The Pinch and the Ouch

Hello!  Happy New Year!  2012 is gonna be great.  I just know it.  I made you all a Happy New Year cake, too!

What?  You didn’t eat the last one.  I didn’t want it to go to waste.

Now that that’s out of the way, I want to talk about two things today.  First, I will finish up my spiel about Chekhov’s Gun by doing a magic trick.  I am going to turn Chekhov’s gun into a fish, right before your very eyes!  And not just any fish.  A red fish.  Presto Magic-Wordo!  Chekhov’s Gun is now a Red Herring!

See, the thing about Chekhov’s Gun is that you have to make everything count.  Stuff has to be there for a reason.  At first glance, the Red Herring doesn’t seem to fit that description.  It’s not there for any reason.  It’s just a distraction.  But that’s just it.  Its purpose is the distraction.  For those who don’t know, a Red Herring is a term that refers to something in a story that appears significant, but isn’t at all.  The point of it is usually to distract the characters and the reader/viewer from the stuff that really is relevant.  It’s a common plot device, and it does add a lot to the story in its own way.  So the herring is a gun, it’s just a gun that’s never fired.  You can spend the whole play/movie/book/story thinking that the gun is going to be fired, only to find that the main character murders someone with a kitchen knife instead.  Like, Fred could be robbing Marco, and he could place himself in front of the gun on the mantle thinking that it was Marco’s only form of defense.  Then won’t Fred be surprised when Marco pulls his pocket-machete out and kills him!  The gun never got fired but it was really important!  See?  See?  I hope you do, because I don’t think I can spend any more time explaining this.

On to the next topic!  I was thinking the other day about something my high school theater teacher taught me.  She always said that in acting, the pinch has to justify the ouch.  Meaning if someone walks up and pinches you, and you say (without irony) “Oh God!  It hurts so much!  Someone please help me!  Call an ambulance!  I don’t think I’m going to make it!” then your “ouch” isn’t justified.  Turn that pinch into a gunshot wound, however, and the “ouch” is justified.  In short, you have to make sure the reactions make sense.  This applies to more than just acting.  It can also pertain to dialogue, action, and narration in a story.  Like so:

Little does he know, that’s not a wad of cash I’m holding.  It’s a head of lettuce.

But the reason I’m pointing this out isn’t because I think people are making errors like the one above.  I’ve said before that sometimes I’ll rush scenes or dialogue in order to get to some important information, and this can often lead to some “ouches” that aren’t justified by the pinch.  Take this example:

My reaction isn’t that extreme anymore, but it still isn’t quite right.  A step or two is missing in this conversation.  Now it’s perfectly understandable to want to point out that a character is new around town.  Maybe the guy up there is your Neophyte.  (Remember my post about that?)  But jumping straight from talk about the weather to “Hey, you’re new” isn’t the way to go.  My response still isn’t justified.

The response, justified or otherwise, doesn’t have to come in the form of speech either.  If I’d said nothing in the above situation, or slapped the guy across the face, those reactions would have been just as weird.  So if you want them to get by, then sometimes you have to justify them with narration, which is perfectly okay.  Like, maybe he was saying one thing, and I was thinking that I’d never seen him around town before, and we both spoke at the same time.  Or I’m just an incredibly awkward human being.  Basically what I’m saying is that you should think about your story as a set of dominoes.  It’s a string of causes and effects that should flow along smoothly.  Unless (because there’s always an “unless”) your story is meant to be disjointed or disorienting or something like that.  That is all!

Word of the Day: Spiel (n) – a usually high-flown talk or speech, especially for the purpose of luring people to a movie, a sale, etc.; pitch

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Filed under books, Humor, writing

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