"Action Is Character" -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sometimes you'll hear writers argue character vs. plot. What comes first, what's more important, yadda yadda. This is a silly argument. F. Scott Fitzgerald explained it famously and best when he said "Action is character."
Plot and character are inextricable.
Characterization is more than backstory. It's more than just reactions, or how a character delivers lines and approaches plot points. What the character does actually creates the plot.
This is why I spent a little extra time on character entrances (and still didn't get to all I wanted to say): because character entrances are plot points. They are also, very often "wows" -- or those exciting wonderful moments the audience bought the book or ticket for.
In drama they take entrances and exits so seriously, that one school of thought actually considers any entrance or exit -- even by minor characters -- as being a whole new scene.
They call it a "French scene." Even if there is a continuous conversation going on between two characters, the coming and going another character in the background changes the dynamics of the scene - if only through changing how the audience sees it. It's as though each character has a certain amount of gravitational pull on the audience's attention. And when there are two characters, the center of gravity falls between them. When a third character enters, that center of gravity moves, because that third character also has some sort of gravitational pull.
This is something that actors feel acutely, even if it doesn't always feel overt to the audience.
Now, of course, in this context, when I say "character entrance" I don't just mean that first entrance where the character is introduced, I mean any time the character walks on the stage. In a play, each character will probably have several entrances.
I should also add that, unlike a book or even a movie, with a stage play, the entrance of an actor has an additional special effect on the audience: the stage is a pretty static place. Inspite of all sorts of techincal tricks these days, stages don't move much. It's all on the actors to bring the thing to life. So yes, any time a character walks on or off, it has a special effect.
In a book or movie, comings and goings of characters don't have quite as much oomph... except for the first entrance.
The fact is, the entrance of various characters can be one of the greatest ways to deal with a major plot point.
It's for this reason that I do not believe in the old rule that you should introduce every character in the opening "set up" sequence of a story -- be it movie or book.
It's not just that certain genres or kinds of stories demand that some character be introduced later. ALL stories can sometimes benefit from spreading out your character entrances.
Saving Character Entrances for Later
When I reviewed some of the films I've talked about in this series, and some I'm going to talk about, I notice that major characters appear all sorts of places -- sometimes well past the mid-point.
For instance, in In The Heat of the Night, we don't meet the widow of the murdered man until the second act. She actually appears at the start of the second act, and she changes the whole chemistry of the situation.
When I talk about "Finding the Wow" http://daringnovelist.blogspot.com/2014/01/creating-situation-game-was-easy.html , I played a clip from The Third Man, in which Orson Welles makes his first appearance in that flick. That's just about halfway through the movie. And yes, you betcha, that event -- the appearance of Harry Lime -- is a huge change of direction for the story.
Of course that entrance is foreshadowed. People talk about Harry Lime from the first moment of the movie, so you could say he had already made his entrance. (More on that below.)
But in Flashback, the buddy/road picture about the old hippie and the uptight young FBI agent, we don't get any hint of a very important character who doesn't appear until more than two thirds of the way through the picture. Her entrance is part of a key plot point -- "The Secret Is Revealed" -- that I'll talk about later.
So even though character introductions are a key part of your opening set up, you don't have to shoehorn every character into that segment. You don't always have to even get at all the important ones.
Generally, though, the most important characters -- the ones who drive the action of the plot -- need to be introduced in some way. So I'm going to finish up by talking about delayed entrances: those times when you foreshadow a character's entrance, but let it happen later.
The Star Turn
Orson Welles called his role in The Third Man a special kind of Star Turn. (Or maybe he just said Star Role.) He likened it to another Star Turn he played on stage many years earlier. It was a character named Mr. Woo.
All throughout the first act of that play (and with a play, the first act tends to last a long time, maybe as long as half the story), the other characters talked about Mr. Woo. "Oh, dear, I wonder what Mr. Woo will think of that!" says one. "You just wait until Mr. Woo gets here!" declares another. They are in awe, afraid, eager for Mr. Woo's arrival.
