Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Taking a Detour from the Story
In the recent Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies there’s an early scene in which Tom Hanks talks about insurance. He’s having a civil debate over drinks with another attorney about whether an accident that kills several people should be counted as several occurrences, with the insurance company liable for each one, or as one occurrence, with the insurance for the accident covering the maximum amount per occurrence, regardless of the number of deaths and injuries.
I’m assuming the scene was put in to show — prior to Hanks defending a Soviet spy and later negotiating the release of an American spy pilot — that the character had a keen legal mind, which would come into play as the drama progressed.
But even so: Talking about insurance law? That’s a pretty gutsy thing to do in a big-budget movie aimed at a wide popular audience. After all, what if the insurance debate put people to sleep?
He Believed in Himself
Now I’m guessing again, but I suspect Spielberg had enough faith in himself, Hanks, and the Coen brothers (who wrote the dialogue) to feel that he could put that scene in the movie and not lose his audience. In fact, by developing the character, he might have pulled at least some viewers deeper into the film. It certainly made a positive impression on me.
Spielberg is a master story teller, and job one for a story teller is to make it interesting. An awful lot of terrific story ideas have never become good books or movies because the artists couldn’t get the details of story telling right. It has a lot to do with pacing, weaving together the threads of the story, and imparting information at the right time in an effective way. Not many people can do it.
Adding detailed information that doesn’t immediately move the story forward is even harder. It can be worth doing because character development and creating a sense of mood or place can make a story richer and more memorable. Think, for example, of Dickens taking two pages to describe the howling storm that rages on the night Magwitch returns to London to see Pip again in Great Expectations.
I’ll Take the Details
It’s hard to say how typical I am, but I’m one of the readers who wants a bit of detail. If a murder takes place during a bird-watching expedition, I want the author to tell me something about bird watching and why it exerts a spell on its followers. If characters are regularly meeting in their favorite bar, I want the author to tell me a bit about the bar, because in doing so, the author is telling me more about the characters.
These days I read a lot of books where detail of that sort is missing. And at one level I can understand the reasons. An author or filmmaker understandably wants to keep the story going and the pace as fast as possible, and, let’s face it, a lot of times the extra details are laid out in a way that doesn’t work. So why pause to admire the scenery when it’s so easy to have more action?
A good story teller, and one with a sense of depth and breadth, is more likely, however, to say something along these lines: I find it interesting, and if it’s interesting to me, I think I can make it interesting for everybody else. And then does just that. Is it a skill that can be taught? I rather doubt it.