Monday, March 1, 2010

Introducing Clark Kent


It's an old rule, but a good (and important) one: Always, always, *always* bring 'em onstage in character.

How many Bond movies have you seen? How many Batman? Notice they usually start with a big action splash? Sometimes it hooks into the ongoing story; others, it simply stands to intorduce the hero. At any rate, within a few seconds of the movie starting, you know you're looking at a man of action.

Or how about Jack Reacher? Every book in the series starts with Reacher being cool and collected, kicking ass and on the move. Even Tarzan's first adult appearance (after opening chapters describing his infancy and childhood) involves him hunting the deadly and feared black panther.

How do we meet Bridget Jones? Hapless, eating, drinking and smoking too much, embarrassed by her mother and about to make a horrible faux pas-- pretty much her character in a nutshell.

Robert DeNiro in Ronin: He stands outside the small French cafe, looking in. He wanders around the back to scout the exit, leaves a gun hidden where he can reach it in a hurry. That way, he gets through the frisk at the entrance, still knows how to get out and get lethal, should the need arise. We know right away, here's a guy who thinks ahead. Way ahead.

Hmmm... villains? Well, this is a writer's place to shine-- you get to show that son of a bitch being a true son of a bitch, even if he's trying to hide it.

Which brings me to the crux of my issue: how do you introduce Clark Kent?

For the few comics-imparied among you (and in which case, why *are* you reading this blog?) Clark Kent is Superman's alter ego. To decompress from the pressures of being God on Earth, Supes likes to unwind by being a bit of a pantywaist. Ahem, excuse me... 'mild mannered'.

So how do you bring the mild-mannered pantywaist onstage without losing your reader? And how do you hint that behind those glasses and that stutter, he's actually faster than a speeding bullet?

Tonight I saw 'From Paris With Love'. (Small confession: I'll go see ANYTHING Luc Besson does-- he's a master storyteller. If the man wants to adapt Green Eggs and Ham, he'll make one fine and gripping thriller out of it!)

We first meet Reese (played by new heartthrob Jonathon Rhys Meyers) in his Clark Kent role at the US Embassy in Paris. I watched him spend several seconds receiving a fax and thought, 'ah Jeez...'

Seriously, like five or ten seconds of film time, his hand is hovering over the paper as it comes out of the fax machine. It just doesn't get any more dweebish than that.

Until he talks. Poor Reese is a flunky to the Ambassador, the guy who brings coffee and schedules appointments and reminds his boss of people's names. So how do we show the hero hidden under this zero?

Well, as he flunkies about, he's also kicking his boss's ass at chess. We see him in action, see him thinking several moves ahead of a guy who fancies himself something of an expert. And before the scene is done, he gets the call from his spy-handler sending him on a mission.

You can show us the dweeb, but you've got under a minute to let those glasses slip. Lois Lane (or the US Ambassador, or whoever) may not notice, but the reader has to see that there's something more than mild manners under that facade.

Same goes for hidden villains. If your villain is posing as a friend at first, let us see a little something that shows what a real sumbitch he really is!

Daniel Cleever comes to mind. Hugh Grant needs nothing more than a two-second look to show us what kind of man he is, and how foolish Bridget would be to get involved with him.

Fagan comes off as a friend to Oliver Twist, but the other kids are afraid of him.

Eleanor starts The Haunting of Hill House with a blatant appeal to our sympathy (her life really, really, *really* sucks) and a bit of Grand Theft Auto. Come to think of it, that book ends on a note every bit as ambiguous as it begins. I guess journeys really do end in lovers meeting...

17 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

That seems one of the advantages of film over text. You take in the complete scene visually in an instant, whereas with the text it builds word by word. I think the end product is more powerful, but it's like the tortoise and the hare. The hare (film) gets off to a fast start.

Lana Gramlich said...

There's a balance to be had though, I think. Personally I like a surprise & if an author's dropped too many hints, I end up disappointed. They told me the "gotcha" wayyy ahead, whether they intended to or not. I get where you're coming from, however.

Sphinx Ink said...

What a perceptive explanation. I like it. I'm going to go back through some of my favorite books and see if they follow this theory. Excellent interpretation.

Angie said...

I agree with Charles that it's easier (or at least faster, more efficient) to do this on film than in text, but yeah, you need to show the reader what's going on fairly quickly. If nothing else, it'd kind of suck if they got invested in Clark Kent, because you made him just that interesting, and then were frustrated with all this pointless Superman stuff clogging up your story, heh. :D

Angie

Bernita said...

