Brutalize them during the plot.
There’s a reason reality television is still popular today. Part of it is the smaller production costs but the other reason is the audience (them) are fascinated by any story that could possibly be true. With these 7 steps to engaging the audience any work can be popular too. In step #6, ‘right for the moment’ brutality morphs plot into believable reality, drawing in the audience through the stakes involved.
A Balanced Brutality
Reality is more complex than a story world. There is more to hardship in day-to-day living than brutality. Many times reality has a coldness to it that is shocking but almost totally emotionally removed. In The Shawshank Redemption do I really believe Warden Norton would have taken a gun and shot Tommy dead? Do I feel like he’d have eaten the same gun when Andy escaped?
The truth is cold but the Warden would have transferred Tommy and Andy would never have seen him again. It probably would have taken Andy a while to even realize nothing would come from the truth on that front as the Warden never would have talked about it. And he would have quietly retired a very wealthy man when Andy escaped, mildly disgraced but more than compensated.
Because of the audience though, the brutality of the rapes and beatings needed a balance. We expected them as part of prison life, it supported the world we needed to believe in to go on this journey with Andy and Red. If we let reality play out we wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfied with the ending. As writers, we go to all this effort making the characters and their world believable for choices such as these. There is this shock that the Warden would kill Tommy himself that neatly mirrors reality’s cold truth. This is a bit of real life’s echo that is supported by the audience’s desire for the stakes to be higher. Because we’d want our own lives to be worth as much, we better believe the Warden would brutally kill to protect himself. The Warden thus eating his own gun is his just desserts, a life, for a life, for a life. Sure there is more to life’s hardship, but the audience expects brutality, it feels fair to them and for Andy it balances the extreme forces in his life.
A Romantic Brutality
The search for true love occupies much of our reality. Even if we do find a mate and endure past the one year mark, milestones plague the relationship every three years from then on. While this is true, we can’t help hoping it’s more snowflakes, baby chicks and air kisses. We believe love is capable of overcoming every trial and should be free to all. So in a story we want the lovers to triumph, to give us a taste of our ideal. In order to believe in this reality though, the audience has to feel there is an equal opposing force to that love, otherwise it’s just fantasy playing out for fools. This is where brutality comes to play with plot in The Twilight Saga.
Love stories are rift with stereo-types. It’s the nature of being so desired. The worst one is when one of the lovers involved calls off the relationship for some reason they feel supersedes their emotions. We know in real life this happens all the time, the ‘it’s me not you’ defense. Instead of trying to force it into Twilight, a proper foundation is built to use it to good effect in New Moon, the second in the series. Of course, Edward is the one to leave his relationship with Bella. She’s an 18-year-old girl in love for the first time. He’s a 104 year old vampire only posing as her contemporary. His time has been well spent figuring out the important things in life. Things like a soul, a rich human experience and a life free from addiction. These inform his greatest fear – that his vampirism will steal from Bella her life. Two brutal events provide Edward with proof his fear should be taken seriously.
A small coven led by James, a vampire who longs for the hunt, come upon the Cullens with Bella. They are playing baseball, a family game they only rarely enjoy since it must be played in a thunderstorm. The fact a large coven of vampires is protecting his prey makes Bella only more desirable to him. We understand right away what is threatened – certainly Bella’s life but also the peace the Cullens have cultivated in Forks. When James seeks Bella’s mother as a lure this threat is further emphasized for Bella would never allow herself happiness knowing she caused her mother’s death. In the end they stop James, but not before Bella is beaten, almost losing her life, both her actual life and her human life.
Another family gathering escalates Edwards anxiety, compounded by Bella’s demands to take her humanity. On the heels of Bella returning home from the hospital, it’s her birthday and to celebrate Alice has gathered a Cullen Surprise Party. In a clumsy accident Bella finds herself surrounded by vampires whose control is tested with her bleeding. Only Carlisle can stay to patch her up. You can’t blame Edward after this for trying to do what he feels is right – leaving. Vampires are a danger to Bella. We only understand through Edward that such brutality has massive impact on our relationships. Romance isn’t about portraying reality’s problems but giving us a relationship pitted with real brutal milestones that makes us realize our ideals are possible.
A Characterized Brutality
Humanity’s history is rife with savage moments where human brutalizes human. Rarely do these moments come upon us suddenly, they build up over time until the pressure boils over. When a character stays in character brutality will rise naturally from their actions, this is no more apparent than in Mad Men.
Lane Pryce became one of my favorite characters over the course of the season so I was devastated by his suicide. He impressed me as caught up too much in the image others present to the world. Dissatisfied with being simply conscientious with a strong work ethic he sought other ways to beef up his image while never really achieving them. When he stepped over the line by forging that check a foreboding warned me of his dim future. I remember laughing when the jaguar was so undependable that it quit on him before he could get the job done. The jaguar attempt represented the shell of his life; it looks good from the outside but rarely worked, especially when he needed it the most. There was a poetic justice to him hanging himself in the office, baring the way into the place that caused him so much stress and anxiety. The brutality here is obvious. Lane’s unhappiness, weakness of character and unyielding pride backed him into a corner he was unwilling to fight his way out of. His choice makes Don appear more brutal than he really was while Joan felt brutally blindsided. The very real lesson: be happy with who you are.
I also have a soft spot in my heart for Roger Sterling. He’s rather a reprobate who even though he pursues anything he desires is never really satisfied once he attains it. You can imagine Roger is a possible future Don if Draper were to lose his effect on people. Roger administers several moments of brutality making the most of his time on-screen this season. The first is when he goes on a LSD trip simply because his wife doesn’t want to do so alone. Her mistake was in manipulating him because afterwards he seeks a divorce. She felt it made them closer and it did in a way – he too wants to be influential. And he gets a chance to at a banquet Megan’s mother attends with the Drapers. Sally is hit in the chest when she walks in on Megan’s mother orally servicing Roger. It’s a brutal side of adulthood I would rather a young girl not ever see. He convinces Marie to continue the affair later.
There are other moments of brutality, some of the more powerful ones are Joan’s prostitution for a piece of the pie and Pete’s affair ending with her lobotomizing his memory. Whichever moment effected you the most, they all arose straight from their characters, from their history. The outcome of these brutal plot points balanced with the characters, if they were deserving like Joan they got what they desired or like Pete rejected with the chair swiped from under them. Fate plays out to its deserving conclusion and we see that so well with the brutal moments in Mad Men’s plot.
I wanna be popular too you say…and you can be. Brutalize them during the plot. My writing partner got me into Dick Frances books, she’s an avid mystery reader, and I fell in love with his extraordinary Joe every man protagonists. Frances always threatened his characters in a believable way and I noticed, a brutal way. This was my first exposure to brutality being a major and consistent draw for them (the audience). I quickly found that all popular works have a brutality to them. It’s not all dead bodies or beat downs, sometimes it can be hard truths or stark realities shown in a brutal way. Whatever form they take though always suits the story and its tone. By using brutality at the right moment in a story the plot takes on this believability that feels like it can only come from reality.
As a writer, take the sixth step in your own work to engage the audience: brutalize them during the plot. Continue reading how with these 7 steps to engaging the audience any work can be popular too.