Know Your Medium, Part 2

Previously, I introduced the topic of linguistic relativity—how the choice of “language” affects what concepts are easy to think about.

Another wrinkle of linguistic relativity is that a language affects what you are obliged to think about. For example, when talking about an event in English, we need to consider when it happened (past/present/future tense). Other languages include what’s called evidentiality1: you need to consider how you know about the event; did you see it yourself, or did someone else tell you about it (first/second/etc. hand).

These considerations (what am I forced to convey? what is going to be difficult to convey?) are important when you are trying to tell a story, as the answers are different for a novel than they are for a screenplay.

For example, a common “bad writing” complaint is a book starting with the main character examining themselves in the mirror2 (thus providing a description). The reason this keeps cropping up is that—with only text—it’s not easy to show what a character looks like. Typically, one or two salient features will be mentioned about a character, and the rest will be left to the reader’s imagination3.

In contrast, a scriptwriter would have to tie themselves in some very uncomfortable knots in order to not present a character’s appearance to the audience. It happens the instant the actor emerges. What is difficult is revealing a character’s name. If they are being introduced, that’s easy enough, but there are bound to be characters the protagonist already knows (but the audience doesn’t). Naming is comparatively trivial in a novel.

There’s a deeper significance to this movie-appearance/book-name difference, though, which becomes apparent when it comes to a certain type of twist ending: a character (especially the protagonist) is not be who they have seemed to be. Sometimes, this is accomplished by having the character masked, in the shadows4, or otherwise hidden until a dramatic reveal at the end. This can be very effective if done well, like in the original Metroid game where the main character, bounty hunter Samus Aran, is unexpectedly revealed to be female, smashing players’ preconceptions.

This sort of twist crops up more often in sci-fi/fantasy settings, where hand-waves like “life-like androids”, “clones”, “plastic surgery”, or good old-fashioned “magic” allow for a character to not be who they appear to be. But it’s success is not dependant on the justification (if the rest is done well, the audience are more forgiving). There’s a couple of ways in which the writer can trip themselves up with this trope, which requires some detailed examples.

(Cue spoiler warnings for the films “The Tourist” and “Self/Less”.)

In The Tourist, Johnny Depp’s main character seems to be an everyman caught up in the hunt for a vanished criminal mastermind. Interpol want to catch the baddie. The other crooks want his loot stash. The femme fatale has made everyone think Johnny is the crook (post plastic surgery). After many hijinks, the cops shoot/arrest the other crooks, and Johnny is free to go. But wait! He knows how to get at the crook’s secret safe (he is the criminal mastermind after all), so he gets the money and the leading lady, and lives happily ever after.

Based on the presentation (i.e. the cinematic language), this is a happy ending. Emotionally, we go along with it, because the face we’ve been following/rooting for throughout has won. But when you pause a moment, you feel discomfited: the character you’re attached to is a cunning criminal, who changed his entire appearance to escape the police. This made for an awkward ending.

In Self/Less, old, rich, and ailing Ben Kingsley undergoes a black-market medical procedure to transfer his consciousness to a younger, healthier body (Ryan Reynolds). We follow Ryan as his initial carefree hedonism turns to concern over the weird dreams/flashbacks he starts having (especially when he forgets to take his meds). Eventually, he discovers his new body is not “vat grown”, but originally belonged to someone else, who sold it to pay his family’s debts. Ultimately, Ryan brings down the immoral scientist doing the mind transfers, stops taking the medication (so “Ben Kingsley” fades away), and reunites with his family in traditional hollywood-happy-ending fashion. But wait! Though we’re attached to his face, we know basically nothing about this Ryan Reynolds. Again, there’s something slightly awkward about the ending.

Both movies kind of got away with it (though neither were especially critically successful), but it wouldn’t have worked at all in a novel. There we’re attached to a name, not a face, and it would be more obvious that we’re actually dealing with a different person, but in a movie we’re not obliged to think about that.

The point is to know the medium you’re working in. What is easy? What is hard? What do you need to think about? And most importantly, what do you not need to think about but might trip you up later?

1 Several languages are mentioned in the wikipedia page; the impression I got (which may be inaccurate, I’m no expert on languages) was that a lot of them were from eastern-europe, the middle east, or america.

2 As with all writing “rules”, there are exceptions: Divergent gets away with it, as the scene also reveals details about the world, i.e. that these people restrict the use of mirrors.

3 An interesting example of this cropped up with the casting of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione, sparking much debate. JK Rowling pointed out that the character’s race was never specified. (Did the author envision Hermione like that to begin with? Your guess is as good as mine.)

4 Easy in a novel, requires lots of tricky lighting to make it work in a movie.