I agree.
It may be more difficult in prose but no less necessary.

Steve Malley said...

Charles, I think that's actually one area where film suffers against prose: the subtle hint.

It takes a fair amount of filmaking savvy to keep a movie's hint from being too blatant, whereas even mediocre mystery writers manage to plant hints without making them too intrusive.

Lana, I agree. For instance, if you introduce your hidden villain by having him strangle a puppy, you've kinda lost your element of surprise. The idea is to be subtle. The goal is to plant a small detail that doesn't stand out at the time, but later makes you go 'aha' and 'oh yeah, that's right' when it's time for the big reveal. :)

Steve Malley said...

Charles, I think that's actually one area where film suffers against prose: the subtle hint.

It takes a fair amount of filmaking savvy to keep a movie's hint from being too blatant, whereas even mediocre mystery writers manage to plant hints without making them too intrusive.

Lana, I agree. For instance, if you introduce your hidden villain by having him strangle a puppy, you've kinda lost your element of surprise. The idea is to be subtle. The goal is to plant a small detail that doesn't stand out at the time, but later makes you go 'aha' and 'oh yeah, that's right' when it's time for the big reveal. :)

Steve Malley said...

Sphinx, I'm glad you found something useful. You know what I say: Take what you like and leave the rest.

Angie, I really do think we as writers have a more subtle set of tools at our disposal. We can quietly put the reader in a character's head and make a point more quietly than any moviemaker.

Hmm, might be another post in that!

Steve Malley said...

Bernita, something tells me I definitely need to post about our tools in prose... :)

Angie said...

Steve -- I think it depends on the moviemaker, and on the actors. A really good actor can give a subtle facial expression or quick bit of body language that communicates quite a lot in a fraction of a second, which would take a lot longer (relatively speaking) to describe in prose.

I get what you mean about a good writer slipping in subtle details; burying the one significant clue in a string of apparently routine descriptives works very well. I love that end-of-book facepalm, when you realize that something you read back in Chapter 5 was the key to the whole thing. But it works the same way with film making, and a skillful director can get quick subtlety out of a quarter of a second, just as a skillful writer can hide the key detail in plain sight.

And of course, a lesser skilled writer or film maker will blow it completely; neither art has the overwhelming advantage or disadvantage.

Angie

Avery DeBow said...

The subtle set-up is one of the few areas in which we have the upper hand over filmmakers. Usually we struggle with getting a guy to walk into a room without boring people to death, while they just saunter in and start the dialogue. But, when they try to get their actors to master the devilish eyebrow waggle, we can just slip in a little bit of foreshadowing menace with a single word, or a symbol.

Lana's right, though, a too heavy-handed approach can spoil the whole book.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for another excellent, thought-provoking post.

The example that came to my mind was the TV show "Firefly." (Or was that the movie, and "Serenity" the TV show?) Every time a character spoke, it served multiple purposes, and one was always to reveal and reinforce character.

Erik Donald France said...

That is exactly right. And from your examples, a bunch more leap out. One of my favorite in drawn out openings is The Good the Bad & the Ugly -- Angel Eyes is BAD, though we never know what drives him besides greed with more than a touch of sadism. And yes, Bond often opens with a non sequiter just to show him in action. Good stuff.

Angie said...

Erik -- sometimes Bond's non-sequitur opening is the only thing in the movie that was actually in the story they licensed. [grin] I forget which one it was now, but do you remember the movie where the opening had a motorcycle courier who was being ambushed by an enemy agent? If you read the original story of the same title, that was the whole story -- the bad guys were taking out British motorcycle agents on a certain stretch of road, and Bond was assigned to take out the bad guys. End of short story. Everything after the credits rolled, the actual main plotline of the movie, was made up from whole cloth by the studio. It's kind of funny, actually. :)

Although of course you're right about the openings showing Bond in action. [nod]

Angie

SQT said...

I think a writer has to have a particularly deft touch to do this well. I've read so many books where the "hints" are repeated enough times to feel like you're being bludgeoned with the point. I get it! I get it! He's secretly a BAD guy. Cinema definitely has the advantage here.

Erik Donald France said...

Hey Anglie, point taken. Liberties have been taken in abundance ;->

Shauna Roberts said...

Brilliant post.