Of course I went to see La La Land! (I’m a ballroom dancer, remember.) And of course I loved it.
(I should probably explain that it’s a movie that features singing and dancing in the manner of the great Hollywood musicals of old.)
But I found La La Land confusing – and there’s a lesson here for writers.
The movie opens, in Hollywood fashion, with a huge production number featuring singers, dancers, and cars on a busy California freeway. Soon after that there’s another huge production number with a crowd singing and dancing around a pool.
I settled back and waited for the next thrilling production number. And it never came. The movie morphed into an intimate love story between two people who did, of course, dance (this was still a Hollywood musical). But there were no more hordes of performers filling the huge movie screen.
There’s a writing rule (often broken, admittedly – I’ll get to that in a moment) that says you have to stick to what you promise to do in the beginning of your piece.
If your story starts with lightness and whimsy, you can’t suddenly turn it into a tragedy. If you’re using Standard English, you can’t switch to slang in the middle of your piece. And if you’re doing an old-style Hollywood musical, you have to keep the big production numbers coming. You can’t forget about them after the first 15 minutes of the movie.
Back to writing: in the same vein, your characters have to behave consistently. On page 150 you can’t suddenly reveal a serious character flaw in the saintly nun you introduced to your readers on page 1.
Exceptions are – of course – frequent. Satires play all kinds of guessing games with readers and moviegoers: part of the fun is trying to figure what’s really going on. All of Shakespeare’s tragedies have comic characters. Bright and optimistic musical comedies (Camelot and The King and I, for example) often have poignant endings. Many stories and plays feature surprises.
So why are they allowed to bend – or break – the rule? The answer is that the creators knew exactly what they were doing – and how to do it. What you won’t find in Shakespeare (or the great musicals, or novels, or plays) are characters who suddenly change their speaking habits or personality traits – or a structure that seems to forget what it set out to do.
Consistency matters. It’s a good principle to bear in mind in your writing – whether it’s a poem, memoir, short story, or personal essay. Decide what you’re going to do – and stick to it.