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The Clint Eastwood Challenge... (1 Viewer)

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Megan Pearson

Senior Member
So we were watching The Mule a couple of weeks back and, after, an interview with Clint Eastwood on his making of the film, he talked about some of the things that were on his mind as he thought about how to bring this movie to life. And it was such a great question, I thought I'd share it with you all here:

"How do you transfer the emotion of the story over to the audience?"

I have been thinking about this in my idle moments ever since. The easy answer is clearly 'being competent in craft'. But Clint began in show-biz in the 1950's and as a director now in his 90s, I find his storytelling ability second-to-none. So if Clint is asking this question, so should I.

In answering it for myself, here's what I've come up with:

* I want to connect with my reader at a visceral level, so my reader will forget the words on the paper and imaginatively enter the story for himself. This is a gut-level reaction, so this is an important question for me to answer.

* To do this, I think I need common ground:
- Universally we understand hope, pain, sorrow, sadness.
- We usually (but not always) welcome a new baby, provide for a sick friend, mourn a loved one, fear death.
- We also have a host of mundane things we do every day in-between these always & usually things, things dictated through our five senses.

* I think, maybe in relaying the story through our senses we suggest to the audience the what-it-is-likeness of the matter at hand. If it's a musty closet, do we sneeze? (I might.) If it's pumpkin pie, do the warm spices evoke fond memories, or maybe nostalgia, for holidays past? How do we relate to the shivering boy who just stepped out of the pool? (Do we bring him a towel?) Or the girl learning to balance on her bicycle? If we haven't been there ourselves, at the least we've seen it and try emulate -- to the best of our ability -- some empathy or encouragement to our children.

So, gut-reaction, common ground, emotions, things out of our control, the what-it-is-likeness of where we are & what we are doing as experienced through our senses, memories and empathy are at the top of my list so far.

Yesterday I wrote & finished a short story (wc: 6,350) and I asked myself how well I had answered his challenge. I found I hit on the five senses, memory, things-out-of-our-control, but also add to that how the mc responded to conflict and challenge, overcame an internal struggle, and how the environment influenced the mc. (Is it thorugh our choices?)

I don't know. Just because we can identify with something doesn't mean it helps us enter into that character's world. So there's got to be something more to it and I'm wondering what that is. So I thought I'd extend Clint's challenge to all of you. What do you think? As he said, "how do you transfer the emotion of the story over to the audience?
 

TheMightyAz

Staff member
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You have sympathy and empathy so I suppose, that's where I'd start. Sympathy is more a logical assessment of how we think someone would feel, were as empathy is an immediate emotional connection based on identical or similar experiences. If your dog had died, you could perhaps formulate a sympathetic relationship with the idea of someone's mother dying, but you'd more likely feel empathy if your father had died.

The only problem there is, there are going to be more sympathetic readers than empathetic readers simply because of the vast amounts of experiences each individual has. I would say therefore, to connect with the widest possible audience, you'd have to somehow blur the line between the two; make a sympathetic response feel like an empathetic response. Ambiguity is key, I think, because that allows for the reader to adjust what they read and fit it into their own experiences of empathy.

Images: metaphors, similes, symbolism and the such would be perfect in blurring that line, leaving the things you've associated with those images open to interpretation by the reader. Leaning on them too heavily though could lead to a sense of tokenism and insincerity. Rather like the culture we're currently suffering through. As Danniel Dennet called it: Deepity.

For me then, that would be the solution. To create images and events with enough ambiguity that the reader is convinced you are writing about their personal experiences, while still structuring the story in such a way it can easily maintain its solidity even with that wiggle room.
 

JBF

Staff member
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* I want to connect with my reader at a visceral level, so my reader will forget the words on the paper and imaginatively enter the story for himself. This is a gut-level reaction, so this is an important question for me to answer.

I think you're on the right track here, both with this line and what follows. You can further break down how readers engage with a story by way of familiarity. Bear in mind that this isn't the deciding factor in whether a work is enjoyable or not, though it's worth remembering that the more distance a consumer has from the product, the less serious they'll take it.

Let's say a reader is handed an unfamiliar piece. Their perception is probably one of the following:

  • This is so fantastic and alien to me that I can never see myself in the story
  • This is out there, but the details are grounded and familiar to me
  • I've been in situations that approximate this before
  • This is eerily familiar to my experience(s)
  • WHY ARE YOU WRITING ABOUT MY LIFE, STRANGE AUTHOR?

Again, none of these tag the quality of the work. Most people are capable of enjoying things completely outside their experience and their expertise. This is the difference in, say, the sort of characters dreamed up by Quentin Tarantino and the sort depicted or directed by Clint Eastwood. The former are cool but generally outsized and unrealistic whereas the latter are grounded.

