Sometimes I get stuck with dramatic motivation: when you want a character to do something or else, you need to have a good reason for them to do it. If it's not a good reason, you've lost your reader. They need to be able to identify with the character sufficiently to believe in what you have that character do.

On the other hand, the strict logic of survival is often abandoned in favour of dramatic tension, the classic being: 'hey, let's all split up and look for the monster'. Or, 'I think I'll go into the spooky abandoned house at the end of the street and see what's behind that locked attic door I was told never to attempt to open.'

In real life, there's no way I'm going into the attic. Not without a full army patrol, a couple of tanks, fifteen gallons of holy water and a flame-retardant kevlar body-suit between me and It. At least, that's what you'd do if you're me.

I got thinking about this the other day watching a movie called 'Wag the Dog', in which Robert De Niro (playing a high-level 'fixer' for the US govt.) and Dustin Hoffman (playing a big-time Hollywood producer who resents he's never been recognised for his efforts at making box-office busting productions) co-operate on inventing a war in Albania to distract the voters, a few days prior to a presidential election, from the President's unfortunate behaviour towards a young girl in the Oval Office (amazingly enough, the movie was finished before the Clinton scandals).

Towards the end of the movie (spoiler alert), the job finished despite a number of obstacles, Hoffman's character declares to de Niro he has every intention of collecting on his hard work. He wants the world to know just how well he handled the creation of the phony war, which he now looks upon as the crowning achievement of his career. De Niro reminds him that he can't talk about what he's done, ever. It's worth his life, literally. Hoffman's character retorts he doesn't care about his life, he cares about cementing his reputation.

The producer's death - a supposed heart attack - is inevitable. Yet knowing you would be murdered without hesitation under such circumstances, would any of us really choose to be so remarkably blind to the fatal penalty? It's clear the producer's attempt to claim responsibility for creating a phony war will not end up with the respect he so clearly seeks: he will simply be a dead producer.

Hoffman's character is walking up to the locked attic door, the one with the sound of something heavy shuffling and grunting behind it, with a shiny new key in his hand. Whistling.

But to do otherwise is, unfortunately, insufficiently dramatic. So I understand why the script does what it does. It's the very, very fine balance between that dramatic tension, and what drives that character. Sometimes it's also worth remembering something Harlan Ellison once said - that hydrogen isn't the most common element in the universe: it's stupidity.

One of my favourite stories of all time is called 'The Little Magic Shop', by Bruce Sterling. It takes every one of those cliched conventions - the locked door, the monster in the basement - and gives them a good hard shafting. It's an object lesson in how to defy expectations, and if you can find it, I can guarantee you'll have read one of the best short stories you've ever encountered.


Hal Duncan said...

Just read "The Little Magic Shop" in the Kelly & Kessel slipstream anthology (Feeling Very Strange). Remember you talking about it years ago. You're right. Fantastic story.

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