Posts Tagged state the obvious

How to state the obvious – obligatory scenes in Stephen King’s The Green Mile

Sometimes writers have to state the obvious or
put in a scene everybody is expecting. But that’s
not a licence to coast. Here’s how Stephen King’s
The Green Mile  makes an obligatory scene into
something special

Stephen King’s The Green Mile is a story about the lives of guards on death row. One of the first things it does is set the scene with an execution.

Some writers might coast here – surely the material is startling enough that you don’t have to do anything else with it, right?

Wrong.

Here’s what The Green Mile does.

It shows two execution scenes, in stark contrast.

The first isn’t real, it’s a rehearsal. One guard plays the ‘condemned’ man. He gibbers like a loon and makes lewd last requests. When the other guards throw the switch he writhes and screams with glee. The prison governor allows them to lark about, knowing he is seeing nervous men struggling with a difficult job. He also tries to keep the joking to a minimum because there is a newcomer who needs to be trained. This allows us a way in – in several ways: the prison governor trying not to let the hi-jinks get out of hand, yet realizing the men need to let off steam. The guards themselves, coping with the stress the best way they can. And the new guard, seeing all this for the first time. It also gives the author a licence to dump in as much exposition as he wants. Masterful.

And then he goes one better by showing an actual execution. And how different it is. The prisoner is frightened. The governor handles him with great sensitivity. The guards who were roaring with laughter before are nervous and gentle.

The Green Mile could have gone straight to this scene, relying on the content to speak for itself. But because he put the other one before it, the real one becomes much more appalling. We see how strange and difficult a thing it is to extinguish life.

I often see manuscripts in which the writer assumes there are some things they don’t have to explain. Execution is a nasty business – who’d have thought?  Surely you don’t have to spell that out.

Wrong. For two reasons.

1 One of the things audiences have paid their money for is details of the grisly process. They need to get it somehow. What they don’t realize they want is for you to make it way more powerful than they were expecting. So you can’t just cruise with scenes like this.

2 In the world of your story, anything is possible. You could have, if you wanted, a bunch of prison guards who were completely blase, and no more affected by executing a man than if they were squashing a fly. You set the rules of the story, what is right, what is wrong, what is difficult and what is easy. And you have to demonstrate them.

So, an execution must be shown and it must be shown to be a difficult job. But The Green Mile turns this into storytelling gold.

Have you got any favourite examples of exposition and obligatory scenes that have been handled with panache? Have you solved similar problems?

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