Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Building to a climax

Get your mind out of the gutter. This is not a post about sex scenes!

It's about another kind of climax. We all know most successful commercial fiction builds to an exciting climax that keeps readers turning the pages more and more quickly. We writers do things like shortening the length of the chapters, scenes and even sentences later in the book to give the reader the illusion they're reading quickly and/or to help make sure they do.

One of the films I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year did an amazing job of this. And in a non-conventional way. (Readers of this blog know I'm a big fan on non-linear storytelling structures.)

Anyway... The film was Rendition, starring Reese Witherspoon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jake Gyllenhaal, with smaller parts played by Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin and others.

I recommend this film. I saw it early in the festival but it's one that resonated with me. It's about the policy of "extraordinary rendition" that's been used by the US and other countries since 9/11 to send terror suspects to countries where they can be held (and tortured) in secrecy and without right to counsel or without even being charged of a crime.

The film examines both sides of the policy as well as the efficacy of torture for gaining intelligence, and I thought it did a good job of both. (Or maybe just because I agreed with the conclusions I think the filmmaker reached.)

But the movie's content and message aside, as a writer, I was impressed by a little trick the writer played on the audience. And I don't want to post a big spoiler, but there are three main stories being played out throughout the movie and the climaxes of all three stories happen simultaneously with quick cuts between the action in each... The clever little trick (maybe McKee would call it a mind fuck?) was that the three stories weren't actually happening at the same time and the emotional impact, in my opinion, was increased when we as an audience realize this. Certainly the overall climax of the film was more exciting in that all 3 stories hit this point at once. If the writer/filmmaker had decided to tell this story in an entirely chronological manner, it wouldn't have been nearly so compelling.

On the other hand, I just finished reading a book (not going to tell you what it is, but it was a literary novel) that was told in letters. Actually, it was told almost wholly in a single letter that quoted other letters and conversations that had occurred years earlier. So, sometimes you're reading dialog originally quoted in a letter now being quoted within another letter. Confused? Well, I was at times. And I felt very detached from the characters and their stories.

So, the connection, if there is one, is that if you're not going to use a traditional linear storytelling structure, there'd better be a very good reason why it would work better in the more complicated way... IMHO it worked in Rendition.
I think it also worked in Sidney Lumet's new movie, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, (starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke), but it didn't work in that novel for me. The new Lumet movie was really good, too... Another one dealing with the slippery moral slope that one can descend once one takes the first step.
BTW. If you're interested in films... I've been blogging about the 40 films I saw at the TIFF at www.maureenmcgowan.blogspot.com


Anonymous said...

Wow, can't wait to see Rendition. Love non-linear when it works... usually better in film, than literature, I think.

Great non-linear books don't come to mind right now, but I'm sleep deprived and thinking isn't high on my list of functions..

Alli Sinclair said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alli Sinclair said...

Great post, Maureen! Your reviews have been fabulous and my list of movies to be seen is getting very long. Rendition sounds great.
My favourite movie for non-linear story-telling (and I can't add Rendition - YET - but I'm sure I'll add it to my list) is MEMENTO. I love that "aha!" moment at the end when it all comes together.
As for books... I haven't come across any - so would be happy to find out some names so I can check 'em out.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Was Peter there? Did he ask about me?

Unknown said...

Oh this sounds excellent. I always love your reviews of movies Maureen. We have the same tast. I'll have to check this one out.

Wylie Kinson said...

Adding Rendition to the list of movies to see.
I love a good mind-fuck, in both books and movies. The kind that make you want to rewind the tape and start all over again. Dennis Lehane does this brilliantly in Shutter Island.

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