My friend Josh is a clown. I mean that literally. He is a professional clown. He’s done everything from playing the lead clown in the Big Apple Circus to being a dancing dung beetle on Power Rangers. He went to clown college and everything.
Josh once told me a story about his time at clown college that has stuck with me over the years because it always seems relevant, no matter what the context. Curious how clown advice can be like that…
Anyway, Josh was having a really bad morning. I can’t remember the details. Let’s say he was working on a new piece late into the night and overslept. Maybe he was also out of coffee, and didn’t have any clean socks. So he’s hurrying from his dorm to the building where his first class of the day is being held and he knows he’s going to get yelled at because some of the teachers at clown college are surprisingly strict. Nothing quite like bitter old clowns screaming at you, am I right? So, he’s in a bit of a panic as he’s hustling to get to class, but one of his other professors is taking a smoke break just outside the front door. This professor is French and wizened and probably looks a little demented. He points at Josh and says:
“Don’t be afraid of catastrophe!”
Josh took this as more than just advice for the moment. He believes, as do I, that this is actually some great life advice for an artist of any medium, be they clown, actor, musician, painter, writer, or whatever. After all, the best lessons about life are learned from mistakes. From things going wrong. From catastrophe.
Realistic “kitchen sink” fantasy is great and can be quite moving. I wouldn’t ever want it to go away. But at the same time, fantasy is possibly the best-positioned genre to bring out that old tragic catharsis that we all need now and then. To show the truth of those heightened moments of emotion that seem to transcend everything.
But I find that many artists are reluctant to make those bold choices. Many of them get tangled up in the sort of self-conscious postmodernism that comprises the bulk of storytelling in America. And I get it. I really do. There is real risk it pushing beyond what is “cool” or “realistic.” Because if you make the bold choice and it’s not supported, it’s the worst. I’m thinking of that moment at the end of Revenge of the Sith when Darth Vader learns that Padme is dead and he shakes his fist and shouts, “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” It was meant to be this big tragic catharsis worthy of Hamlet or Macbeth, but when I saw it in the movie theater, people were laughing because it just felt so false. So unsupported.
And that’s what I want to get at here. Rather than get bogged down in a dissection of the Star Wars prequels (because that would be a book-length blog post), or the many other books, movies, or TV shows that attempt a moment of theatricality and fail, I want to examine when it works, why it works, and how it can be utilized.
I love manga and anime. Like LOVE them. Not just one subgenre, either, but pretty much all of it. Tor editor Miriam Weinberg will verify that my taste in manga and anime is embarrassingly undiscerning. For the longest time, though, I was embarrassed by my fondness for it. After all, it’s a bit silly, right? A bit over the top? I mentioned this, somewhat sheepishly, to Libba Bray.
“Oh, it’s obvious why you love it,” she said. “Your background is in theater, right? And there’s this inherent theatricality to manga and anime.” I realized she’s right. It’s not unusual for a manga character to soliloquy in the middle of a battle, and what’s more, it feels completely supported.
And here we are back at this idea. How do you express heightened emotion without it turning to camp or silliness? How do you keep it feeling supported? And by “supported” I mean that it feels emotionally truthful for the character rather than put upon by the author.
In performance-based mediums such as film, television, and theater, the bulk of the work falls to the actor. A perfect example is watching David Tennant take some crazy Doctor Who monologue and turn it into pure gold with those earnest, glistening eyes of his. The man is a treasure.
This isn’t an acting lesson, so let’s talk about how to pull it off when it’s just words on a page. A lot of it comes down to general tone and style. That’s how manga pulls if off. Manga and anime are built upon worlds where such heightened moments are not only possible, but in many subgenres, occur frequently. If you create a world where heightened emotion is commonplace, half your work is done for you. That doesn’t mean it needs to be silly or cartoonish. Lord of the Rings with its stately tone, and A Song of Ice and Fire, with its willingness to push characters to the brink of madness and beyond on a regular basis, both have very different tones, and yet are perfect examples. In fact, I would say that George R. R. Martin truly seems to embrace the mantra “Don’t be afraid of catastrophe!” For all of Game of Thrones’s theoretical realism, Kit Harrington has had some pretty bonkers monologues to sell to those cheap seats.
But you don’t need Red Weddings to bring out an emotionally heightened moment. A lot of it comes down to simply whether you’ve convincingly portrayed the emotional journey of the character. If you’ve left out a step of their arc, or several, like they did with poor Darth Vader, the reader is left feeling like it comes out of nowhere. You need to lead them gradually, patiently. You need to carefully build it up until it’s ready to burst. Theatricality isn’t about acting big, it’s about acting with a big heart. Do that, and the rest will follow naturally.
And this is where I make my big pitch that writers, like actors, need to be great observers of humanity. That’s how to build a convincing emotional journey. Writers need to not only see, but understand, and empathize with all the other humans around them. They don’t need to agree, of course. Contrary to what some people think, empathy doesn’t require complicity. But the more you can understand where everyone else is coming from, the easier it is to depict the emotional journey of people who aren’t like you in your writing. So my fellow writers, don’t hide away in your hobbit holes. Get out there amongst your fellow humans. And most of all, don’t be afraid of catastrophe!
Hope and Red by Jon Skovrun
Series: The Empire of Storms (Book 1)
Mass Market Paperback: 544 pages
Publisher: Orbit (June 28, 2016)