Finally at the end of the act, we see a silhouette of a bridge in the backdrop, and a figure appears, and walks across it. It's Mr. Woo! He has arrived! And the curtain comes down for the intermission.
And the audience goes out into the lobby and talks about nothing but Mr. Woo. They aren't even thinking about the other characters. They may even, according to Welles, exclaim about what a great performance the actor playing Mr. Woo has put on.
Of course, that comment is not really about Mr. Woo -- it's about Harry Lime. Welles did a great job playing Harry Lime, but the role did the work for him. By the time he enters, all he has to do is smile slyly, and it's one of the great moments in film history.
One movie I'll be talking about more is one I haven't introduced to you yet: Inside Man. It's a wonderful, smart mystery thriller by Spike Lee. (If you haven't seen it because you aren't into Spike Lee's arthouse flicks, do yourself a favor and rent it. It's very mainstream Hollywood heist flick, but twice as clever.)
In Inside Man, the Set Up section of the story is very efficient, and like so many smart mystery thrillers, full of foreshadowing. Full of questions. We meet the bank robber (Clive Owen). We meet the NYPD negotiator who will face off with him. And we spend most of the first act getting the robbery underway and the police reaction underway. But this mystery is truly a mystery. There is something else going on. A third force affects the course of the story, who will be personified by Jodie Foster. But she won't enter until the end of the first act.
Instead we get a glimpse of what will bring her into the story: At the 13 minute mark (just before that key 15 minute mark) we meet the owner/CEO of the bank, Christopher Plummer. He is dignified and far above it all. He gets news that one of his (many) bank branches is being robbed, and he is properly saddened. Then they tell him which branch it is, and he hesitates and continues with his polite, concerned-but-above-it-all demeanor... but as soon as he is alone, he drops into a chair and says "Oh, dear god."
That's it. We don't know him. We don't know what's what. We just know that there is another shoe to drop. The center of gravity on the story shifts just because we've seen him and his reaction, even though it's another 15 minutes or so before we meet the person who he will send to deal with whatever he's so upset about.
The Disguised Entrance
Finally, I want to mention a kind of entrance that is very common in mystery, but which I don't have a movie clip for right off. Sometimes you want to save a character for later, but you want the dramatic entrance to be a surprise. In that case you don't want to build it up like Mr. Woo, or tease us with anticipation like the banker with a secret.
But you do want the audience to feel some satisfaction of a tied up loose end, and you want to engage in fair play by not bringing this character in out of nowhere. In that case, you can introduce an important character as though they are not important. The key to this technique, though, is that the character must be memorable even as you lead the audience to believe he or she isn't important.
A bad guy might be footling around as an annoying tourist who keeps getting lost. Or that prissy schoolmarm who is annoyingly nosy turns out to be the undercover agent whose job it is to protect the heroine from harm.
Sometimes, though, you can do this without trickery at all. Your hero meets a nice couple who help him find his way to where he's going. They are not in disguise, but they are also not identified. Later, they turn out to be the key witnesses he's been looking for. Or they may just be friendly folks he can turn to when he needs some help right at the key moment.
I would give one example of this from the children's story by E. Nesbit, The Railway Children. The children wave to the trains going by and make distant friends with various passengers -- people they never really meet, just wave to every day. Later, when they need someone important to help them, they call on a dignified fellow they call "the Old Gentleman" and ask him. As it turns out, he helps them in ways far beyond what they expected.
This sort of misdirection is well-known to mystery writers, but all kinds of fiction can benefit from it.
The key here is not to think of these kinds of delayed entrances as a trick so mucg as to think of them as another kind of foreshadowing.
Well, that's enough for now.
On Friday I'll talk more about the new Mystery Game.
And next Tuesday for the Plotting series, we still won't quite get to the end of the Set Up. We'll talk about foreshadowing, and have a little bit of a review of what we've talked about so far when we look at the first few minutes of Inside Man.
See you in the funny papers.