Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, January 17, 2012 8 comments
Compulsion is a deep-seated need to do something, a belief that a particular action will make one's anxiety evaporate. More serious compulsions we label "OCD"--obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD sufferers need to wash their hands frequently to dispel their anxiety about germs, or flick light switches a certain number of times to keep the universe in harmony.

Most of us have less dramatic compulsions that surface in times of stress. "I'll be okay if I can just go for a run," says the exercise-compulsive. One of my good friends cooks and freezes huge portions of food when she's anxious. I tend to clean, organize and rearrange the furniture. Having a neat environment makes me feel like life is under control.

Over the weekend I watched a wonderful indie film, "Sunshine Cleaning," starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as sisters Rose and Nora. These women are both struggling financially and learn that they could be making good money starting up their own business--cleaning up crime scenes.

Now you have to ask what sort of person would be drawn to this work? It's grisly and just really, really gross. But as you learn Rose and Nora's back story, it becomes clear that this is therapeutic work for them. They lost a loved one in a grisly manner when they were both quite young and have had difficulty moving on. Clearing away the evidence of painful loss for their clients cleans their own damaged souls.

If a different set of characters had been set in this scenario, I don't know that it would have worked as well. A socialite scrubbing gore off the walls would have been funnier--but less believable. What kept me gripped by the film was a desire to understand the underlying compulsion--the psychological need being met in this particular set of circumstances.

At one point, Rose is at a baby shower and has to explain her new business to a group of well-off young women who were high school friends. You couldn't ask for a more ironic juxtaposition, so I was bracing myself for things to go horribly, hilariously wrong. But the writer took a light touch, and in that moment we expect to writhe for Rose, she gives a wonderfully layered response to her friends' questions that's simultaneously sappy and deep.

"We're helping people," Rose says, "at a time when they are going through something profound. And we make things better."

When you can link an old wound with a new challenge, well, friends, you have the makings of deep, compelling drama. The trick is to match your protagonist and plot well.

Does your story's plot force your character to grapple with an old wound? If not, how might you better match protagonist and plot?

8 comments:

  1. I'd never heard of this movie. It sounds really interesting! And this is great advice. Something I need to think about.

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    1. I found it at my library--and I liked it more than I expected to. Very quirky and heartfelt.

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  2. I do remember hearing about this movie a while ago and thought it sounded interesting. I'll have to look for it.

    You make a good point with compulsions and wounds. It would definitively create a deeper character.

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    1. I don't know that I explained my point as coherently as I could have...but I'm always riveted by characters whose choices are somehow tied to a past event they are trying to grapple with, resolve, redeem.

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  3. Sounds like an intriguing movie. I do, actually, have a secondary character whose present day dilemma forces her to open an old wound. Fascinating work to delve into those dark spaces of the soul!

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    1. P.S. What comment system are you using now. I like it!

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    2. I like it too! It just kind of showed up on my blog in the past week or so. No idea how.

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    3. I love it when I stumble across gems like this at the library.

      When I really like a film, I often try to figure out what made it appealing and what I can learn from that to apply to my own writing.

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