Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Lessons From Hot Men

I know a few of you watch Prison Break. Last night's episode has been sticking in my head, because of two small but powerful scenes. I have been reading, for some reason, a ton of blog posts and industry articles about showing emotion in your books, and these two scenes are excellent examples of how to do it. Except they're also problematic in terms of visual versus narrative media.

The Backstory (for those who haven't seen the show):

Michael Scofield has broken his brother, Lincoln Burrows, out of prison. To do this, he used a lot of people and a lot of planning. One of the people who helped him was Nika, an immigrant he married in exchange for her assistance. She's fallen in love with Michael, and of course he's totally oblivious to this. Another person was Sara, the doctor in the prison, with whom he fell in love, and who is in very deep trouble for leaving the infirmary door unlocked.

The Setup:

Nika brought a car to Michael and Lincoln, and in doing so was followed by two asshole just-fired prison guards (COs) who take them hostage for money. Nika plays Bellick, the head CO, to get them free, but as she's doing it, we the viewers are unclear who she is really playing. Lincoln doesn't trust her; Michael does. Linc says anyone he trusted betrayed him, anyone he loved screwed him. But she does get them free.

The First Scene:

Bellick taunts Michael about Nika and Sara falling for him, and it earned Sara an overdose and a prison sentence, which Michael did not know. After he kicks Bellick in the face (YAY!), he calls Sara. You can hear the rawness in his voice as he whispers his regret to her, his assurance that they are real, and that he will protect her. You can see his despair in the way he's leaning against the wall, in the tilt of his head, the shadows that hide him. In the background is Nika, unseen by Michael, feeling her heart break.

The Second Scene:

When parting, Nika hugs the men goodbye and takes the gun from Lincoln's waistband. She wants to call the police and turn them in. She's gotten nothing for all she's done for Michael, she loves him, and for what? Linc says she's not going to shoot them, and pulls the gun's clip from his pocket.

See the dichotomy? One scene powerful in its intensity, pain and need laid bare. The other just as powerful in its absence of emotion: Lincoln's bitter cynicism upheld, Michael's belief in people cracked.

"Emotionally compelling" is my weakness as a writer. I want very much to make people feel the way I felt when I watched those scenes. I said "poor Linc!" as he walked away from Nika, and my husband said, "You'd love him." I said, "I love them both!" and he laughed, but it's true.

Now how can I put that on the page? I struggle with this daily in the book I'm writing. In Michael's scene, if you're in his POV, you can describe his pain, but that's telling. There are only so many ways to describe how it feels, and describing his posture is difficult without interrupting the pacing and distracting from the dialogue. If you're in Sara's POV, you can't see Michael at all. You can hear the rawness of his voice, the desperation, but you can't use light and shadow to enhance it, and you can't see his body language. The best way to show it is from Nika's POV--she can see him, hear him, and highlight his feelings by her own. But she's a very minor character and would not have POV in my book. It would be easier, but it would be cheating.

The second scene is less difficult. You pretty much have to write the action and dialogue by themselves, though if in Michael's POV, he can see that his brother's view of the world has been affirmed, and wonder if Linc is lost for good. But the eyes are the best portrayal of everything they are feeling, and you can only say "the expression on his face" so many times in a book. Preferably, zero. I don't use that phrase, but I refer to "expression" 9 times so far in 260 pages.

Anyone else struggle with this?


Karmela Johnson said...

I'm trying really, really hard for DH to get a haircut like this.

Natalie Damschroder said...

He's resisting, huh? Doesn't he know how hot convicts are? LOL

Brit Blaise said...

I so struggle with "expression on his/her face". I have critique partners who zap me for using it… ”What does the expression look like?” I hear it repeatedly. How can you let your reader know if you aren’t in the POV of the person suffering internal turmoil? There are obvious devices, but it’s very difficult for me. I wrestle with this all the time.

Natalie Damschroder said...

Hey, Brit! Nice to see you over here!

Thanks for the commisseration on the expression thing, too. It's nice to hear I'm not the only one. :)