Outside of the state of Florida, most of us will probably never encounter a vengeful bride with a samurai sword and a list of ex-coworkers. Most of us have encountered, whether at family reunions or in the wild, a Walt Kowalski.

* I think, maybe in relaying the story through our senses we suggest to the audience the what-it-is-likeness of the matter at hand.

Slice-of-life is my going crack habit these days. Possibly as a rejection of my earlier comic-book avatars masquerading as characters, partly as a means of trying to find the beautiful and poetic in things not generally beautiful or desirable. My MC will eventually go on to do things some might consider heroic...but for the time being it's worthwhile to depict him in his day-to-day pre-heroic life. Most of the dozen or so readers who stick with him will never have walked in his shoes. It's not really my intention that they should. Rather, I wanted to build a character who - when seen in the later context - makes sense.

At his best, maybe those readers smile for him. At his worst, perhaps mild horror and a struggle to reconcile someone they thought they understood with something they may find abhorrent. Through it all there should be a certain strand of logic - a connectedness that ties what you see to what you knew.

A well-drawn and rooted character may anchor an absurd circumstance and lend weight to the story. The reverse...not so much.

As he said, "how do you transfer the emotion of the story over to the audience?

Short answer: you have to meet your readers where they are.

I'm a guy who likes guns and airplanes and appreciates a pretty girl. You'd figure I probably go for fiction along those lines, probably, but you might be surprised. If you give me the choice between a story about:

A) a rich globetrotting adventurer with a fleet of historic aircraft, a bunker filled with high end weaponry, and a rotating stable of beautiful women, or
B) a sort-of plain girl holding two jobs to keep the lights on and microwave dinners in the fridge while trying to figure out if things will ever pan out

...I'm more inclined to go with (B). Sure, I'd like to be the guy from (A). But that's entirely fantasy. That guy is so far out of my experience as to be an alien. And, while I've never been a girl or had to hold down two jobs at once, I know what it's like to come home to an empty pantry and try to decide which bill gets priority. Even if she doesn't save the day or change the world I'm rooting for her. I might have passed her on the street once. I probably have.

Tell your readers an entertaining story and you'll capture their dollar.

Speak to them on their level and in their native tongue and you'll capture the reader.
 

Megan Pearson

Senior Member
...Sympathy is more a logical assessment of how we think someone would feel, were as empathy is an immediate emotional connection based on identical or similar experiences. ...
So to summarize, sympathy = external & detached, while empathy = internal & engaged.
The only problem there is, there are going to be more sympathetic readers than empathetic readers simply because of the vast amounts of experiences each individual has. I would say therefore, to connect with the widest possible audience, you'd have to somehow blur the line between the two; make a sympathetic response feel like an empathetic response. Ambiguity is key, I think, because that allows for the reader to adjust what they read and fit it into their own experiences of empathy.
So, how ambiguous is just-right ambiguous? I've read the fiction reader is amazingly forgiving of missing details & authorial foibles. However, and for example, Flag of Our Fathers & Letters from Iwo Jima were amazingly detailed in telling both sides of the same story. I don't think it possible for the emotional intensity of those films to have been realized had it not been for Eastwood's exactness and attention to detail. Surely ambiguity has its place, but finding just where and how much must be part of the art.
Images: metaphors, similes, symbolism and the such would be perfect in blurring that line, leaving the things you've associated with those images open to interpretation by the reader. Leaning on them too heavily though could lead to a sense of tokenism and insincerity. Rather like the culture we're currently suffering through. As Danniel Dennet called it: Deepity.
Interesting. I didn't know Dennet dabbled in language studies.
For me then, that would be the solution. To create images and events with enough ambiguity that the reader is convinced you are writing about their personal experiences, while still structuring the story in such a way it can easily maintain its solidity even with that wiggle room.
So, if I can paraphrase you, you're advocating for creating a space the reader can step into. And by allowing the reader room for him to step into, he thereby becomes part of the storyworld and thus directly engaged with the story's emotional tenor. I can see that.

I am, however, having some trouble with the idea that we can create images and events (implying an activity regarding concrete things) with ambiguity (implying the passive acceptance of an abstract/imaginative thing). Maybe you could say a little more about it?
 

