Monday, May 21, 2007

Dramatic Speeches

Remember that blockbuster hit INDEPENDENCE DAY? Aliens attack the Earth, and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum save the day with the help of some ludicrous science? Yeah, not a great movie (though Smith did have some excellent lines--doesn't he always?--and Goldblum is great anyway). The reason I bring this movie up, however, has nothing to do with either of those actors. What's on my mind tonight is the speech that the president, played by Bill Pullman, gives late into the movie. The speech is supposed to be patriotic and rousing . . . but unfortunately it really just doesn't come off. Pullman does his best, but the script writers just weren't speech writers. Suffice it so say that Pullman's president is no FDR.

I think about that cringe-worthy scene a lot--whenever I contemplate writing a rousing speech of my own, in fact. In my earlier (pre-THE GUARDIAN) novels I wrote a number of supposedly rousing speeches, but none of those came off well, either. It seems like many speeches housed in dramatic works don't come off well (the impeccable THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT and the works of Tom Clancy being notable exceptions). Some authors are multi-talented and can write wonderful novels (or screenplays) as well as convincing speeches, but I think that these are two (actually, three) distinctly different talents and you shouldn't assume you can do both if you can do one. The same with journalism, poetry, songwriting . . . all of these are discrete disciplines.

But I'm specifically interested in dramatic speeches, because those so often come up in certain kinds of novels--fantasies and political thrillers come to mind. I've been a bit blocked in my own writing since returning from vacation, largely because I had come to a point where a military scout was supposed to make a dramatic speech to a bunch of frightened townspeople. I've been blocked because I knew I didn't want to write the scene. I knew I wouldn't do it very well. But what I realized last night was this: I don't have to write the scene. The speech itself really isn't important to my particular book. It's the effect of the speech on the characters and plot that I actually want to write about.

It's like that old monster movie adage: don't show the monster. If the viewers can't see the monster, it's much more intimidating--take M. Night Shyamalan's otherwise-excellent SIGNS as an example of when showing a full-body shot of the monster hinders suspense and mood. The same thing goes for dramatic speeches: if you aren't really good at writing dramatic speeches, and it's important to your work to have a really dramatic speech, don't feel like you have to actually show the speech--or at least not all of it. There are a lot of ways to get around writing an extended monologue, actually, while still achieving the intended effect. Less is sometimes more (but that's something that is completely up to you).

As another example: Bill Watterson's beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes had numerous references to a mysterious "Noodle Incident." This incident is mentioned several times in almost mythical tones, but it is never explained. Watterson explained in one of his later anthologies that he did this on purpose, because he knew that what his readers imagined was so much more bizarre and outrageous than anything he could have come up with. There are countless such examples in all media forms--the special edition of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK actually shows the Wampa, whereas the original didn't, and as such a lot of the tension of that scene in the ice cave on Hoth is lost in the new version.

It's all comes down to balance and personal preference, and there is no ultimate right answer. But it's indisputable that leaving some things to the imagination is a tried-and-true technique that has served many writers well. This technique shouldn't be used to the exclusion of others, of course, but it is one that we aspiring writers might not employ as often as we should. It's sometimes tempting to just explain everything immediately, but you should be aware of the effect that this might have on the sense of mystery and tension in your work. Sometimes mystery, like ambiguity, works to our advantage. And sometimes a speech is much more dramatic when it exists nowhere but in the readers' imagination.


Another Aspiring Author said...

I'm usually more of a lurker than a commenter, but I just had to say how impressed I am you quoted from both "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Star Wars" in one post. Spaceman Spiff is my hero :)

Christopher M. Park said...

Thanks for commenting! Both of those works are some of my favorites--I actually wrote to Watterson when I was in high school, and sent him a 3D rendering I had done of Spiff's little red ship. I got a note back from his publicity person, telling me thanks but that was a copyright violation, and he doesn't accept fan mail. She was otherwise very nice, though, and sent me a copy of an anthology I already had. It's the thought that counts, though, and that will probably always be my favorite comic.


Anonymous said...

Usually they have some good short speeches on Star Treck.
It's a good way of putting your thoughts into someone else's mouth.
They do it a lot on Soprano's and Boston Legal.

Christopher M. Park said...

Absolutely, there are definitely numerous examples of good or even great speeches in fiction. I have nothing against them, when they are well done--it's just that I have trouble writing them for myself, and have relatively little interest in writing them in the first place, and so I choose to work around them instead.

That said, even THE GUARDIAN has a short speech in it. Generally the speakers in my writing tend to be stoics battling back great emotion, so the speeches are brief. They wouldn't be that bad a fit for Jean-Luc Picard, actually.


Stephen Parrish said...

I agree about the speech in "Independence Day." The crowd around the president erupted with enthusiasm disproportionate to his eloquence. (But the pacing in that movie is a good study in pacing.)

Nobody's yet mentioned the most famous speech in (recent) literary history: Galt's Speech in ATLAS SHRUGGED.

Christopher M. Park said...

You're right, I think a lot of those blockbuster hits, whatever their other faults, are a good study in pacing. That's probably a good part of what makes them so darn popular.

You know, I still need to read ALTAS SHRUGGED. I enjoyed ANTHEM, but had a hard time getting into THE FOUNTAINHEAD and so stopped on Ayn Rand for a while. That was seven years ago, so perhaps I ought to look into her again....

Thanks for stopping by!