*URQ=Upending Revision Question; something to help you return to your story with fresh perspective and energy to revise
This week’s URQ is sponsored by Inspector Javert.
And it’s about making sure all of the characters in your story are pulling their weight, and are, in fact, in the right story.
Last week, I finally watched the recent film version of Les Misérables, and in case I haven’t shared this with you, I am a big nerd for musical theater. I can sing along with most of Les Mis, my favorite songs belonging to Marius and the other revolutionaries, which brings up an embarrassing memory of me being told to “Go sing with the tenors” during my college theater days. That’s another story.
When I’ve seen Les Mis in the past, I’ve had myself some good solid cries. I’ve lived vicariously the loss and heartbreak, the struggle, the passion, the redemption, and felt cleansed by it. During this viewing, I had a good, well, handful of cathartic moments.
Except for whenever Russell Crowe was on screen. At those moments, I cringed and held my breath.
Instead of feeling, Crowe’s portrayal of Javert yanked me into thinking mode—often not a good sign. As storytellers, we want our audience to suspend their disbelief and get lost in the story, not to stop and puzzle out why something’s not working.
Why doesn’t RC seem all that angry?
Is he debating on whether to have iceberg lettuce or spinach in his salad later?
Is apathetic the new nemesis?
Was he directed to perform that way? Was it his choice?
Although the musical is a novel adaptation, drama is a different beast, and actors and directors make choices that can change the way a story was written, we can learn something important about story fundamentals from Crowe’s performance.
I really wanted Crowe to go for it, to dive into the angst of Javert, a man who would hunt another man for over a decade. I wanted to feel the rage, the blind righteousness that whaps Javert in the face when he encounters mercy from his own quarry and realizes that no one is purely Good or Bad, but can’t bear to live with that complexity, let alone his own guilt. I wanted the sparks between Valjean and Javert. I wanted Javert to serve his purpose as antagonist. I wanted to care about him.
But I didn’t, and in my opinion, Crowe never went for it, even when (spoiler alert), he jumps to his death at the end.
What happened was anti-catharsis. What happened was dissonance. The tone of Les Mis as Hugo wrote it, is the Mis. In Hooper’s production, all of the other major players were DEEP in The Mis. I felt sweaty and dirty and anguished just looking at them.
Honestly, I yearned to feel that. I expected it. Which is a good reminder for we who write. Readers want and expect things—a sense of unity in tone/message, the satisfaction of seeing a character flaw played out to its ruin or to its redemption, to feel the despair or the joy that comes along with that.
I’m not saying writers should pander to readers, but when we’re aware of story fundamentals—how they work, why they work—we can tap into their power.
So, in your story, how are you tapping into those fundamentals? Are you letting your characters’ selflessness or greed or hunger play out? How does that fit with the message your story delivers?
In the case of Les Mis, the ultimate story message is that life is a messy, painful struggle, but awakening/surrendering to love and goodness leads to redemption. As a viewer/reader, I want everything in the story to serve that message. Victor Hugo wrote Javert as someone in the thick of the messy painful part, but who can never surrender or wake up to his own folly. Which sucks, but snaps beautifully right into the puzzle.
If Hugo had written Javert as Crowe portrayed him—mildly ruffled, vaguely menacing, driven-ish—Les Misérables the novel would never have worked.
So, here’s your pre-revision task for the week: clearly articulate tone and message, what your story says about being human.
And then, your URQ: Do your characters fit with that, and how? Is any character out of place, off-key or hollow? A mime that doesn’t belong in your raucous romance? A folk singer clogging up your gritty thriller?
Is your own antagonist living up to her full antagonizing potential?
I encourage you to go all Inspector Javert on your story, hunt down the characters that don’t fit, and root them out. Just don’t despair; remember that you are not a character in Hugo’s novel.
So tell me, does this week’s URQ unlock anything for you?
Please share below, and in the meantime, may your revision time come with as little of The Mis as necessary.
Thank you so much for reading. You might notice that I don’t have a space for comments, but I’m certainly open to conversation about what’s written here. If you’re so inspired, feel free to start a conversation with me via the contact form on the homepage of this site.