Megan Pearson

Senior Member
... though it's worth remembering that the more distance a consumer has from the product, the less serious they'll take it.
True, true!
Let's say a reader is handed an unfamiliar piece. Their perception is probably one of the following:

  • This is so fantastic and alien to me that I can never see myself in the story
  • This is out there, but the details are grounded and familiar to me
  • I've been in situations that approximate this before
  • This is eerily familiar to my experience(s)
  • WHY ARE YOU WRITING ABOUT MY LIFE, STRANGE AUTHOR?
🤣 Love the breakdown!
Again, none of these tag the quality of the work. Most people are capable of enjoying things completely outside their experience and their expertise. This is the difference in, say, the sort of characters dreamed up by Quentin Tarantino and the sort depicted or directed by Clint Eastwood. The former are cool but generally outsized and unrealistic whereas the latter are grounded.
Grounding is a great concept to bring into this. Keep going...
Outside of the state of Florida, most of us will probably never encounter a vengeful bride with a samurai sword and a list of ex-coworkers. Most of us have encountered, whether at family reunions or in the wild, a Walt Kowalski.
My very first business call to Florida, the Floridian's response to my 'how's life down there' was 'great! except for all the one-armed people!' (Say, what?!?) It was a joke about the snowbirds pulling their little pugs from the gaping jaws of alligators. And my younger self, at the time not knowing anything about Florida, had to have the joke explained. UGH!!! ... So yes, I completely see what you're talking about.
Slice-of-life is my going crack habit these days. Possibly as a rejection of my earlier comic-book avatars masquerading as characters, partly as a means of trying to find the beautiful and poetic in things not generally beautiful or desirable. My MC will eventually go on to do things some might consider heroic...but for the time being it's worthwhile to depict him in his day-to-day pre-heroic life. Most of the dozen or so readers who stick with him will never have walked in his shoes. It's not really my intention that they should. Rather, I wanted to build a character who - when seen in the later context - makes sense.

At his best, maybe those readers smile for him. At his worst, perhaps mild horror and a struggle to reconcile someone they thought they understood with something they may find abhorrent. Through it all there should be a certain strand of logic - a connectedness that ties what you see to what you knew.

A well-drawn and rooted character may anchor an absurd circumstance and lend weight to the story. The reverse...not so much.
Ooo, I like that last part. In art, we paint the scene but we paint beyond the canvas and the frame. It draws people in. We have them see what's not there, beyond the canvas, by what is there. And likewise, something rendered out of proportion is made believable by all else that is in proportion it is surrounded by. (More or less. I was thinking of Munch's The Scream. Part fixed line, but the railing grounds the swirls and textures that are drawn out of shape which highlight the central figure's emotional trauma.)
Short answer: you have to meet your readers where they are.
And there you have it. You have to know your audience.
...That guy is so far out of my experience as to be an alien. And, while I've never been a girl or had to hold down two jobs at once, I know what it's like to come home to an empty pantry and try to decide which bill gets priority. Even if she doesn't save the day or change the world I'm rooting for her. I might have passed her on the street once. I probably have.
Been there, done that. Not meaning, of course, the alien adventurer part. Real-life is much more strange.
Tell your readers an entertaining story and you'll capture their dollar.

Speak to them on their level and in their native tongue and you'll capture the reader.
So, in answer to Clint's challenge, to summarize your position I might say we ought to: know our audience, write what they care about, and do so in a way that's straight across to them. And by inviting them in, in this way, they become engaged in the work and share in the emotional content of the work (and cease being detached consumers).

Here's a question. What makes a slice-of-life scene for you? What are the things you like to put in, leave out, to make it resonate with the reader?
(And so that's not too vague, I mean craft-wise, not content, which you've covered really well here. My own tactic is to hedge on something I once read, to emphasize the concreteness of the scene [through nouns] by using the character's senses as they interact with her physical environment [not, 'the coffee was hot', but 'the morning sludge burned her lips'].)
 
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JBF

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And my younger self, at the time not knowing anything about Florida, had to have the joke explained. UGH!!! ... So yes, I completely see what you're talking about.

One of my classmates came from Florida. Among his goals in life is someday having his very own Florida Man(TM) story. He'll probably do it.

Ooo, I like that last part. In art, we paint the scene but we paint beyond the canvas and the frame. It draws people in. We have them see what's not there, beyond the canvas, by what is there. And likewise, something rendered out of proportion is made believable by all else that is in proportion it is surrounded by. (More or less. I was thinking of Munch's The Scream. Part fixed line, but the railing grounds the swirls and textures that are drawn out of shape which highlight the central figure's emotional trauma.)

Right. There's something similar in Renaissance painting of historical (usually Biblical) events, and this occurs with some frequency in woodcut imagery - the familiar world, seamlessly intercut with the impossible. Holbein and his skeletons come to mind...

And there you have it. You have to know your audience.

A two-parter, I think. First you need some idea of who your audience may be. Second, you have to believe your abilities and the story you want to tell are compatible with that.

For mine, the initial setting is predominately rural piece of North Texas in the late 1980s, and for somebody who's not personally familiar (or dedicated to their research) this could be fraught territory. It's easy to try and fill the gaps with stuff learned from popular entertainment that's either pointedly wrong or incomplete, and no matter the intention, the expected audience might look at those things and suspect they're being sold a bill of goods.

