I watched the film Chaplin last night – the biography of the silent-movie legend Charlie Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr. It was all very interesting, but there was one scene that struck a chord with me in particular.
Chaplin (the director, not the tramp character), is struggling with a scene he’s directing. The female lead has to mistake Chaplin (the tramp, not the director) for a well-to-do gentleman, only the woman is blind and the movie is obviously shot in silence. A problem. Now, because the whole plot is hinged on the incorrect assumption made by the female lead, Chaplin (the director) feels he cannot cheat the audience with a flimsy incorrect assumption, or ask them to turn a blind eye (no pun intended) to the implausibility of the mechanics. Chaplin doesn’t want the audience to say, I don’t believe that.
He not only solves the problem, but solves it with elegance: The blind girl is sitting on a busy street corner selling flowers, and Chaplin, trying to get to the obstructed pavement, steps through the back of a parked car to emerge on the street in front of the girl. The girl thusly assumes he has exited the car, and therefore must be a gentleman of some standing, etc…
It needn’t have gone like this. The dialogue card has the girl address Chaplin as Sir, anyway, so he could have just been walking by for the incorrect assumption to be made, but it’s lazy, and even if it’s only on a subliminal level, the audience will know it’s lazy, and the story will be weaker for the, I don’t believe that, moment.
It’s the same in written fiction. Plot-heavy genre fiction more specifically. A carefully contrived plot can be softened with elegance. Characters needn’t be shunted around with a cattle prod but subtly directed by a conductor’s baton. Chaplin’s way is elegant because the path he takes through the back of the car is in keeping with his cheeky-chappy characterisation, so it feels like the plot is following Chaplin and not the other way around. It’s all device of course, but it should be artful. The actor’s goal is to hide the performance within the performance. To give the illusion of spontaneity. To not be seen to be acting.
The writer’s goal is the same.