1. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Cheap Drama vs. Deep, Meaningful Drama

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Link the Writer, Mar 12, 2016.

    Hello, everyone! Here's something I thought might be an interesting topic worth discussion.

    This was inspired by my recent play-through of Mass Effect 3. If you haven't played the game at all, get out because there will be spoilers. If you don't care, or have played the game, read on.

    *SPOILERSPOILERSSPOILERSOMGSPOILERS!!!*
    So near the beginning of Mass Effect 3, Shepard and her (I'm using Female!Shepard because that's who I was playing as) crew are in Vancouver for a hearing and to debate on a strategy to deal with the Reapers -- an army of sentient beings hellbent on eradicating everything in the galaxy. In the middle of the hearing, the Reapers attack.

    The subject I want to focus on concerns a small segment where Shepard encounters a small boy hiding in an air vent. She reaches in and asks him to come with her, but he doesn't. Later, we see him in a rescue transport and the scene slows to a crawl. Somber music plays as a Reaper descends on this transport and blows it all to hell -- taking the boy with it-- and all the while, we see Shepard quietly looking at it, blinking (back tears apparently) and fighting the urge to do something other than stay onboard the Normandy.
    *SPOILERSPOILERSSPOILERSOMGSPOILERS!!!*

    According to Shamus of Twenty Sided Die, in this article (http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=30366), he calls it a cheap ploy to get an audience to feel bad for what's happening to the characters. In this example, we don't even know the kid, not even for five minutes; we've no emotional interest in this boy's safety so when he's blown up with the other refugees, all we have is a “Aw, that sucks...” when the game was clearly trying to tell us to feel horrified at what was happening. “FEEL BAD FOR THEM! FEEL BAD FOR SHEPARD! FEEL BAD FOR THE BOY! BE ANGRY AT THE REAPERS DESTROYING EVERYTHING!” it's screaming. For the duration of the game, Shepard has nightmares about the boy where she's in the woods chasing him down and she almost grabs him before he bursts into flames.

    Shamus, as I understand it, believes this is bad writing. It's no different than a war movie where a young soldier pulls out a photo of his equally young wife and newborn child -- and then promptly gets killed. We're told to feel bad for this guy even when we've literally only known him for, like, ten seconds. There wasn't any time for us to bond with him so his death had any meaning.

    Cheap drama for the sake of drama rather than taking the time and energy to get us personally involved with the characters so that when something does happen, we feel the horror the game/book wants us to feel.

    Do you agree with him? How would you have re-written that scene so the boy wasn't just a cheap “feel sorry for everyone!” gag as Shamus argued. Is it all right -- or even necessary -- to do this every now and then?

    Thoughts? When is cheap drama OK, if it ever is, and when should it be avoided?
     
  2. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    I feel like that technique is actually got a sophisticated side if done right. If done right, it can represent effectively and poignantly the idea that random, innocent people die too, not just soldiers. And can emphasize the calamity of an event. Plus, slightly cheap moves are acceptable now and again.
     
  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I thought the re-use of the little boy through the rest of the game was kind of annoying (I hate cut scenes in general, though). But I thought it was effective in the initial situation. It's too easy to allow violence and destruction to feel impersonal in games or movies or whatever, and personalizing at least one of the victims felt like a good idea, to me.

    And I expect most answers to this question are going to be similarly subjective. If it worked for you, you say it's meaningful. If it didn't work, it's cheap. But why does it work? I think each person will have different reactions.
     
  4. Robert Musil
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    Robert Musil Contributing Member

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    The example you gave from Mass Effect doesn't strike me as being all that bad. Because:

    a) at least he's in two scenes before he dies
    b) the effect of the boy and his death continues to play out, making it a bit of an extended character beat for Shepherd (although the only character trait it establishes is "empathy with innocent children", not all that interesting, but that's a different topic)

    Not having played the game myself I can't say how emotionally resonant this is or how well it works, but it strikes me as something that would be at worst benign, and probably wouldn't rise to the level of "annoying". If anything it put me in mind of the red-jacket-girl from Schindler's List, which I don't think many people deride as "cheap".

