Monday, December 15, 2014

Reader Question--Why do writers do that? #1

A friend sent me this really interesting question, and I asked him if I could use it as part of a blog post. He said I could as long as I took his name off of it if I made him look dumb. Heh heh heh. Kenny’s never going to live this down.

This sparked an idea. If you have a question about something you read or saw on TV or a movie that seems like an odd choice for a writer to make, send it to me! I’ll either try to explain it or agree with you that it was a lazy writer move.

So, with that out of the way, here is Kenny from PDX’s question:

Hey Maren!  
I was hoping maybe you could either explain something to me or validate a writing criticism I have regarding a particular technique in film and TV (and, presumably, literature as well. Here it is, as an example from the episode of Orange Is The New Black that we just watched, although it could be from anything:  
Larry, husband of Piper, is recounting a gossip during an NPR interview about inmates that he heard from her. He says that she is afraid of her cellmate, Claudette, because she might shiv Piper any night. This was because when Piper first Claudette, she had heard that Claudette was in prison for murder. Since then, they have become friends. Claudette hears the radio interview where Larry describes his wife's cellmate as a murderer. 
Claudette goes to Piper and says....  
Claudette: Is that what you think of me? ...that I will kill you? (Something like that.) 
Piper: [Mouth agape, says nothing.]  
Claudette: [Looks disgusted, storms off.]  
Drama ensues.... 
Here's my criticism of this kind of thing each time I see it: Piper could have easily explained why Larry said that and diffused the whole situation. 
Piper: I'm so sorry! When I first met you, I had heard that you were a murderer and you were so cold and mean. I was afraid of you. That's what I told Larry, but that was before you and I became friends. I don't feel that way now and I haven't had a chance to tell him how things have changed because he isn't answering my calls.  
Maybe Claudette stays mad at Piper, but at least she has an explanation. I see this kind of thing all the time and it feels like sloppy, lazy writing because it's not realistic to me. People don't just fail to respond to false accusations without any explanation in real life. It seems to me like the writers need to come up with some drama, so they made Piper be so shocked that she couldn't respond and then cut the scene off to leave it suspenseful.  
Am I being overly critical here? Have you seen this type of thing? I don't know how you could miss it since I see it in just about every show and every movie I watch. Is this sloppy writing? And more importantly, how many shitty writing mistakes have I made in this email while critiquing the writing of others? :)  
Kenny from PDX

Hi Kenny—

I’ve seen this scenario in lots of TV, movies, and literature, too. And, you’re right: it can be annoying. 

Let’s look at a couple legitimate reasons a writer might create a scene like this.

1) Actual people (like me) often feel gobsmacked by confrontational situations and cannot get words out of their mouths in time to keep the other person from storming out of the room...especially if that person wants to storm out of the room. 

2) DRAMA! does not ensue from rational conversations. So, a writer who wants to create DRAMA!, avoiding rational human behavior is a good idea. 

So, the next question is why do readers/viewers like you have this reaction? I was immensely frustrated with Pride and Prejudice when I first read it (at 9 years old). Why don't these idiots TALK to each other? Answer: the book would be 500 pages shorter (and more boooorring-er) if they did. 

I think it speaks to your comment about how easily the situation could have been diffused. If you were in a similar situation, you would have simply provided the information needed and bada-bing, bada-boom, no drama. If these were real people, I’d have no patience with them, either.

As I alluded to above, though, this doesn’t make for dramatic reading. It doesn’t make you need to turn the page, or stand around the water cooler and complain about what idiots the characters are. Why tune in each week to watch a bunch of people going about their daily life, being polite to each other and considerate of people’s feelings? We want to watch other people make fools of themselves, make bad choices, and date the wrong people.

There are deep-rooted psychological reasons for all this, but let’s just use the word “catharsis” for now. “Catharsis” is loosely defined as: “Things could be worse. Thank heaven they’re not as bad as what I just read/saw.”

At the end of a show, you can sit back with your wife and say, “God, those people are dumb. She shoulda just said ‘I didn’t mean it,’ and it would have been fine. I’m glad we’re so much smarter and better adjusted than they are.”

“Oh, and not in prison.”

See? Things could be worse.  

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