Saturday, March 6, 2010

Get to the point

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I was in the mood for popcorn last night, and since I don't like the microwaved kind, that meant making my own (stovetop with a little oil and a lot of butter and salt). But since it's a bit of a production, I always feel like popcorn requires an accompanying event: a dvd, the label "dinner," the "So You Think You Can Dance" finale.

So we rented "G.I. Joe" to watch with the older two boys, and then sat down with the popcorn and cheese and diet 7-Up.

And I fell asleep at the big action scene toward the end.

"Get to the point, already!" Right?

I know I ramble. I know I talk a lot. I know I have a story to preface every story. I had a roommate in college who asked me a question and then interrupted me before I could finish answering it. When I called her on it, she said, "I know. But you just take so long." I know. I do. I do.

I've gotten better at avoiding segues and non-sequiturs in conversation. But I like stories--not just my own but other people's. I was fascinated by an old friend of Ron's who came to dinner a couple of months ago and told us about problems he'd been having for years with his vision that had been misdiagnosed since he was a child. It had become debilitating, causing physical pain throughout his entire body that left him lying on the floor in his office some days, unable even to function. And then he met a doctor who told him he "simply" needed to relearn how to see. He now has his life back. I like stories! And everyone has them. Everyone has experienced something I haven't. Lots of somethings, in fact. I mean real stories, stories that changed them, stories that taught them, stories that are worth telling and worth being heard.

While I was watching the movie last night, I was bothered by more than the cliche writing. I was bothered by how the screenwriter didn't let me know the characters' stories. Sure, he had a lot of awkward flashbacks, but none of them got to the point. They didn't tell me anything about the character. They stopped mid-story and then we were back in the present again, wondering how Ana had become such a thoroughly detestable person. I hated her. Bad guys don't have to be likable, but they have to be presentable. She was neither.

When the writer finally got to "the point" and finished telling us the story, I didn't care anymore. She wasn't sympathetic, even knowing her memories had been stolen and her mind controlled by the brother she thought was dead. It. Didn't. Matter. There was no time left to root for her . . . and I was nearly asleep from an overload of salty popcorn and soda.

But I couldn't root for the good guy either. Duke loved Ana and couldn't kill her even when she was trying to blow him up in a hundred different ways. He didn't need her back story, which ended up making him unsympathetic as well. He was the good guy, but I didn't end up caring who won the final battle. I mean, how can you cheer on a guy who loves someone for no reason at all except that he used to love her? That doesn't make him heroic or chivalrous or romantic. It makes him a little sick.

I read a suspense novel recently by Bill Cameron called Lost Dog. I don't generally read much suspense, but I've been following the author on Twitter because he makes me laugh. So I figured I should give one of his books a shot. Once I got into it, I couldn't put it down. The main character was far from perfect, but I understood him. And the villain? I cried at the end because I understood him, too. I never rooted for him; that's not the point of creating a sympathetic antagonist. But I did ache for him. He was real and human and had a story that was there almost from the beginning. Cameron didn't wait until he was nine tenths of the way through the book to say, "Oh, by the way. Here's why this guy has done this."

A few days ago, I read My Name Is Mary Sutter. It doesn't come out until May, but put it on your reading list now. It's the story of a midwife during the Civil War who wants to be a surgeon. I don't remember the last time I read a story whose main character was so . . . tangible. Again, she wasn't perfect, but she was one of those characters that you just wanted to succeed--that you liked and admired and wanted to meet from page one.

Every character--good or bad, main or minor--needs a story in order for us to be engaged in the larger story. Your readers like stories. That's why they're called readers. And you can't wait too long to get to the point. Otherwise, the reader's going to interrupt you with a heavy sigh and "I know. But you just take so long." Or she's going to fall asleep and figure it's not worth rewinding to what she missed, because, really, she didn't miss anything at all. The writer did.


Brigid Kemmerer said...

This is a fanTAStic post.

Maryanne said...

In 7th grade I rode a bus to school and the 8th graders decided to re-name me Rose, because I told long stories that didn't really have a point (I guess this is what Rose on the Golden Girls did). I love stories too-- and I'm known to interrupt myself several times during my initial story to share side stories. I agree about movies and books that don't tell me enough about the characters' inside stories to make me care about them. Thanks for the book suggestions.

Bobbie said...

Thanks, Brigid.
Maryanne, I've always said I talk so much (and so fast) b/c when you're from a large family and you finally get "the floor," you better use it since you don't know when you'll have it again.