Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Leaving Out The Hard Part

John McFetridge

Over the Christmas holidays I spent some very good times with my wife’s family in rural Ontario and I had a good talk about writing with my brother-in-law. He’s a United Church Minister and he writes (and delivers) a very good sermon.

In an offhand way he said, “You’ve got to hide the hard part in the middle.”

I asked him what he meant and he explained it’s all that stuff that people need to hear but don’t want to, all that stuff about sacrifice, and personal responsibility and doing what we all know we need to do – even if it’s hard. Maybe especially if it’s hard.

And I thought that’s true of any kind of creative writing. You need the hard part, but you do have to hide it a little.

Good examples, I think of dealing with the hard part, are shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood.

You can like the characters in those shows, you can laugh with them and even hope that things go well for them but the shows never let you forget that they’re sociopaths – dangerous anti-social people who have gone too far to be redeemed (my brother-in-law may disagree with that ;).

On The Sopranos I always liked Paulie. The loyal soldier, the straight-shooter (literally and figuratively) the old friend. He did seem like a guy who would be fun to hang out with – except he’s a dangerous sociopath. He robbed an old lady, a friend of his mother’s and he killed her. Outside a restaurant a waiter came after him compaining about a lousy tip and he killed him. These aren’t other ‘soldiers,’ these aren’t other people ‘in the game.’ They’re victims of Paulie’s selfishness, greed and survival instincts.

But leaving out that side of Paulie would be leaving out the hard part, the part that makes me uncomfortable when I laugh along with him on other situations. Leaving that stuff out would let me, the viewer, off the hook too easy.

I had a couple of paragraphs in here about how I couldn’t get into the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith because I feel those guys leave out the hard parts, but that would just sound like sour grapes.

Maybe they do deal with the hard parts well enough or maybe it’s not even that important to put in the hard parts. Can stories – especially crime fiction - be fun and violent and pretty much consequence-free?

I don’t know. I just know writing the hard part is hard.

Even for those of us who love writing as much as this guy.


Dana King said...

The Beloved Spouse and I have been working our way through THE SOPRANOS from the beginning; four episodes to go.

What I'm noticing this time through that I missed the first couple of times is what a true SOB Tony is. They did a great job of what you describe here, showing his virtues, making you root for him, but also feeling a little funny about it, because he is, after all a sociopathic bastard who spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself.

That's what makes all these guys-Tony, Al Swearengen, Stringer Bell--so fascinating. Leaving out any one aspect of their personalities would make the entire character unbelievable.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Going back to what your BIL said, I think too many ministers have left out the hard part for too long. A good sermon should urge us to do more for others, give more, be there more. Not about going to hell but about keeping life on earth from being hell for most people.
And yes, I agree with Dana. Second time you see him much more clearly--even by the end of the show, he had been deromaticized. The scenes with him bellyaching to his shrink are nauseating. But I don't think we knew then that it could be about someone with almost no good in him. We thought it was there and we had to look harder.
Truthfully there was nobody to like on THE SOPRANOS and yet it succeeded.

Loyd Jenkins said...

In real life, our choices have consequences and we have good and bad in our make-up. That should carry over into fiction. I never thought about the bad sometimes needs to be hidden. It adds to the depth of the character.

Mike Dennis said...

Good post, John. I think DEXTER would be a prime example of leaving the hard part in. Here you have a guy who is a serial killer with an unquenchable thirst for blood, who cannot tame his "dark passenger", his urge to kill, and yet he can be a good employee, a good husband, a good father. Even he has trouble reconciling all this, so you know the viewer will experience plenty of discomfort.

John McFetridge said...

Mike, I've never seen Dexter, but I wonder, how often does he kill innocent people? Witnesses to his own crimes, that kind of thing? I've always worried that Dexter tames his 'dark passenger' too well.

Don Lafferty said...

It takes a certain mentality to slog through the hard part whether you’re the story teller or the person consuming the story.

Somebody I know (rhymes with rex-rife) spends so much emotional energy slogging through her own “hard part” that she purposely consumes entertainment designed to whisk her away to a lighter place. Somewhere far away from [genuine] dysfunction. She doesn’t want to see herself in the dark corners of damaged fictional characters any more than she wants to pay a therapist to have to admit that she’s damaged herself, much less have to admit to herself that people like Paulie are all around us all the time.

So while I agree with you and your BIL that the ‘hard part’ is where the foundation for motivation and character often reside, it’s just not for everybody, which is why guys like Tarantino and Smith [likely] succumbed to the pressure of their producers when avoiding it themselves in order to create vehicles for mainstream entertainment.

Dana King said...

@ Don,
So you're my ex's first husband!

Don Lafferty said...

@Dana - You have my heartfelt sympathy.

pattinase (abbott) said...

John-that almost never happens on Dexter.. I can't think of a single instance of that although he has made a mistake or two about the ones he singled out. It is an amazing balancing act and well worth renting. Each season has been stronger than the one before.

Mike Dennis said...

John, Dexter gets around that by being extremely careful and methodical almost to a fault. His father drummed it into him to 1) ONLY kill those who have it coming and 2) Don't get caught. And I can tell you, in Miami, there is no shortage of people who have it coming.

There have been witnesses to his crimes on a couple of occasions but they were very deftly handled by the superb writers on the show.

Patti's right when she says each new season is better than the last.