Orson Welles once told an interviewer that he considered the greatest screen actor of all time to be Jimmy Cagney. The reason he gave for this was that Cagney always played at the top of his range but was never fake or over-the-top.
The effect of this full-on style of acting was magnetic. When somebody is pouring their all into what they’re doing, you can’t help but watch. Most actors can do this when the script requires. Cagney could do it all the time. Love scene, death scene, action scene.
It doesn’t matter how big you go if you can make it feel real. And because the audience believes the actor cares, they care.
When it comes to writing fiction you can use a similar approach to keep the reader engaged with what’s happening in the story.
The most obvious way to make a character care is to have high stakes. Bomb going to go off, kid going to get killed, love of your life about to marry the wrong person—at these moments it’s easy to create a feeling of urgency. But there will be parts of your story where the situation won’t automatically pump adrenalin into the narrative.
Every story has highs and lows, but that doesn’t mean exciting and boring. Even the quiet moments need to be worth reading, and have some value other than getting you from one good bit to the next.
Whatever a character is doing it should feel important to them.
And it’s not enough that you, the writer, know how important it is, the reader has to know too. With a movie this is a lot easier, the audience can see by an actor’s face how invested he is, even the bad ones. For every Jimmy Cagney there’s a Nic Cage.
This becomes a problem when the character doesn’t know what’s going on until after it’s happened. For example, let’s say our hero is going about his business, drops in on his girlfriend and finds her gone, a note telling him she’s off to Paris, adieu.
In that moment he realises she’s the one for him and rushes off to the airport to try and stop her.
The issue here isn’t his reaction to discovering she’s gone and how he reacts, all that is pretty much standard romcom stuff and works even though it’s been used a gajillion times before. The issue is the lead up to that point and how to make it more than just padding.
Consider if in the previous scene our hero learns something about his girlfriend that makes him realises she’s the one. He goes to her apartment intending to propose and finds he’s too late.
The discovery of her gone is the same, but he already knows how he feels about her. This may not seem like a big difference, but it is.
If you have expectations that are not met, you feel disappointed. The bigger your expectations, the bigger the disappointment.
Even though this is fairly obvious, it’s still important to keep it in mind. How I feel if I go to a top restaurant to find they don’t have my reservation won’t be the same as how I feel if I’m really looking forward to going to a top restaurant I booked six months in advance for my wedding anniversary and am turned away.
Emotions feed off each other and become more powerful.
Let me give you a scenario based on the romcom example from earlier. Journalist is outraged his Pulitzer-worthy story isn’t being run. He storms into the editor’s office to quit. The editor reveals the real reason why the story was quashed, and how the journalist’s girlfriend intervened to stop him getting fired at great cost to herself. Our hero realises how much he owes his girlfriend and what an amazing thing she did. He rushes over to find her, but she’s already gone.
The word that might occur to you here is rollercoaster, but that isn’t really what’s happening. Rollercoasters go up and down, but this is all ups. All heightened emotions. It’s just that they are all different emotions. Anger, surprise, epiphany, excitement, disappointment, desperation, hope.
This creates the illusion of a change of pace whereas a character who’s just angry and driven can become tiring. Transitioning from one extreme to another in a series of short bursts is very hard to tear yourself away from. A lot of badly written but successful blockbusters use this method to keep the reader glued to the page. You know it’s rubbish but you can’t stop reading.
Not that I’m advocating you use this method to write terrible thrillers for the money, but if James Patterson does call offering you a job now you know what to do.
And bear in mind that even though a Nic Cage performance might be hammy and ridiculous it can still be entertaining.
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