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Audience Surrogates

Last week I mentioned one of the challenges I'm having with story structure for my action/horror screenplay.  It made me think of a related topic: audience surrogates.

These are the characters who basically act like dummies in the first act so the other characters can explain everything to them.  Think of somebody like Ellen Page in Inception.  They're not inherently bad characters - a good writer will give them enough to do so that you either don't notice the exposition or you don't care because you're invested in their arc.

The audience surrogate is a terrific tool, but I feel like it's hard to get away with using it these days. If the Internet has taught me anything, it's that audiences are very smart and quickly pick up on the seams that hold a story together.  As a writer, you try to keep those hidden as well as you can for fear that your story looks sloppy.

Plus, some of those folks can get really fussy about it.  I've seen one too many forum discussion or comments section explode with fury because a couple of dudes were able to pick things apart too easily. Case in point... Inception.  There's folks out there who insist that the movie is terrible because Ellen Page's character was too obvious of a surrogate.  (So strange to let that ruin it for you.  It's like complaining that you hated your dinner because you could see where your diced potatoes were cut.)

I use surrogates all the time.  One of the two protagonists in the post-apocalyptic novel I'm working on is a surrogate.  She's a hell of a lot more than that, but a fair chunk of her early presence is there specifically so the other protagonist can explain the ins and outs of their world.  Tasha in Bitter People Without Souls is a surrogate.  She later plays a more vital part in the plot, but those first chapters are there so she can help the audience learn about soul technology so you don't get bogged down in details later when the actual conflict starts.

I'm hardly alone.  Everybody uses surrogates.  Jon Snow, Luke Skywalker, Neo, Marty McFly, and anybody who will listen to Indiana Jones in the first act - they're all audience surrogates at some point or another.  They're also characters who drive the action, which is why most people don't get too upset about them.

Still.  I always get hung up on details.  I'll hold up an entire project for fear that some anonymous jerk with a blog (like this one) will rip my stuff to shreds.  (Apologies to the other versions of me out there to whom I've given panic attacks.)

It often leads to the bigger question of whether or not you even need a surrogate.  The go-to axiom is, "Show, don't tell."  If you can show all the back story and exposition through action, then you don't need anybody to explain that stuff to a surrogate.  You can just show it and move on.

Which is why I ended up double-backing on my script outline after I was already like 80% finished and removing the main character.

Originally the central character was "the new guy" and becomes the de facto hero after various plot twists.  I had a half-assed placeholder arc for him where he wanted to prove himself and gradually came to be humbled by the movie's events.  But after wrestling with the opening scenes for awhile - particularly while trying to get across the badassery that I talked about last week - I realized that this guy was dragging everything down without too much payoff.

Think about that for a minute.  Until my last revision, this guy would have been in virtually all of the movie.  He wasn't just a major character, he was the main character.  And the story didn't even need him.  The new outline I've come up with is much more streamlined, but I resisted it for a long time because the change seemed too dramatic.  Like somebody read the script to Die Hard and said, "Do you really need this McClane guy?"

This kind of thing is the reason I like to make sure I get a good outline on the page before I start writing a story.  If I had to go back and edit 100 pages of script to re-assign dialogue and excise a guy who was on 86 of them, I'd be looking at days or potentially weeks of work and I'd be resistant to the change.  Cutting him out of the story now is like an hour's worth of work, tops, and I don't have to think twice.

Now... let's just hope I don't change my mind and try to add him back in later.  Cutting the main character from an existing script is hard enough, but adding him is a lifetime in Hell.