The Power of Understatement: Why Action Isn’t Everything

Today, I practiced what I preach and settled in to fleshing out a bit more of the Echo outline. You’d think the outline was completely finished at this point, but I strongly advocate the “outline as living organism” approach.  I needed to add a few more NPCs into the cast system, so I blocked them out and dropped them in in a rough form. I then went back to review a few of the salient plot points to make certain I was being thematically true to the work.  When you’re dealing with the Mythos, it is totally natural and expected to have some very weird things occur.

Hey, I found my way to a point. Here’s what we’re going to talk about today–the power of understatement.

When you watch any movie, the flash-bang points are cool and awesome. And when I say flash-bang, I’m talking about those jaw-dropping bits of pyrotechnical displays of acting, action, or special effect mischief. Something which causes you to pause and go “wow, how cool!” However, like a flash-bang grenade, you need a moment to recover from such a point as your brain dilates back down where it is ready to absorb more fantastical fare. If I’m half-blinded by your brilliance, you better let me recalibrate before  hitting me with your next barrage.

This, my friend, is the power of understatement. And it goes beyond horror into all genres. You have to have little pauses to flesh out the characters. You have to give the audience a moment to breathe. Let them calm down before you cause their hearts to explode through their nose again. If you don’t do this, how can you possibly contain much story in there? You can’t. If you’re not with me yet, let’s put a pin in the grenade metaphor and move on to meat. Everybody likes steak (or can imagine liking it, I remember the simple “meat and potato days”, but oh well) and a good steak isn’t all meat. There are bits of fat running through it or along the outer edge. Those bits of fat add flavor to the whole work. Imagine your action is the steak and the fat is the necessary bits required to flavor the entire work. Now you get it. (I hope. I’ve reached my metaphor quota for the day.)

Understatement can work in so many delicious ways within your work. For example, having a bad guy be calm and submissive when he’s finally nabbed after doing some VERY BAD THINGS can be quite creepy. Throw in a few additional background elements, like a light drizzle on an otherwise clear day, crickets suddenly quiet as the good guys walk past with the culprit, or even a sudden cool wind or wind-chimes (or at least they sound like wind-chimes) tinkling from some unknown source. These can create an overwhelming sense of dread, far more than if the villain is checking his watch and waiting in his garage with a hatchet for the characters to suddenly discover him. While the latter may be more momentarily terrifying, the former situation is going to be far more memorable. Remember, we never directly saw Norma Bates kill one person in Psycho or raise his voice with anyone besides his mother. ;) That movie, by the way, is a classic study of understatement.

Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!



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