Today’s post is about the big moments in fiction–the action-packed, “everything is changing because of what is happening” moments–and about one thing in particular that authors shouldn’t leave out when writing such a vital passage.
What inspired this post was reflecting on why I am not, in general, a huge fan of the Harry Potter films (especially the 3rd and 4th) when I love Rowling’s books as much as I do and they have impacted my life and writing as much as they have.
The answer, I realized, is particularly clear in the case of the fourth film, based upon the fourth HP book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” (No spoiler alert necessary, I promise, though I assume that by now, most people who have any intention of reading the HP series have done so.)
THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT
I was incredibly, horribly–perhaps almost inexpressibly–let down by the fourth HP movie. It wasn’t JUST that the first half hour was so jumpy that it made little sense. My major problem was that the screenwriters, editors, and producers tried to pack SO MUCH of the story into the film that they had to condense everything.
They condensed the “Big Moment” at the end as well. And while they kept the plot largely intact, the plot hardly affected me it should have or as I expected it to. The reason?
They condensed the “Big Moment” by cutting almost all sense of emotion, of emotional implication. Now, I understand that it is much, much more difficult in film to delve into thoughts and feelings, to demonstrate fear and doubt and consolation and courage. It is harder to show what precisely is motivating a character when he has to make a big decision a very small amount of time.
Still, the “Big Moment” of book 4 is literally the halfway point of the entire series. It is a BIG moment in every sense of the phrase. It’s a moment that changes the course of the rest of the series, perhaps of Harry’s life. Without giving spoilers, you could say it epitomizes the idea of a life-shattering event.
That means it is an emotional moment. And the movie, for me, did NOT portray that aspect of the plot. In contrast, Rowling’s narrator gets inside Harry’s head.
- We can see Harry find courage in the midst of a very real threat. We see his mental steps, follow his thought process, through the course of very exciting and engaging events that nonetheless do not swallow human issues that are in some sense larger: Who is Harry at heart? What is courage? How will Harry respond when everything he claims to be is tested? Why does any of this matter?
- Rowling gives the emotional aftermath of the “big moment”–as characters (and especially Harry) react and begin to move forward–adequate and developed treatment. This drives home how big a moment the big moment was. Rowling puts the big moment in perspective by showing its immediate, tumultuous effects. However, the movie completely glosses over any emotional trauma. This left me unsure about how much what had happened REALLY did matter.
- Rowling’s narrator does not rush the pace of the end of “Goblet of Fire.” And that feels somber and rightly respectful. It gives the reader as well as the characters a chance to digest the big events. The movie just blows through everything, because…. well, this movie is already almost three hours long, DANG IT! We need to wrap things up!
Now, before any fans of the HP movies have a visceral reaction, or any writers want to respond in confusion or disagreement to what I’m saying, let me make a few more points.
- I’m not saying that a big moment has to stop, or pause, or even considerably “slow” its pacing in order to inject emotional or subjective content. I’m not even saying that there needs to be a 50/50 balance between action and thought/emotion.
- My major point in this post is this: a moment in fiction big enough to constitute becoming a “big moment” will necessarily have an emotional impact on your characters. And that needs to be recognized. Maybe that recognition isn’t feasible in the midst of action. Maybe adrenaline is pumping and there is honestly no time to think or plan. Your characters realistically need to REACT. Nothing more. But after the fact, they will face their emotions.
- I do understand that SOMETHING had to be cut to make “Goblet of Fire” into a movie. Unfortunately, what I feel the moviemakers ended up sacrificing was the story’s heart. All of its heart. They kept the plot without any of its commentary on the human condition. At least, that’s how it felt to me. Maybe you don’t feel the movie removed the heart of the story, and that’s certainly a valid opinion. I respect it; I just feel differently. At least we can find common ground in saying that, theoretically, it’s never a good idea for a film to cut the heart of the story it’s based upon.
So, how do you try to keep emotion–highlighting things like courage, fear, doubt, pride, anger, humility– present in some kind of balance with plot and action in the midst of a big moment? Is this something you are able to do instinctively? Do you find yourself toning some things down or drawing other things out during editing?
Which side you prefer to weigh heavier in your balance: the emotional aspects or the action aspects?
And if you’ve seen the movie “Goblet of Fire,” do you agree or disagree with my assessment of how it handles the big moment?
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”