Sometimes Confusion Makes it RealerComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sometimes my heart is breaking, and I'm also thinking about how to tell the story of my heart breaking at the same time.

One of the odd things about dealing with my daughter's problems is that she is making good progress, but the baseline keeps moving backwards. Since we first noticed the problem, she's learned to use words, she's learned to look us in the eye, she's even started playing with kids sometimes instead of only playing alongside them. The people she's working with feel she's doing well. At the same time it feels like every month it's become clearer that the problems she started with were bigger than we imagined. So there's this odd combination of good news/bad news.

Normally in a screenplay, news is either good or bad. Usually, it's bad, because you want to jack up the hero's problems, and then have him solve them on screen. A scene where he found out that some problem he didn't know he had has started on the way to being solved, might be a confusing scene. Are we supposed to cheer? Or worry?

But in life, you sometimes cheer and worry.

Confusion can create a sense of reality, if it's the hero that's confused. (If the audience has no sense of what's going on, that's an art film.) Because life is confusion.

It depends on what genre you're in. If you're writing DIE HARD V: ROCK HARD, probably best for the hero to get either bad news or good news. The audience doesn't want the hero to be confused. Just missing pieces of the puzzle.

Malcolm Gladwell (was it?) was writing (a couple New Yorker issues back) about the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. A puzzle is something you'd understand completely if you had all the pieces. A mystery, even if you have all the information, you still don't necessarily understand it. In a big popcorn movie, you want the hero to be dealing with a puzzle, not a mystery.

If you're writing something in the genre of Pan's Labyrinth, you're writing for an audience that loves a good mystery. And for that audience, you could give the protagonist confusing news. Like, "Your daughter survived the car crash. But ... she's actually not your daughter."

What this gives you is that the audience is forced to think about whether that's good news or bad news. And by the process of thinking about it, they draw themselves into your story. They become more involved instead of less involved. They come to grips with the events because it feels like life, not like a plot.

This is a tricky approach, a subtle tool to use, but by that very virtue, it's the sort of think you could hang a major turn of the story on.

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