Pass the Palpitations, Please!

What sucks us into a story? Fabulously exotic locations? Not always. Some of the most powerful stories take place in recognizable – even simplistic – places. Characters? Obviously we are drawn to people we can relate to, whether it's the quirky Holly Golightly ("Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Truman Capote) or the ultimately psychotic Mort Rainey ("Secret Window" by Stephen King). We love the suave and debonair James Bond or the bravely chivalrous King Arthur Pendragon. We shiver at the sinister, sexy Count Dracula or the sympathetic – yet frightening – Frankenstein or Wolfman. We frown at the crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge, and rejoice when he reforms, feeling our Christmas spirit soar. We quiver as the shadow of the mysterious Boo Radley falls across the wooden porch, and our palms grow sweaty as we urge Scout and Jem to run. ("To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee)

Yes, we remember those unforgettable people, many of whom become as comfortable as old friends. Never-changing, they make the same mistakes every time we read the book or see the movie they inhabit. But why do we remember them? Return to visit them over and over? I believe it has to do with the emotions these characters evoke. If you are a fan of mysteries or thrillers, I'm sure you've had to wipe sweaty palms as the book reaches its conclusion. And I know of several guys who purposely took their girlfriends to see "Jaws" – just because the girls were prone to screaming and burying their faces in those strong shoulders. Don't you just want to scream at the screen: "Get out of the water, you idiots!" The old adrenaline pumps, the heart races … and we love it!

We love stories that suck us in and hit us squarely in the good old emotional bread-basket. I watched Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" last night. I've seen it many times over the years, but I still sit with riveted eyes, muttering to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedrin), "Don't go up the stairs. Don't open the door. Has all that peroxide gone to your brain cells? Don't you at least suspect there are birds in that attic room? Go back downstairs and stay put!" But she opens the door, the birds attack through the hole in the ceiling, and she's knocked senseless.

And how about the last segment of the Star Wars saga? We all know that Anakin Skywalker is going to turn to the "Dark Side". We've known it since 1970 when Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke that Darth Vader used to be his apprentice. We've known since Darth Vader spoke the immortal line: "I am your father." in the second installment. Yet how many people shook their heads during the last movie and whispered, "Don't do it, Anakin. Don't give in. Don't believe the emperor." Come on, let's see a show of hands. I'll admit I still scold him when I watch the DVD – as if I can convince the character to change his course of action!

Why do we become so engrossed in movies or books? Because they touch our emotions. Alfred Hitchcock is known as the Master of Suspense. He took normal, everyday John Does and made us walk beside them for two hours at a time. We saw events through their eyes, felt their terror, and experienced their anger, their fears, their phobias, and desires. This was especially true in "Vertigo". My palms grew sweaty, (yes, I am afraid of heights too…) my heart pounded as Jimmy Stewart's character, John Ferguson, climbed the rickety stairs to save his beloved Madeline, and I cringed right along with him as vertigo hit. Mr. Hitchcock surely knew which buttons to push with his chill-seeking, adrenaline-addicted, heart-thumping audiences! In the featurette, "Obsessed with Vertigo", the narrator, Roddy McDowell said: "The master of suspense always liked to show the audience a familiar setting, and then introduce an unexpected twist of malice." Martin Scorsese said: "Over the years, I kept being drawn and drawn to the picture like being drawn into a whirlpool of obsession. A very, very beautiful, comfortable, almost nightmarish obsession…" The movie "Vertigo" is one of Hitchcock's most emotional roller coasters. Screenwriter Samuel Taylor spent a year working on the script with Hitchcock. He had this to say about it: "In those first talks, we decided that the more emotion there was in the man, (Jimmy Stewart as John Ferguson) the stronger the picture would be. And he found without even thinking about it, that he was making a picture that went much deeper than most of his pictures, just because the basic story – not the plot, but the basic story – had a true human emotion. This obsession of a man who, for the first time in his life, had fallen deeply in love." Pat Hitchcock, Alfred Hitchcock's daughter, also spoke about "Vertigo": "I think Jimmy personified for my father 'every man', so that when people went to see a picture, they could put themselves in Jimmy's place. And especially in "Vertigo". He wanted audiences to identify with Jimmy, which is what everybody did."