    In fact the more I think about it, it seems to me that the brevity of a character's presence in a work has very little to do with the cheap/earned debate. I'll always remember this scene in the most recent War of the Worlds film adaptation (yes, the one with Tom Cruise) where there's a crowd running from the aliens right at the beginning, and Cruise is simply running alongside this woman--whom he doesn't know, who has no lines, and doesn't appear in any other scenes--and they run for a minute or two and then the woman is hit by a death ray and vaporized. I don't know why it's stuck with me--maybe that extra did a good job emoting, but I think it's because it simply played on the anonymity of people we see every day when we commute to work or school or whatever. It looked, except for the running from aliens and being vaporized, like they could just be standing next to each other on the subway, and then all of a sudden poof and she's ashes.

    Like I said, it only lasted a minute, had no effect on the rest of the movie, so maybe it was "cheap". But it seems to me that if you can work in some clever angle, like the "morning commute" undertones in that scene, then you can make even a short, on-paper pointless scene have some weight. Brevity being the soul of etc. etc.
     
  5. doggiedude
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    doggiedude Contributing Member

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    Without knowing anything about the game I'm not sure if this example is good or bad. However, I've read plenty of novels where the story is temporarily diverted to a new character who's only need for existence is to show a different perspective. The character may show the opinions of the "average Joe" in the universe we are seeing or just the view of an event that the main characters wouldn't be seeing. This can be done well or done badly but I don't think the technique itself is bad.
    As a side note. I think anytime a story can depict the reality of death in war is a good thing. As entertaining as such stories are, we should never forget that real people die in war.
     
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  6. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    I never played ME3, but I did pick up and immediately put down a comic book that began with a supervillain brutally murdering some hero's wife and child on-panel. The hero and his family had no introduction and no time to establish their personalities, and I felt like I had no context with which to react to what I was seeing. It was just slaughter for slaughter's sake.
     
  7. KokoN
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    KokoN Active Member

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    As others have said, I believe it depends on the context. If there is a meaningful reason, then it works. For example, someone in real life could easily be haunted by the fact that they failed to rescue a child in some similar situation. So if this event majorly shapes who the character is and their life in a way that is meaningful to the story being told, then it's deep. If it is just used as a cheap, gruesome way to catch the reader's attention but has no other purpose, then in my opinion it would be cheap drama. Even the flashbacks that the main character has could be cheap depending on how it's written, in my opinion.

    Another deeper example would be to show the brutality of a situation. However, I think this is more meaningful in nonfiction or realistic/historical fiction than in other kinds of literature. If you invent some horrible person or war and then illustrate their brutality by killing off some innocent fictional people, in some ways that can be meaningless because you're not really sacrificing anything in your story--the people aren't real. Random fictional people don't inherently have value, unlike real people. Therefore, you probably will need to add something to your story to give the reader a reason why they should care that you killed off some random person who only existed to be killed off. (Hint: give them a reason to exist other than to be killed off. :p)
     
  8. obi-sem kenobi
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    obi-sem kenobi Contributing Member

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    Being somewhat of a fan of the Mass Effect games I'll just throw my opinion in there. I agree with BayView that the constant return of the boy in his nightmares is unnecessary and that the boy was not enough of ac character for that to have the impact it's trying to have. That said, the scene you described was, for me, the best one of the entire game. Possibly the best one since that one choice in ME 1. The music helped though. It seriously chokes me up every time.
    I think it helps that it was obviously a bystander, not someone who could have been important to the plot in any way. Just an average kid who has to face the end of the world as we know it. For a moment it looks like he actually made it. If you can make me care about a character in just two scenes, that's not lazy story writing. I think that's great story writing. That doesn't mean to say that it always works. In fact, it usually doesn't. It seems like one of those "don't try this at home" things. But when it is done right, it can really make the story memorable for me. I've forgotten most of ME3, but that scene I've always remembered.
    (for those of you who didn't play the game but don't mind the spoilers, here's the scene we're talking about:
    The specific moment is around 1:40).
     
  9. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Sorry for not responding, I just want you all to know that I appreciate reading what you posted; it'll take me some time to process them and respond back. :) Very insightful things here!
     
  10. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Well, it's one way to get your mc to feel something, and to show the threat of danger is serious without upsetting the storyline or other characters. Death of a loved one causes a major ripple effect. The survivors don't just get over it. But if a minor character gets killed the mc has the ability to feel bad, get angry and get on with the mission. If it was his girl friend this wouldn't happen. His grief would affect everything after the fact and as a writer if you're not prepared to work that in - a minor character looks more convenient and less trouble.

    Do what works for your story. In my WIP I've worked in deaths that cause the opposite reaction - inconvenience and irritation.
     
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2016
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