Thursday, April 29, 2010

Yesterday's Clip, Context and Speculation

Regarding yesterday's post and video clip: there was a reason I didn't talk about the third scene in that clip. I think that's a scene that really needs context.

But, of course, my Alpha Reader (who is the el primo Elephant-in-the-Room spotter of all time) zeroed in on that part, and we had an interesting discussion about cliches, interpretations and what will and won't attract the reader.

Alpha Reader reported her reaction to the last scene thusly (and I am paraphrasing to heighten the drama): "Oh shoot, he's moving closer. They're not going to use the old forceful kiss cliche, are they? Nooooooo! They did! Crap!"

The thing that bothered her most, though, seemed to be not the use of the cliche, but that the end of the scene seemed artificially staged to set up that dramatic turn.

She could be absolutely right. In the absense of context (and sometimes even with context) you can't tell if something is stupid staging, or a mistake or a completely intentional clue to the real truth.

So I went back and looked at the clip again, and tried to figure out why that ending didn't seem particularly artificial to me.

In the absense of context, we bring context with us, and part of that context is genre expectations. Since a mystery overlaps with nearly every kind of story out there - from mainstream, to romance, to horror - it's not easy to tell out of context what to expect.

So which genre? Two people sniping at each other, getting closer, and then a sudden kiss. Most commonly used in romance or women's fiction. How the woman reacts determines which - will she make a passionate and false denial or will she be offended and frightened and shoot him or call her lawyer? (Third cliche option is men's action adventure, in which case she'd fall straight into bed with him - but he wouldn't back off and ask timidly if she's going to report him, so I think that's out of the picture.)

In either case, she should have reacted before the kiss - she should have either moved closer because of her own passion, or fended him off when he invaded her space. She shouldn't have waited like an obedient actor for him to hit his mark so the dramatic turn could be accomplished.

Either that bit was bad staging, or an oversight... or they weren't actually going for that cliche. Maybe it wasn't romance or women's fiction. There is a third possibility.

It could be Noir.

It could be that the woman didn't react because she doesn't care. She's playing a game, and though it went differently than she expected, she doesn't take the result personally. She could be evil, although I just interpret her as a well-armored cynic who expects her sparring partner to be as sophisticated and armored as she is.

I think this because her behavior is consistent. Her reaction to the kiss is very much like her reaction to when he barges into her sitting room. She points out his legal situation, but she doesn't actually take action.

After the kiss, he has to ask if she's going to report him. She says yes, but she's not reaching for the phone. I get this odd vibe off of her. The look on her face mirrors the one earlier in the scene when he has that odd spell of weakness. There was this "whoops, I think I went too far" look. She's not thinking about his misjudgment, she's thinking about her own.

And given that, here is why I think the staging of the end of that scene was intentional and not a violation of character:

(begin wild speculation) I don't think the kiss was romantic or even necessarily sexual. When he says he doesn't know why he did it, he's not just in denial about being attracted to her. I think the trigger was something else.

Everything she says and does draws blood, and he can't seem to even scratch her armor. He tries everything in the policeman's third-degree handbook to push her outside her comfort zone, and he just can't do it. The questions about the condoms lead to her to smirking derision. Raising his voice just gets calm reasonable answers. He ends up debating with her rather than questioning her. He finally invades her physical space, getting right up in her face like they're in an interrogation room... and that has no effect on her at all. Instead, she invades his psychological space. So in frustration he escalates the invasion of her space to physical contact. He could have physically threatened her, but he's an old-fashioned guy and that's not what you do to girls. And besides, he is attracted to her, and the decision was spontaneous.

And she didn't react because none of it was personal: not the kiss, the physical contact, or the shouting. She's well armored against that. The only thing that seems to affect her is his inability to handle the game. He's just not as sophisticated as she is. (end wild speculation)

I think the thing that actually intrigues me here is her: What is her motivation? Is she just playing games but still sympathetic, or is she evil, or is she playing some more desperate game where it won't matter if she is sympathetic or not?

She may be Barbara Stanwyck, or she may be Lauren Bacall, but which ever flavor she is, she looks like a femme fatale to me.

Anyway, the writing lesson learned: The audience will notice if you manipulate your characters for convenience. But if you have a solid reason for creating an apparent anomaly in the character, you must use context to set up a pattern so you don't pop the audience out of the story.

We'll see if my wild speculation fits once I've seen the whole story, which will probably be next week.

(And check out on context in tomorrow's post about my viewing of Gone With The Wind in a real theater. "With Courage, You Don't Need a Reputation.")


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I agree with you...I think the *woman's* motivation is very interesting. I like the idea of it being a Noir-inspired approach.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yeah, his character is pretty open and staight-forward, so he was good to analyze for the out-of-context experiment, bit SHE is the interesting one.

And I love noir ,even though I think you're right on this being more Noir-inspired (or noir-like). A lot of the British domestic crime stuff has a noir flavor. (Not hard-boiled, but the psycho-drama aspect.)

MBW aka Olleymae said...

Great article! The more I read and write, the more I notice when the author is manipulating the characters (and me, by trying to make me believe that crap).

Right now in my revisions, I'm trying to make sure my readers always know what my character's motivations and reactions are. Not anything obvious, but characters should be vivid enough that the readers can tell.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I agree that the scene did not seem like a violation of character as she seems pretty much unflappable in any situation.

The Daring Novelist said...

Sorry I wasn't around to approve comments earlier....

MBW: Most of the time all you need it so really understand the motivations, and all will be well. Once in a while you have to go back and move the furniture around to clarify.

Jane: Yeah, Alpha Reader said "Yeah, noir!" when she saw this post. She isn't a big noir type reader, so it isn't as obvious to her out of context.

And the more I think about it, the more I'm thinking the femme fatale model of the woman in the clip is Marlena Dietrich, who could be cool, sophisticated, invulnerable, evil, and/or sometimes passionately kind.