Emotions. They nail us with thrills, terror, excitement, sentiment… the entire gamut of the human experience. Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is another Jimmy Stewart classic. We see a house-bound man with a broken leg who watches his neighbors from his apartment window. When it appears that perhaps the man across the courtyard has killed his wife, Jimmy's character steps up his surveillance, even to the point of involving the exquisite Grace Kelly in his obsession. I watched that one last night too, and cringed as she snooped around this potentially dangerous man's apartment. I found myself muttering, "Get out of there! He's coming back! Get out NOW!" Oh yes, our emotions get us every time. That was the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock. He knew how to evoke emotion in his audience. For almost 40 years, he thrilled and chilled us with stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

Stephen King employs the same techniques for this generation. From vampires to psychotic murderers to killer cars, he knows how to keep us on the edge of our seats. We empathized with John Coffey as he sat on death row and performed miracles big and small. And perhaps you shed a tear, as I did, when John sat in the electric chair that ended his life. (The Green Mile) We felt sorry for Mort Rainey, whose wife had left him for another man, and who becomes the target of a psychotic hick who claims plagiarism – right up to the moment we find out that Mort himself is the villain! (Secret Window)

We can find the perfect setting, and describe it so colorfully that people can feel the wind on their faces, feel the streets beneath their feet. And we can inhabit our stories with characters so quirky and real, they practically speak for themselves. But until we tap into the emotions we want our readers to feel, we're missing the humanity – the heart – of our stories. Find the heart --- and you'll captivate generations to come.


Frank Creed said...


Deb, spot-on.

Characterization, plot, and setting are fiction's three basic aspects. My own fiction archatypes--that which I aspitre to--choreograph all three for emotion. Raiders of the Lost Ark . . . Die Hard . . . Hannibal . . . PoC.

As a kid I loved Star Wars. Lucas' three new movies were not as memorable because there was no Han Solo. This tough-guy wore his hart on his sleeve, and lied badly. You knew him quick, inside and out.

Character driven fiction is emotion's strongest tool, but braid-in plot and setting?



Terri said...

One of the things I found interesting about this is that the examples come from the movies. Indeed, I notice that when I write about such subjects I use the movies or TV for examples as well.

As writers of fiction, though, we face an additional challenge when depicting emotion. On the screen you can use the actor's craft, lighting, music (the screeching sound in the Psycho shower scene is as scary as the blood washing down the drain).

The print writer has none of those. We have to depend on dialog, actions, reactions of others, and descriptions to convey emotion. The difficulty is doing so without simply saying, "Jane was sad" or Spending too much time describing the scene: "Tears poured down her cheeks one from each eye alternating, soaking her cheeks and dripping off her chin..."

The fiction writer has to do in a paragraph what the cinematographer can do with a single shot.


Deborah Cullins Smith said...

I agree, Terri. I remember one interview (I think it was Joseph Finder, author of "High Crimes") where it was mentioned that about 2 pages of the book was condensed for the movie simply by presenting the main character in her costume. By the clothes alone, they had condensed several pages of explanatory character-building!

Yes, I'm a very visual person too, Terri, so I do use movies alot. But in many cases, I've also read the book. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is one of my favorites. I've read it many, many times, as well as watching the movie. So with that example, it applied to the book as well as the film. I found that Nelle Harper Lee wrote so eloquently, I have never had a problem visualizing from the written page. (Did you know that the little boy in TKaM, "Dill", was actually based on Truman Capote, who grew up with Harper Lee in Alabama?)

Actually, the idea for the blog came from the "extras" on the Hitchcock DVDs. I sat and transcribed those quotes by the use of the pause button! :) I find the "behind the scenes" memoirs to be fascinating material, and food for thought -- even for those of us involved in the written aspect of the entertainment industry. And let's face it -- Alfred Hitchcock wrote very little of his own material, but he was a marvel at his own end of the story-telling. He could take a novella or novel -- even one in a foreign language, like "D'Entre Les Morts" which was the basis for "Vertigo" -- and create a visual tale that can STILL keep audiences on the edge of their seats, even some 40-50 years after he released them! I find that absolutely amazing!