Last week I did a rundown on how Alfred Hitchcock explained to an audience in 1939 how a screenplay was developed. I was speaking strictly about the piecemeal construction of the story, and how the elements were built up into a final story that would eventually become a movie. And I suggested that perhaps this method might not be a bad way to approach the construction of fiction.
A little further on in the lecture Hitch gets down to some specifics about designing scenes, specifically about the nature of what he refers to as “the terrific problem” which might be better understood as “deliberately backing yourself into a corner.”
Speaking of his most recent film at the time – The Man Who Knew Too Much – Hitch talks about how he conceived of certain elements he wanted to include in the story, backgrounds and locations and such. Never mind that these were not necessarily integral to the plot, only that he wanted to incorporate them. He admits this is the wrong way to go about it but suggests constructing a scene in the following order:
- Select a background
- Define the action
- Then, and only then, choose your character to motivate and justify the other elements.
On the surface, this might seem stupid, but if I were to ask you to identify one or two iconic scenes from North by Northwest (presuming you’ve seen it) you’re either going to mention Cary Grant being chased down by a cropduster in the middle of nowhere or a chase scene among the faces on Mount Rushmore. There is absolutely nothing about the character or the plot of that movie that requires those locations or actions, only that Hitch had these images in his head and he wanted them firmly planted in yours. They work, they’re some of the most remembered scenes in the history of cinema, and there’s nothing stupid about that.
This also sounds like a perfect solution for creating more memorable scenes in fiction.
Anyone who’s taken improv classes or done creative writing experiments knows the “two characters and a location” exercise. You choose two seemingly unrelated characters, a random location, and give them some dialog that justifies their providence. A nun and a cowboy at a hardware store. There are even iPhone apps that will randomly select items based on personally set parameters if you’re looking for some ideas.
What Hitch likes about setting up these “terrific problems” is that by including these moments of dissonance you keep the viewer (or reader in our case) interested enough to stay engaged. The Master of Suspense knows that keeping the moviegoer unsettled and off-kilter by seemingly random situations increases the tension and compels them to stay involved with the main character. Likewise in fiction, these unique, unusual elements are going to not only tug readers along from page to page, they’ll also make you a better writer. Eventually they’ll need to be incorporated into the story, but details, details.
Hitch has an example where he talks about a socialite stuck in a steamship’s stokehole and how improbable it seems, but that by insisting on that scene the writer is forced to be imaginative in how their story evolves. One could relocate the woman to a yacht, which would be more in keeping with her station, but Hitch isn’t having any of it. “That, of course, is radical and you must not do it, because the moment you do, you are weakening and not being inventive.” The example is odd – it sounds a little too much like a Marx Bros. bit to me – but the point is solid. There’s nothing wrong in looking at point A and point B and wondering what would be the most arresting direction getting there.
I may be overstating Hitch’s point a bit, but not by much. I used to wonder if one of the reasons fantasy does so well with middle grade readers is that the world building and details serve the same function as this cognitive dissonance Hitch is talking about. You have characters in unfamiliar situations where the impossible can happen at any minute. Then again, this is also the problem I have with fantasy, that these moments happen so often that I become numbed by them. I’m not carrying strong iconic anchor scenes because they all become a sort of blur in the service of the story and lose a certain freshness. For me.
As far as realistic fiction is concerned I think there’s plenty of room for more of these moments of iconic dissonance and I would love to see them.