“The mirror shattered into spiderwebs…”
“I am truly at my happiest not when I am writing an aria for an actor or making a grand political or social point,” Aaron Sorkin said a while back to Vanity Fair. “I am at my happiest when I’ve figured out a fun way for somebody to slip on a banana peel.” I know what he means. In fact, nothing makes me happier than when an otherwise sophisticated piece of entertainment cheerfully decides to go for the oldest, corniest, most obvious pratfall—which is a sign of an even greater sophistication. My favorite example is the most famous joke in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy nonchalantly draws his gun and shoots the swordsman. It’s the one gag in the movie that most people remember best, and if you’re a real fan, you probably know that the scene was improvised on the set to solve an embarrassing problem: they’d originally scheduled a big fight scene, but Harrison Ford was too sick to shoot it, so he proposed the more elegant, and funnier, solution. But the most profound realization of all is that the moment works precisely because the film around it depends so much on craft and clockwork timing to achieve its most memorable effects. If every joke in the movie were pitched on that level, not only wouldn’t we remember that scene, but we probably wouldn’t be talking about Raiders at all, just as most of us don’t look back fondly on 1941. It’s the intelligence, wit, and technical proficiency of the rest of the movie that allows that one cornball moment to triumphantly emerge.
You often see the same pattern when you look at the movies in which similar moments occur. For instance, there’s a scene in Annie Hall—recently voted the funniest screenplay of all time—in which the audience needs to be told that Alvy and Annie are heading for Los Angeles. To incorporate that information, which had been lost when a previous scene was cut, Woody Allen quickly wrote and shot the bit in which he sneezes into a pile of cocaine. It included all the necessary exposition in the dialogue, but as editor Ralph Rosenblum writes in his memoir When The Shooting Stops:
Although this scene was written and shot just for this information, audiences were always much more focused on the cocaine, and when Woody sneezes into what we’ve just learned is a two-thousand-dollar cache, blowing white powder all over the living room—an old-fashioned, lowest-common-denominator, slip-on-the-banana-peel joke—the film gets its single largest laugh. (“A complete unplanned accident,” says Woody.) The laughter was so great at each of our test screenings that I kept having to add more and more feet of dead film to keep the laughter from pushing the next scene right off the screen…Even so, the transitional information was lost on many viewers: when they stop laughing and spot Alvy and Annie in a car with Rob, who’s discussing how life has changed for him since he emigrated to Beverly Hills, they are momentarily uncertain about how or why the couple got there.
And while the two moments are very different, it’s revealing that in both cases, an improvised moment of slapstick was introduced to crack an unanticipated narrative problem. It’s no surprise that when writers have to think their way out of dilemma, they often turn to the hoariest, most proven building blocks of story, as if they’d briefly written a scene using the reptile brain—while keeping all the other levels of the brain alive and activated. This is why scenes like this are so delightful: they aren’t gratuitous, but represent an effective way of getting a finely tuned narrative to where it needs to be. And I’d also argue that this runs in both directions, particularly in genre fiction. Those big, obvious moments exist to enable the more refined touches, but also the other way around: a large part of any writer’s diligence and craft is devoted to arranging the smaller pieces so that those huge elements can take shape. As Shane Black pointed out years ago, a lot of movies seem to think that audiences want nothing but those high points, but in practice, it quickly grows exhausting. (Far too many comedies these days seem to consist of nothing but the equivalent of Alvy sneezing into the cocaine, over and over and over again.) And Sorkin’s fondness for the banana-peel gag arises, I suspect, from his realization that when such a moment works, it’s because the less visible aspects of the story around it are working as well.
My novels contain a few of these banana peels, although not as many as I’d like. (One that I still enjoy is the moment in City of Exiles when Wolfe trips over the oversized chess pieces during the chase scene at the London Chess Classic.) And while it’s not quite the same thing, there’s something similar at work in Chapter 43 of Eternal Empire, which features nothing less than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two women, one a runaway bride, the other still wearing her bridesmaid’s dress. If I’ve done my job properly, the scene should work both on its own terms and as an homage to something you’d see on a soapy network or basic cable show like Revenge. And I kind of love the result. I like it, in part, because I know exactly how much thought was required to line up the pieces of the plot to get to this particular payoff: it’s the kind of set piece that you spend ninety percent of the novel trying to reach, only to hope that it all works in the end. The resulting fight lasts for about a page—I’m not trying to write Kill Bill here—but I still think it’s one of the half dozen or so most satisfying moments in the entire trilogy, and it works mostly because it isn’t afraid to go for a big, borderline ridiculous gesture. (If Eternal Empire is my favorite of the three books, and on most days it is, it’s because it contains as many of those scenes as the previous two installments combined, and only because of the groundwork that comes with two volumes’ worth of accumulated backstory.) And although there’s no banana peel, both Wolfe and Asthana are falling now, and they won’t land until the book is over…