Last week I posted James Cameron’s answer to the question “What’s the most important thing you know about storytelling?” Discussing Cameron’s ideas with the writer Bonnie Friedman – with whom I have an ongoing, percolating conversation about craft and creativity (as regular readers of this blog well know) –, I mentioned that I particularly liked his idea that “you have to take [your characters] on a journey – and then you have to make it excruciating somehow.” Excruciating – such an intriguing word! Bonnie agreed, as usual responding with nuance and subtlety to my own visceral reaction:
“It seems to me sheer genius to come at storytelling from this vantage point,” she said. “So many of us begin from a thing in us that demands to be told and whose unleashed energy we hope will fuel us all the way along, rather than from this distant and perhaps more masterly height. And that term ‘excruciating’ is somehow so validating. Because one does find those sequences late in a film just torturously suspenseful. So many romantic movies end with a chase scene, the main character running: The Graduate, Manhattan, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Up in the Air, Sleepless in Seattle, Casablanca, etc.
“It’s interesting to think about this in terms of novels. Even in Great Expectations, a book that precedes the movies by half a century, there’s a grand, excruciating chase scene at the end. When Pip finally discovers who his benefactor is, late in the story, he also discovers that it’s urgent he help his benefactor run for his life, with the grand escape via the river, the race to intercept a foreign ship — and that sinister mystery craft which shoots out of the gloom and pursues them. The whole race and apprehension of the benefactor Magwitch has this very quality of the excruciating about it.
“It occurs to me that one effect of this is that the audience is left with fast-beating hearts and an upswing of energy, even as they are haunted by the final, grand, masterpiece-sized vision – and so instead of feeling exhausted by their long journey, they end up energized, and want to relive the thing or recommend it to their friends.”