This post arises from a few things I’ve read or seen recently that have got me thinking about how emotional impact in stories is often done badly, or at least very coarsely. It’s kind of like the difference between being a fry cook and being a chef.
For example, there’s the Alderaan Ploy.
Rocks fall, everybody dies, nobody cares
Early on in Star Wars: A New Hope, as I’m sure you remember, Darth Vader blows up the entire planet Alderaan and its population of millions, simply to show Princess Leia that he’s a hardass and doesn’t make empty threats. (Of course, he then has no further leverage against her and she’s less likely to cooperate with him than ever, but we’re not talking about that.)
What is the emotional impact, for the audience, of the blowing up of Alderaan? To put it another way, what was George Lucas setting out to achieve in this scene (because every scene should achieve something), and did he in fact achieve it?
Well, he establishes that Darth Vader is a really evil, evil, really evil person. Which we’d kind of picked up from the costume and the music, actually, George.
And I suppose he establishes that Princess Leia is incredibly loyal and determined and doesn’t bow to threats.
But what he doesn’t achieve, in my view, is much emotional impact.
You’d think that blowing up a planet would be as much impact as you could possibly have. But no.
See, we don’t know anyone from Alderaan, except Leia, and we just met her. And apart from briefly registering “You fiend!”, she doesn’t seem that emotionally impacted herself by the death of everyone she knows and the destruction of the place she grew up. Millions of people, we are told, died, but they don’t have names. They don’t have faces. They don’t, therefore, have impact.
Child sponsorship organisations are onto this. They don’t just recite statistics in their TV ads. They show us a face. They give us a name. They tell us a story that gets us to relate to the child as a child, not as one of a large number of nameless, faceless people we’re being told are having tough times somewhere we’ve never seen and can’t imagine.
Bonus points for showing the child’s mother, because here is someone who is emotionally impacted by the child’s plight, and in seeing that, we share it. It’s how we’re wired. People who are close to us or who are like us in some way, or who we feel we know, even just because we know their name and have seen their face, gain more empathy from us, and if we see them having emotion we share that emotion. It’s just the way the human brain works.
I recently read E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Triplanetary, the lead-up to his Lensman series. (Links in this post are not affiliate links, they’re to my reviews on Goodreads, by the way.) It’s Alderaan ploy all the way around. No actual complete planets are blown up, but large bits of them are. Pittsburgh is destroyed by aliens. The entire human fleet, almost, is annihilated. Millions of aliens are also killed. But as far as I recall, none of the named characters come to harm. Everyone who dies is nameless and faceless, and the characters have such stiff upper lips it’s a wonder they can pronounce the letter “P”, so despite the vast scale of the destruction I didn’t find myself caring.
Nobody that the author had made matter died (again, as far as I can recall), and those who did have names and faces took all the tragedy so well that we didn’t get a second-hand emotional impact off them either.
The spy who didn’t care about me much, and vice versa
Thrillers in the James Bond mould usually achieve their emotional impact through the Alderaan Ploy. There are lots of big explosions. But I recently read a technothriller, Deep State by Walter John Williams, which started out referencing Bond and then proceeded to systematically subvert him.
See, Bond is a cynical character (especially in the books). He doesn’t get close to people, except in a physical sense, of course. In Bond, sex means little, violence means little, and death means little. But in Deep State, the main character, Dagmar, is suffering PTSD from the events in the previous book, This Is Not a Game, because she does care. She’s lost people close to her, friends and lovers, and she’s terrified of it happening again because it was awful, she felt a real sense of loss – and so do we. And so when people die in Deep State, people who have names and faces, it means something – to Dagmar, and to us. It has impact. And when she takes a lover, it has impact, because we know that means something to her too.
This is why I love Jim Butcher and Lois McMaster Bujold, too. Their main characters care about things, care deeply, and are able to be deeply hurt – and hurting them deeply is exactly what the authors do (as a deliberate policy, in both cases – they’ve both talked explicitly about it).
But they don’t do it by blowing up planets. Bujold is able to give me more emotional impact out of a failed dinner party (which is also completely hilarious) than most authors can achieve by wiping out an entire sentient species. Sure, people die in their books, too, but it always matters. It matters deeply. It affects the people left behind. They feel the loss, like you or I would, like a friend I worked with whose son died in a car crash did. It has emotional impact that resonates for years.
So, are you setting out to be a literary fry cook, or a chef? You can establish the evil evilness of your evil villainous villain by having him murder a few people, or a lot of people, out of hand, sure. You can make people go “Wow!” by giving them big explosions.
But if you want real emotional impact, show me a character being human and vulnerable and caring about something, and then take that thing away. I’ll feel the loss, even as I see the character doing the same.