Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ripple Effects

The old Soviet Union was famous for manipulating images. If you made Stalin mad, he'd airbrush you out of the photos from the good old days when you and he were yucking it up. When that happened you'd better have your long underwear packed because you'd be on your way to Siberia or worse.

My favorite fakes show a crowd of faithful smiling and clapping at Dear Leader's speech while overhead a huge squadron of the most awesome bombers fly overhead.

But nobody looks up at them.

People can be very highly regimented true believers in Dear Leader's agenda, but at least one or two will look up at the huge squadron of awesome bombers.

That's one easy way to spot fakes. If you see big-foot or anything extraordinary in the picture, look at what's going on in the bigger picture. The bombers would have an effect on the crowd. If you don't see the effect, there's a problem. It looks contrived.

Going beyond the commies, consider movies these days where actors stand in front of a green screen and behind them some computer wizardry is showing a futuristic cityscape or a surreal historical battlefield. The events in that background have to be carefully crafted to be interesting to the audience, but not so interesting as make the characters in the foreground notice.

Or not. That's what I liked about Mad Magazine's little cartoons in the margins, and what I liked about the Zucker movies like Airplane, Top Secret or Police Squad. Folks in the background would be doing something ridiculous while the actors in the foreground would Not Notice. But the viewer noticed and would find it funny.

But if this isn't intentional, the joke is on you.

Let's suppose your story starts out with a bang. Suppose Godzilla eats Cleveland or something. Your story cannot have your characters sitting in a diner in Toledo or lining up for a ride at Cedar Point as if nothing happened. Big events have ripple effects.

You remember where you were on 9/11 and what you did. I'll bet you didn't get a lot of work done that day. Or if you tried to, you were pretty distracted.

Let's suppose you're an Asian living happily and comfortably in California, you get along fine with your neighbors and your shop has a happy clientele. And then it's 8 December 1941. You may be Korean or Chinese, but you look enough like the guys who bombed Pearl Harbor that your neighbors aren't as friendly anymore. Big events have ripple effects.

I was on the campus of MSU when Jimmy Carter goofed up Iran. A lot of people were unhappy with the hostage situation. Overnight, a lot of foreign students started wearing western attire whereas they had worn traditional clothes the week before.

All it takes is a scowl on the face of a stranger to make a person feel paranoid.

No, you didn't do anything bad to anybody, but your keffiyeh reminds me of something that makes me angry. I'm not mad at you, and I wouldn't dream of taking my anger out on you, but you don't know all that from the look on my face.

That's what made District 9 cool. Aliens show up and though they've got awesome tech, they're poor and disadvantaged. With this huge space ship hovering overhead, society adapts and establishes new institutions to accommodate this new reality. (And guilty white South Afrikan filmmakers get to tell a morality play about apartheid.) Big events have ripple effects.

I hope you realize that good stories need not have the same scope as an alien invasion, monster attack, or a World War. The big event might be a father dying and the ripple effects propagate through his immediate family. And that father might be the fella who pulled a gun on the clerk in 7/11 who shot in self-defense. He can't sleep at night, because big events have ripple effects.

You may have one thing in mind for your story. Boy meets girl in the context of an alien invasion. But every bullet fired defines an expanding cone of ripple effects. And these ripple effects may not be what you had in mind for your story. You needn't throw a lot of prose at these ripple effects, but you can't ignore them.

Otherwise, your story may come off as fake as a photoshopped Soviet May Day parade.

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