief and starts telling his story -- is at exactly the 15 minute mark.
The 15 minute mark in movies is generally considered a key moment. The inciting incident often happens there. It's supposed to be the moment when we see the character's life is thrown out of balance, forcing him to act. In action movies, which often have a longer set up, this is where the villain may make his entrance. (I believe that in Die Hard, this is where the ominous van appears on the streets, heading for the Nakotomi building where all the action will take place.)
In this movie, these characters really already had their lives thrown out of balance, but this still is the significant moment -- this story is about two protagonists trying to achieve something, in spite of all sorts of conflicts and forces working against them. This is the moment when they both become fully aware of the other.
I'll talk more about what happens next later.
And... oh crap, it's late, and I have more movies I want to talk about with this. Different approaches to the same idea of stories that start with the concept of conflicting characters: Character Introductions 1b.
Well, I'll have to get to that on Tuesday.
See you in the funny papers.