Do the Unexpected

My wife sometimes listens to a CHR/Pop station out of Cleveland (read: mostly Hip-Hop) to keep up with culture and “Stay young.” Saturday mornings she’ll put on the Ryan Seacrest version of American Top 40, and I get dragged along on the trip. She doesn’t want me to become a geezer, even though musically I’m going in another direction by listening to Jandek (hey, I’m the first on my block to discover Nizlopi, and their album isn’t even out over here yet…).

One of the things we’ve discussed is Marshall Mathers, a/k/a Eminem. My wife thinks he’s brilliant (but would never buy one of his CD’s). I recognize his obvious talent, but think what he is doing with it (to steal a riff from The Right Stuff) is B-A-D.

Which brings me to the film 8 Mile, the fictionalized life story of and acting debut of Mister M2. I don’t think my wife wanted to see it, but I’d heard some good reviews and was curious – but not enough to get caught going into a theater or shelling out to rent the DVD.

So last night it ran on VH-1 as part of their Movies That Rock series. Since I was Mom-sitting, I pulled my iBook into my lap to try and answer some overdue e-mails and watch. Interruptions were numerous, but I saw enough of the movie to know that I enjoyed it. In fact, I was surprised how much I did like it. Eminem did a good job playing himself (in a Harold RussellDr. Haing S Ngor sort of way), and I liked the gritty tone of the film, the way it showed the seedy underbelly of Detroit (years ago I’d been there to visit in-laws and got to see the good stuff, so this was equal time).

I think the thing that impressed me the most about 8 Mile is that it tossed out all the conventions that you usually see in a film like this and did it, like Eminem’s character in the film, on its own terms.

Here’s some examples of what I mean (two caveats: spoilers abound, and I didn’t see every minute of the film, so I may be off on a few things):

The Setup: Young man tries to achieve success as a rapper in spite of being white.
What Would Usually Happen: Young man hits the big time, gets the girl, and the film ends with him playing to a packed arena in his hometown.
What Actually Happened: The young man is on the brink of breaking out, but steps back to do things on his own terms.

The Setup: Young man’s mother is in danger of being evicted from her trailer.
What Would Usually Happen: Young man wins the big rap battle and wins a small amount (say, $5,000). Uses part of it to pay Mom’s rent.
What Actually Happened: The young man wins the rap battle, but the only prize is bragging rights. The issue of the rent is left unresolved, unless you take the following into consideration.

The Setup: Young man asks for – and eventually gets – extra hours at the factory where he works, in an effort to raise money to help mom pay the rent.
What Would Usually Happen: After winning the rap battle, the young man quits his job because he’s just nailed down a large dollar-figure contract and his mom will never want for rent again.
What Actually Happened: After winning the battle, the young man steps away from a high-profile position at the club holding the contest. “I have to get to work,” he says.

The Setup: Boy wants to be a rapper.
What Would Usually Happen: Boy works hard, overcomes personal problems and whiteness, becomes a mega-star.
What Actually Happened: Boy works hard, overcomes personal problems and whiteness, becomes a better person in the process.

This is what, to me, made 8 Mile so great to watch. By breaking the rules of cliche, it actually made itself a better movie. Instead of making Eminem a one-dimensional character who becomes a star, he was three-dimensional and actually had a believable character arc.

Surprises like this are good. Being able to incorporate them into your fiction means you’re going to give your readers more than they bargained for – and perhaps make your work a better story in the process.

I’m not necessarily talking about plot twists here. I’ve discussed those before, and there are some problems related to using them – they’re not reversible, you run the risk of destroying suspension of disbelief, and you also run the risk of being stereotyped if you use them (see M. Night Shyamalan – everyone goes to his films expecting The Twilight Zone because of The Sixth Sense, but his work is deeper than that).

What I’m saying is that there’s a difference between a plot twist and the unexpected. Elmore Leonard, a national treasure, is the master of the unexpected. Toward the end of Riding The Rap there’s a scene where the kidnappers start arguing among themselves and suddenly start shooting each other – surprising us and sparing us the cliche of a detective slinking through the house, picking off the bad guys one by one. There’s a scene in the film version of Out of Sight where a bad bad guy is walking up a flight of stairs with drawn gun as he hunts good bad guy George Clooney. As they confront each other near the top of the stairs, the bad bad guy trips, his gun goes off, and he dies right there on the steps. I haven’t read the book of this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that bit lifted verbatim right from the pages of Leonard’s book. That type of unexpected event is vintage Leonard, even if it isn’t.

So when you’re novelizing, think about what you’re doing. And if you see a cliche coming, avoid it like the plague.

I believe it was Raymond Chandler who once said, “When I get stuck, I have a man with a gun run into the room.” What makes that work is the element of the unexpected.

Only I submit to you that nowadays, having this happen is a cliche in and of itself.

So when you’re stuck, try this. Suddenly a man runs into the room and he’s carrying… a porcelain elephant?

Take risks. Do the unexpected. Eschew the cliche. And earn the adoration of your readers.

Listening: Dean Martin, “Memories Are Made of This” (via iPod Shuffle)

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