A World of Speculation

Basil makes such a good point in answer to yesterday’s Shameless Plug that I want to pull it out and answer it here.

A great discussion aired several years ago on Mars Hill Radio about sentimentality. The Bridges of Madison County was preparing to open in theaters, and the book had already been selling like hotcakes on Fat Tuesday. The host and his guest (a literature professor, probably from Wheaton or one of the other members of CCCU) discussed Bridges in comparison to A Love Story from twenty or so years earlier. As I recall, the main point was essentially that sentimentality is manipulation of the reader’s emotions, sweeping them away like a river overflowing its banks, without forcing the reader to ask, ‘Is this the way life really is? Can people really do that without any consequences?’

I was just wondering if you had any thoughts relating your understanding of sentimentaility to the focus of this workshop?

The difference between melodrama and drama is not the amount of emotion, but whether the emotions are sufficiently grounded in the story.

When Snidely Whiplash ties Pauline to the railroad track while the train is coming, it’s laughable, because that’s not how a rational landlord would respond to recalcitrant renters. (Comedy, in fact, can consist of just this kind of disjuncture between cause and effect.) If the writer had made Whiplash a psychopath, it might have come closer, but, of course, by now, fictional psychopaths are a so common that their copy-of-a-copy conventions have become themselves laughable.

A dramatic story (leaving out the experimental fictional forms, to which this may or may not apply) requires emotion for the characters’ (and thus the readers’) investment in the outcome. If the character doesn’t care what will happen, the reader or viewer has no reason to, either. It can be a matter of a glass necklace or a life-or-death struggle with a tiger against the sea, but it’s emotion that makes the story compelling.

Almost anything can be well enough told to overcome objections to its reality. Don’t believe that a virtuous woman with consumption would bow down in homage to a prostitute? Once Dostoevsky tells you how they get there, it’s inevitable.

That’s craft.

But beyond craft is the theme — the place where artists have the responsibility to tell the truth as best they know it. Any theme — evil or good, right triumphs or murder has no consequences, the universe is oriented on an axis of right and wrong or ruled by chaos — can be presented with enough craft to persuade.

I didn’t read The Bridges of Madison County, so I can’t say anything first-hand about it, but it does seem useful to distinguish between discussing theme and discussing craft.

The workshop is about craft.