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Narrative Arc, Part 2 – Harry Caul and Me September 18, 2008

Posted by LHK in writing craft.
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Oh goodness – Harry Caul.

Played by Gene Hackman, he’s the protagonist in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), which I watched last weekend. He’s a surveillance expert, inventing his own wiretapping equipment and running his own business from a warehouse in San Francisco. His apartment is a shrine to sterility and anonymity, what with its numerous door locks and its only telephone hidden in a desk drawer. His sometimes-girlfriend knows nothing about his job or where he lives. Whenever he goes out, he wears a translucent raincoat.

But now he’s been commissioned by the director of a large company to tape every word of a seemingly ordinary conversation held on a bright December afternoon in Union Square. Harry does it – with technological flair – and returns to his warehouse workshop to piece together the conversation. His assistant, Stan (John Cazale), begins asking the questions the viewer wants to know (Why these two people? Why was this particular conversation so important?), but Harry rebukes him and sends him packing.

Alone in his workshop, Harry grounds himself in his work by concentrating on photos of the couple while finishing the tapes of their conversation. One line gives him trouble — it sounds like nothing but microphone feedback. At first. With the help of one of his devices, though, he’s able to pick out the words: He’d kill us if he found out. The words stay with Harry, and he replays the conversation both on his equipment and in his head until his drive to get involved with the (perceived) situation of the couple versus the company director overtakes his life.

There’s your story engine right there – Harry Caul’s fixation on the conversing couple, which turns quickly from curiosity to obsession. This is his want, and while it first seems contrary to what we’ve observed about Harry’s personality, we come to learn that it’s born directly from deeply buried aches in his being. And while The Conversation is a thriller, with the possibility of murder looming over the second half of the movie, the real tension of the story comes from character. How far will Harry go? Will he hunt down the couple from the conversation and disclose who’s watching them? Will he try to stop the director from taking revenge on the couple? We, the viewers, come to understand that everything Harry’s doing – or even thinking of doing – is new territory for him. Even though he’s not outwardly a relatable character, nor the sort of guy you’d want to take to lunch, we come to sympathize with him through witnessing this psychological progression that leads him to danger.

I turned the movie on again on Sunday morning and listened to Coppola’s commentary as I was sweeping the floor and doing dishes. Coppola called the movie a character study — that made me put down the dish I was drying and go over to the TV to listen more closely. Coppola said he wrote the screenplay when he was in his mid-20s, and it took into account his love for several literary works – Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (your pal the Weird Quiet Girl hasn’t read this, but should) and Tennessee Williams’s plays, with their comically grotesque characters (your pal the Weird Quiet Girl has read a number of T. Williams plays). I think Coppola’s describing his own work as a literarily-inspired character study drove home a few sad truths about my own recent writing — namely, that I cannot be scared away from plot even though I am, and will always be, a character-based writer. And also that my characters absolutely must have a problem or desire that drives the story. You can have people exploring their problems or having personality conflicts with their friends all they want — but until they start taking real action, there’s no story engine, no narrative arc. This isn’t to say that these things don’t exist in my work. I’m probably not giving myself enough credit here. But I do have a tendency to be subtle with these things, and while subtlety’s great in some aspects of a written work, it can be a killer to others. If the main character’s want isn’t clear, the story’s going to be so quiet as to fade away into itself.
Oh, Harry Caul (and Francis Ford Coppola), you made me realize that I’m going to have to go back to the beginning of my manuscript and revise again. And probably again and again. Will this ever end?

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