Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Learn to Manipulate

Want to challenge opinions? Introduce issues in a different light? Try a political spin, novelist style? Work on your reader manipulation.

Our sympathies and emotions are manipulated on a regular basis by special interest groups, politicians, and any company with funds enough to buy ad agents on Madison Avenue–and gifted, experienced writers. Reader manipulation is a tool for mature writers, those who have mastered what novelist Ane Mulligan dubs RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. If you don’t trust your reader to understand what’s going on, if you feel the need to explain what you’re doing, your manipulation attempts will fail.

The reasons for manipulation range from shock value to challenging social mores. In 2010, TNT aired an episode of The Closer in which the script writers, the “pros” in today’s Lessons from the Pros post, did both.

The story line goes something like this: The star, Brenda, and her squad of detectives probe a string of sadistic slayings, presumably members of a Mexican drug cartel offing members of a rival cartel. When the pathologist comes on the scene, he eventually provides the twist–the victims’ organs are missing. Hearts, kidneys, livers–gone.

From the start, the script writers make certain that viewers quickly understand the murder victims were evil, so at the first of the show, we simply have a case of bad guys killing bad guys. Banking on a “let them kill each other off” viewer mentality, the writers keep the sympathy level low. Of course, interest is high because this is, after all, The Closer, which has a huge fan base.

Once it’s established that the decedents are scum, the authors twist our perception: Some professional, with knowledge of organ harvesting, is killing these people.

Interest spikes. Sympathy rises a little. It’s one thing for bad guys to kill each other, but it’s another for an disinterested party to step in and start profiting at these poor victims’ expense. So, just who is the bad guy here? The one killing for profit, or the heartless cartel members? (Sorry, bad joke.)

Next, we’re introduced to one of the beneficiaries of this heinous crime: a child who needed and received a transplant that saved his life. Again the viewer must re-evaluate: Who is the bad guy? The cartel members who do horrid things to people, or the wonderful professional who rids society of this threat in order to save children? And, again, sympathies shift.

Then, the righteousness of our own heroine-of-justice, Brenda, is called into doubt. To her, the organ harvester is the bad guy, and she’s hot on his trail. She discovers a pending heart transplant recipient and questions the child’s father while posing as a journalist (or something other than the cop she is). The truth of her identity comes out. Dad panics–“don’t do anything to endanger my daughter!”–and Bang! Sympathies shatter, confusion reigns. She’s on a mission for justice. Dad wants to save his daughter’s life by any means. Who’s the bad guy?

Finally, we discover the organ harvester is a doctor who runs a free clinic. He tells a horror story of what his latest “donor” did to a child, as the donor lies on an operating table with his chest open and heart exposed and ready for removal and quick transit to the child in the previous scene.

Brenda shouts, “Stop what you’re doing, you’re under arrest! You killed that boy!”

Doc says, “Prove it.”

Brenda tries to break into the room and halt the procedure.

Brenda’s team says, “He’s dead. Why let the heart go to waste?”

Who’s the bad guy?

Brenda asks, “Who gave you the right to play God?”

Doc says, “The position was vacant. I took it.”

He’s arrogant, yes–but is he the bad guy? Where do your sympathies lie?

Brenda threatens to arrest him the minute he opens the door to leave with the heart.

Doc says, “Who’s playing God now?”

And again, where do your sympathies lie? What values do you hold that are being challenged in this episode?

Modern society is aware that morality is enveloped in shades of gray, and the authors of this episode want the viewer to explore an even darker hue. They ask, “Who’s good? Who’s bad?” and present the age-old philosophical enigma, “Do the ends justify the means?”

But the impact hits at an almost subconscious level. The viewer isn’t actively thinking of these things. She sees an action-packed murder mystery with twists and turns, surprises and shockers. Channel surfing is verboten. The show is too gripping to leave in favor of the World Poker Tour.

The master script writers saw to that by continuous viewer manipulation--changing where the sympathies lie, putting the viewer in the position of having to choose between the hero of the series and the bad guy, presenting murky gray areas, and challenging, always challenging, the viewer's perception of right and wrong, good and evil.

Present the premise and twist it. Illustrate and make sympathetic both sides of a controversial issue. Challenge, question, re-evaluate.

Reader manipulation is a powerful tool.
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