Woody Allen’s film, Annie Hall, won the Oscar for best picture in 1977, beating out (dare I say it?) Star Wars. Although regular readers of this blog know that I have an over-the-top love for the original Star Wars trilogy, (in particular the first film that lost the best picture Oscar to Annie Hall,) I try not to hold grudges. The truth is that I recognize that Annie Hall is a fantastic movie with an awesome narrative style.
One of the things that sets Annie Hall apart from other stories told on film is the access it gives the viewer to the inner thoughts of the characters, in particular Alvy, played by Woody Allen, and sometimes Annie, played by Diane Keaton. There are quick cuts to scenes that play out in Alvy’s imagination, moments when Alvy tells his inner thoughts directly to the camera, and still other times when subtitles run beneath a scene of dialogue, revealing that what the characters are thinking is far different from what they are saying.
These narrative “tricks” employed by Allen in making Annie Hall are all tools available to us as fiction writers, since—unlike film—stories created for the page have an easier time revealing the inner thoughts of characters. However, I think Annie Hall is a good reminder to writers of how flexible the inner life of a character really is, and how often the most interesting things about a character are revealed in the differences and disconnects between what a character thinks and what he says (or chooses not to say.)
Disclosing a disconnect between a character’s true thoughts and the words they say can help reveal character in interesting ways. Here are a few examples:
Mom started in with the usual sleepover speech. “Make sure you thank the Murphys for letting you stay over with Samantha,” she started. “They are such nice people…”
Blah blah blah… Listening to Mom praise the Murphys made my skin crawl. If she knew even half as much about Samantha’s parents as I did, she would never call them “nice.” The last time I stayed at their house, Sammy’s dad got so drunk he threw a beer can right at her mother’s head. He missed, but she threw it back and got him smack in the middle of the forehead. My mom would flip if she knew the truth about that family. “No worries, Mom. I’ll tell Mrs. Murphy you said hello.” I grabbed my coat to leave.
The above example reveals back story, as well as information about the main character’s relationship with her mother and her feelings about what’s happening at her friend’s house.
Here’s another example:
Mark finally emerged from the classroom, his hair a mess and his eyes bloodshot. I was beginning to wonder what had happened to him. That calc test had been such a cinch, I’d been waiting out here in the hall almost twenty minutes since turning in my own test paper.
“Tell me that wasn’t the hardest test you’ve ever taken,” he said.
Hard? It was full of stuff we learned last year. My baby brother could’ve aced that test between episodes of Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer.
“It was murder, right?” Mark looks like a punch-drunk fighter.
“Murder,” I say. “Toughest test I ever took.”
This example reveals tons of information about the two characters and their relationship simply by contrasting thought with dialogue.
Here’s a more extreme example of the same thing:
“I think I’m going to ask Caroline to the prom.”
Gak. I knew he would ask Caroline, but hearing him say it still turns my stomach. Little Miss Perfect, with her fake tan, fake nails, and fake smile. Driving around in daddy’s BMW with the top down so everyone in town can see how rich and spoiled she is. Ugh. “You definitely should,” I say. “You’d be cute together.”
Lastly, characters convey a lot about themselves when they think about all the things they’d like to say, but ultimately say nothing at all.
Mom zips her suitcase shut. A car horn sounds in the driveway.
“It’ll be okay,” she says. “It’s better that your dad and I spend some time apart.”
How much time, I wonder. Will you come back in time to do my hair for the homecoming dance? In time to cook Thanksgiving dinner? Will you be here to open the present I’m making you for Christmas? My mind wanders to the space in the back of my closet where I’ve hidden it – a collage of photos of the two of us from the time I was a baby until now.
Two quick blasts of a car horn interrupt my thoughts. “I’ll call you,” Mom says. One quick kiss on the cheek and she’s gone.
Of course, these are just a few basic examples of this concept. I’m sure you can think of many more.
Do you use this technique in your own writing? Have you ever found it easier to reveal your characters by keeping them silent than by getting them talking? Please share your thoughts in the comments!