The perspective of somebody who's spent a few years in towns with populations of five thousand or less will bring a different understanding and sensibility than somebody whose research begins and ends with listening to modern country music and watching Smokey and the Bandit. Pickup trucks and short-shorts down by the crick! Dirt roads! Honky-tonk! Bootlegging! Name-dropping people who wrote better music than this!

Yee haw.


So, in answer to Clint's challenge, to summarize your position I might say we ought to: know our audience, write what they care about, and do so in a way that's straight across to them. And by inviting them in, in this way, they become engaged in the work and share in the emotional content of the work (and cease being detached consumers).

That's the one. Don't talk down to your readers. Don't second-guess their intelligence. Don't insult them by being lazy and falling back on popular tropes that cut across those things they know about themselves. Be honest with them and they'll stick with you. Use them as a cash cow (and brag about it) and they'll find something else.

This is partially the reason I quit reading Lee Child a few years back.

Here's a question. What makes a slice-of-life scene for you?
What are the things you like to put in, leave out, to make it resonate with the reader?

Good question. It took me a long time to figure that out, and I'm not entirely certain I can put it to words, but I'll give it a shot.

What makes slice-of-life go (I think) is the ability to capture the essence of a scene. By that I mean you-the-writer should understand a couple of crucial things:

- The physical setting. This provides the interactive backdrop. If an exchange happens over dinner this will include the table, place settings, food, and the room itself. It also entails the larger geographic location, any prevailing local culture, and the era (if applicable). You need consistency here in the sense that everybody needs to remain in the same seat for the duration, that the tabletop doesn't change from harvest gold to avocado green, and that you have sufficient stage room for what actions need to occur.

- The circumstance of the characters. Everybody is in some kind of state all the time, whether joyous, content, unsettled, restless, exhausted, hopeful, distraught - you name it. This will bear heavily on how the players interact. A family sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner will be depicted very differently than a couple of doctors sitting down to eat their chips and sandwiches after an eight-hour surgical procedure. Credibility gets blown when the stated circumstance doesn't match the exhibited behavior.

- The action depicted. Pretty much what goes on the page in black and white. An indifferent reader will pass over this, having taken it at face value.

- What's actually happening. What the scene is supposed to achieve within the larger story, filtered through the rule that nothing should occur in a vacuum. There's a world of difference in Aunt Lucy flinging a bowl of mashed potatoes and Uncle Herb calling her a crazy broad for slapstick purposes and Aunt Lucy flinging a bowl of mashed potatoes because the shirt he wore back from the bowling league last night smells like the perfume from that tramp down the street. The former is going for cheap laughs while the latter tells us a number of potentially useful things.

The last trick is putting all this together and buffing out the seams and joints until it fits together like it belongs. Properly executed, this gives you believable characters in a developed environment acting in accordance with their natures and their personality.

***

To try putting this in perspective I'll reference one of my own (because I'm lazy, but if I'm throwing out advice I might as well show that I use it myself). I'll go with the breakfast scene from Stringing Fence since it's fairly short and self-contained while also tying in with my larger fictional world.

In the excerpt, physical setting is a little on the light side, though we do establish a couple of things. Though not referenced in great detail, the setting is the kitchen/dining section of an aging mobile home occupied by two ranch hands. For the time being circumstance takes precedence over the details of their lodging - they've been called early on what was supposed to be a day off, at least one of them is mildly hungover, and they're just about the bottom of every conceivable available hierarchy known to either.

Breakfast itself is more about their shoestring existence - the bread is stale, the coffee's no good, and just because the main course hit the floor it's worth salvaging rather than throwing out. What's actually happening is them getting screwed over - and they know it - but so far as they're concerned it's the way things go. So they complain some, maybe drag their feet and wonder how they got here, but in the end they do what's expected and claim their reward. Both recognize that this is probably not the best use of their time or talents - but it gets them by while they hunt for something better.

You can fairly argue that this is a story that accomplishes nothing and goes nowhere. I would counter by saying it illustrates those things listed above - it shows a set of characters at a specific point in their lives as they deal with unforeseen difficulties. In the process it gives you an idea into the mindset (cynical and self-deprecating) but also their qualities (it's a lousy deal, but they go to hold up their end). That this is rural North Texas in the '80s is more of an informing/influencing factor more effective when suggested then openly expressed.

And now I'm realizing I've probably written a small novel in response to a pretty straightforward question. I'm going to cut it here and hope the foregoing makes any kind of sense.
 

indianroads

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[...]
"How do you transfer the emotion of the story over to the audience?"
[...]
I don't know. Just because we can identify with something doesn't mean it helps us enter into that character's world. So there's got to be something more to it and I'm wondering what that is. So I thought I'd extend Clint's challenge to all of you. What do you think? As he said, "how do you transfer the emotion of the story over to the audience?
For me, it's about creating a character the reader can relate to / feel empathy for.
 
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