Other People

Consider the audience. Not your final human reader—though they’re important, too, and this is all in service to them. But within a scene, around that scene’s emotional core, who have you written in as the audience’s surrogate and guide?

Take a scene from Twin Peaks: The Return.

Ed (Everett McGill) finally asks Norma (Peggy Lipton) to marry him, and she says yes. Now Lynch could leave it at that, we’ve got crescendoing, upbeat music, the camera’s tight on a blissful Norma and Ed, but it also repeatedly—insistently—cuts away from them. Why do this, why cut away from the emotional point of the scene? On the other side of the diner, caught in the middle of her daily routine, Shelly (Mädchen Amick) watches their interaction play out, just as we do. And she tears up, because, just like we do, she knows Norma and Ed’s long history. Shelly gives us the cue as to how to feel in this moment (and any orientation is welcome within Lynch’s films). It really comes back to a matter of perspective: through whose eyes do we experience the emotion of a scene?

I just read The Hidden Tools of Comedy, by Steve Kaplan, and one of his big takeaways is that what’s funny often isn’t watching someone do something silly, but watching someone else watch someone do something silly. Think of all the sitcoms you’ve seen where one character comes up with a ridiculous scheme while the “straight” character (though Kaplan rejects the language of the “straight man” and puts it in his own terms) looks on in bewilderment. It’s not the punchline, in other words, that gets the laugh. Or not just the punchline. But the reactions of other characters helping guide our own response. What we’re laughing at, in some real way, is our recognition that the character’s bewilderment is the same bewilderment we feel through all the absurdities of life.

This guiding of response, it should probably be said, isn’t happening on a conscious level. No one thinks, “oh, the screenwriter currently wants me to identify with—.” Well, unless you’re a writer. But the identification occurs nevertheless.

Think of this classic horror scene: two people, probably teenagers, get frisky and fall all over each other in bed, and, while the camera stays with them, we’re meant to identify with their intensity of attraction and admire their good-lookingness as they admire each other. And then the camera cuts to the voyeur—sometimes the monster, sometimes not—watching through a hole in a painting and dripping with menace and hunger. The effect jars the viewer from their own cozy moment of voyeurship, and the disgust they feel should be, at least partly, with themselves.

The superhero movie. When Iron Man flies or Spiderman swings or Batman glides over city streets, we always get cutaways to the pedestrians down below—usually children—looking up in awe. Again, beyond signifying the greater milieu of the story, these signify that we, too, should feel awe and childlike wonder. (I would love to see a supercut of this moment from all the Marvel films.)

In fact, this probably goes all the way back to the Greek chorus (and beyond), that symbol of the city whose opinions we are supposed to share. So whether you’re writing comedy, horror, superheroics, or any other genre, keep a close eye on the perspectives at play in your scenes, and keep in mind what they’re there to accomplish. Of course, no amount of audience manipulation will help if your characters aren’t compellingly drawn and your world internally coherent, but adding an external viewer of a scene’s emotional core can help your readers orient themselves and increase a moment’s affective impact.

Do you have any thoughts about tips and tricks for audience identification?

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