The Balance of Hope and Dread
Writing a compelling story is a balancing act between hope and dread.
When the hero staggers down the sidewalk with a pink slip in one hand and an eviction notice in the other, put a piece of dread on the scale. When the hero discovers an old cellphone, with a genie trapped inside, granting wishes through text messages, put a piece of hope on the scale. When the phone’s battery starts running out of juice, put a piece of dread on.
Keep a tally of how many pieces you put down.
If the story breezes by without conflict, the audience will get bored and float away. If the story takes the audience’s emotions by storm and never lets up, it will get too heavy for them to take. Writers should use dramatic tension to draw out the audience’s emotions, but they shouldn’t exhaust them.
There is such a thing as too much dread.
Whether the audience realizes it or not, they’re weighing the hero’s victories against their losses, trying to predict what side the story will rest on. Sometimes you need to keep the scales in motion to thwart their predictions, and sometimes you need to give them relief by including moments where the scales are dead even.
The end balance isn’t the only thing that matters, there are other factors to consider like how long the scales stay tipped to one side, and the weight of each piece you put on.
Don’t Keep the Scales Tipped Too Long
The slasher film, The Strangers tips the scales all the way to dread in the first scene, when the leads’ blood soaked corpses are discovered on the floor of their vacation home. This flash forward pushed me out of the story.
Why would I care if Scott Speedman’s character finds a shotgun? I already know his attackers are going to get it away from him. Why would I care if Liv Tyler’s character makes a run for the radio in the barn? I already know that help doesn’t come. Once the killers got into the house, I knew they weren’t going to gut the leads until the eighty minute mark, by then I found myself saying, “Just get it over with, already.”
I suspect, the writer let the audience know the characters were doomed to make his slasher feel more hardcore, to promise us murder and mayhem. If anything, this decision stabbed The Strangers in the foot. The writer told us that no matter what the heroes do, their efforts will amount to a zero sum. This is why I couldn’t invest interest in their wellbeing, even when the big reveal is that one them survives for some reason.
Turns out, the audience needs a smattering of hope to appreciate the dread, otherwise the conflict feels meaningless.
In the typical hero’s journey, the hero goes through a change that allows him to overcome an obstacle. In tragedies, the hero’s change might lead him to sacrifice himself, or show the folly of his ways. Sometimes what changes is the audience’s expectations of the character, like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We want to see Jack Nicholson’s character evolve but ultimately we realize he’s too stubborn.
In any event, the audience should keep guessing until the end.
It’s okay to plant the seeds of catastrophe throughout your story, but you don’t want to forecast the entire ending in act one, nor do you want to be so bleak we get a strong hunch of where it’s going and lose interest in the outcome. If the scales are tipped toward dread for too long, we’ll know what’s going to happen. If they shift all the way back to hope at the last minute, the audience will feel like the rug was pulled out from under them, and that happy ending will seem tacked on.
The Quality of Conflict
A few months ago, I blogged about why writers should be evil. It’s our job to make bad things happen to good people, but I should’ve specified that those bad things need to be engaging. Not every piece you put on the scales of hope and dread has the same weight. Conflict isn’t captivating on its own. Even tragedies need to be entertaining.
If you make bad things happen to background players just to make your setting seem darker, your audience will wonder if they’re supposed to care. Obstacles shouldn’t be speed bumps in the scenery, they should resonate throughout the story.
Imagine this scenario. A high school girl sets out to bring integrity back to her debate team. She wants to make well reasoned arguments, but her rival undermines her efforts by using appeals to emotion that echo the tone of cable news pundits, therefore our hero has to choose a topic where an appeal to reason will be more persuasive…and then there are bullies in the school who duct tape freshmen to the showers in the boy’s locker room.
Our hero never addresses this issue on the debate stage, nor does she have to deal with the bullies directly. Their antics are a meaningless subplot that goes nowhere. It’s only reason for being is to show how the hero’s school is rife with conflict.
In this case, the plight of the freshmen is a piece of dread set beneath the scales, disconnected from hope, it doesn’t tip the story in either direction. In this draft, it wastes the audience’s time. If the audience realizes a subplot has no real dramatic tension they’ll stop paying attention to the main one.
TVTropes.org calls this: Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy. Their article on the subject says, “Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy occurs when a conflict exists that simply lacks any reason for the audience to care about how it is resolved. This is often because the setting is extremely but meaninglessly Darker and Edgier, and/or all sides are abhorrently, equally evil.”
The pieces you put on the scales need to add weight to the story.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker call those free floating pieces ‘and thens’. Their advice is to replace ‘and thens’ with ‘buts’ and ‘therefores,’ to them make pivotal to the story.
If our hero on the debate team brought the topic of bullying to the pulpit, those scenes in the boy’s locker room would become relevant.
Don’t Break the Scales
A story might have every intention of showing how the human spirit can triumph over adversity, but long stretches of adversity can be draining for the audience. If you tap their empathy dry, you’ll find them rolling their eyes when you want them to be crying.
Too much tragedy can break the suspension of disbelief and make the audience realize you’re toying with their heartstrings.
Writers should put a fair amount of distance between a death row execution, a suicide, and a hit and run. For this reason, I think the film Monster’s Ball was a brilliantly acted character study that I never want to see again. The scales tipped from hope to dread for so long the film went from being engaging to brutalizing.
TV shows like Lost, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones are consistently tragic, but they use deaths to pose questions that are too interesting to leave unanswered. A character doesn’t just die to coax a reaction from the audience, their death tells us something new about an over arching plot line. The grief the audience feels is mixed with fascination. Even when our favorite character dies, we keep watching, because we need to know what happens.
Intriguing mysteries tip the scales back toward hope.
There are other ways to coax hope out of the audience in hopeless situations. Sometimes we root for dreadful characters when they’re the lesser of two evils.
On Breaking Bad, a chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer decides to cook meth to pay for his treatment. Walter White’s metamorphosis from mild mannered father to meth kingpin, doesn’t happen over night. Vince Gilligan, the show runner, tricks us into cheering for Walter’s transformation by setting him up against people whose methods are more ruthless.
As Walter becomes more of a monster his opposition gets worse, forcing him to pit his wit against a cartel henchman, a drug kingpin, and a ruthless gang of Neo-Nazis. Even after everything Walter’s does to his friends and family, we can’t help but hope for him to win.
Breaking Bad’s harsh subject matter could’ve made it a chore to watch, it could’ve been buried in dread, but Vince Gilligan put just enough hope on the scale to make it addicting.
More writers should pay that much attention to what they’re balancing.