Friday, May 11, 2012

Characters in Crisis

When writing action, it’s important that the author do one very important thing: act it out. And if you can’t do that, find someone who is an expert in what you’re trying to portray to verify that what you are scripting is plausible.

To show both good and bad examples of why it’s important to do this, I’ll use scenes from the same TV series: Castle.

A bit of background: Detective Beckett is a New York City cop who is followed around by New York Times bestselling author, Richard Castle. Shenanigans ensue. There are frequent brushes with death—including this one:

Click and watch the first few minutes (sorry, it won’t let me embed. Right click and open it in a new tab so you can pop right back here when you're done):

Okay, have you watched it? Were you tense? Did you think they were going to die? Did you empathize with their situation, or did you find it a little frustrating?

Did you think they were going to die?
I’m going to assume that you were not nervous and fearful for their lives, because this is the bad example of making things go wrong for your hero. I’m going to guess that you really weren’t all that tense, and weren’t too worried about things ending up just fine. And no, not just because these are the two leads of a show and they’re not going to kill them off, but because too much went wrong in the scene.

Let’s start at the beginning of the scene where Castle and Beckett are pushed into the Hudson (yuck) by an SUV. We immediately see that this harbor was built adjacent to an endless abyss. The car is sinking, sinking, sinking… and, yep, still sinking.

Cut to our heroes. They need to get out or die. Easy right? Let’s go through their lifesaving process:

  1. They try to open the doors, BUT the doors won’t open. Beckett informs us/Castle that there must have been damage to the frame of the car when the SUV rear-ended them (because that’s what people do when they’re looking death in the eye: they rationalize their obstacles). 
  2. Next, the windows won’t roll down, so Beckett deduces they should shoot out the window. BUT somehow her gun fell out of its snug little secure holster. So they start looking for it.
  3. Beckett tries to find her gun BUT she can’t because her seat belt is permanently locked and isn’t budging.
  4. So she tries to move/recline the seat so she can slip out, BUT the seat has suddenly become locked into its upright position.
  5. Does she have a knife? Yes, she has a knife, BUT it’s in the trunk.

With this guy they won't need
the flashlight to find the gun.
Cut to exterior shot of the car still falling, falling, falling to the sea floor—presumably to where it’s so dark that some fish have headlights.

What would you be doing at this point? Trying to wiggle out of your seat, perhaps? Contorting yourself into some awkward positions to see if you can slip out of your seat. In this moment, your actions decide whether or not you will die at sea. Would you be sitting still and only trying options that requiring bending from your elbows down? (I don’t know about you, but this part of the scene bugged me enough that I went out to my car to see if I could get out of my seat with the seat belt on and the seat locked in a upright position. I can. And my life isn’t even at stake.)

The decision is made that Castle needs to use the handy flashlight he finds to retrieve the gun and shoot off the belt. (I won’t even  go into the complications there.)

We don’t need to go any farther to see why this is my example of too many implausible things go wrong. Even more annoying, too many solutions are ignored. (Seriously, take ten seconds and think of all the things you would do in their position that weren’t done. It’s a long list.)

But back to the point: when you create this many obstacles for your hero, your reader starts to smell a rat. An otherwise perilous situation starts to become a little ridiculous and their mind (which really doesn’t want to imagine death as a rule), and the mind will start pointing out all the absurdity of the situation to the viewer/reader rather than choose fear.

“What?” it may whisper to the reader/viewer. “Is the radio going to short circuit and start shocking them now? Or is a rogue, garbage-eating shark going to start circling them and Castle will have to shoot that in the murky water too?”

The point is, if you’re going to make a series of things go wrong that should never go wrong (and do so with highly maintained, professional equipment), then there had better be sabotage involved, not just dumb luck. After all, most of us have been in accidents . This incident wasn’t even all that traumatic, really. Their car was pushed into the Hudson, causing next to no visible structural damage, yet it caused all of the following to fail:

  • The seat belt lock
  • The forward/backward seat adjuster
  • The reclining handle on the seat
  • The snap on Beckett’s holster
  • Beckett’s common sense to try common, lifesaving options

To quote SNL, I’ll say, “Really???”

So when you’re making things go wrong in your own work, take a look to see if you’re making too much go wrong, and therefore, losing your audience.

Now let’s look at a good example of things going very, very wrong. Again, this comes from Castle.

Detective Beckett’s backstory is that she became a cop after her mom’s murder went unsolved. In the season finale of Season 4, Beckett has the opportunity to face off with an inside guy who not only works for her mother’s killer, but who also happened to shoot and nearly kill Beckett in the Season 3 finale.
Season 3 Cliffhanger: Kate takes a bullet, and she's not happy about it.
 And, boy oh boy, Beckett is ready for a fight! She’s waited 13 years for this showdown, and she thinks she has what it takes to face off against a government trained, professional assassin and come out Queen of the Hill.

And it goes a little something like this (again, sorry you have to link out):

This scene is a wake-up call on par with Loki facing off against The Hulk in The Avengers.

Total smackdown.

Like a true assassin who is as good at killing as he is at mind games, Beckett’s would-be killer let’s her get a few hits in while staring blandly and unaffected into her eyes. This is brilliant, because it shows both the audience and Beckett how completely outmatched she is. Throughout the fight, he paces like a caged cat whenever he has her down, clearly thinking when he could easily be giving her more of a beat down. He could kill her. We know it. She knows it. And he's absolutely mad that he's going to let her live. We sense that without a word. 

In the short span of this confrontation, the assassin breaks Beckett’s body, will, and a bit of her spirit. And at the end, when he leaves her dangling over the side of the building? I believe him.

So many shows try to portray this type of death-by-negligence moment and fail, but here it works. Why? Because this assassin doesn’t have the green light to kill Kate Beckett yet. There is blackmail material that needs to be destroyed before he takes that step. People who are familiar with the show know this.

But if Kate falls? Off a building high enough to leave interpretation it was a suicide? And the assassin can honestly say that he didn’t push her?

Well, then… whoops.

The assassin can report that Kate fell down and went boom after getting a little overenthusiastic in her attack on him.

Every element in this scene is researched and believable. And maybe, just maybe, part of me starts crushing on the assassin for giving a much-needed wakeup call to a protagonist who has started to dangerously overestimate herself.

Well done. Very believable. Just like in the last scene, we knew that Kate Beckett wouldn’t die, but it was a MUCH more tense ride. Because what went wrong for our hero made sense. She really could have—and maybe should have died. If she had, we all would have nodded and agreed that, while tragic, we saw it coming.

With the first example, however, our reaction to death would be much different. People would be rolling their eyes and yelling things like, “Are you serious?!” at the TV screen.

It’s the difference between actually putting yourself in your character’s shoes, or just throwing them into an impossible situation until your only option is to: 
  • Cut away (like Castle did in the first clip)
  • Have a third party intervene (like Ryan does with the little SWAT team in the second clip)
  • Or turn your character into a freakishly capable super ninja long enough to save their own lives (like most action movies do)

My advice, though? Keep it real. Act the action out to see if what your writing is even plausible. If it’s not, try something new until you have something that really works.

Your writing will be better for it.

1 comment:

  1. Valid point, but I think we would also have to consider who the intended audience is for each story to decifer how realistic the show should be. The first scene could work if the show was a show where in every episode everything seems to go completely wrong all the time. An example of this would be Nickalodean's show Avatar: The Last Airbender with the cabagge man. OR even Sokka I tried finding a good video on but the only one that shows all the funny scenes is this one:
    You might just have to watch the series. It's great.