Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Emotional Payoffs

There are about five movies that I will always sit down and watch, over and over again.  One of them is Titanic.  I love that movie.  It’s got romance and action and set in one of the most fascinating and tragic moments in history, and I’m a little shy to admit it, but I love, love, love, “The Hearts Will Go On” theme song by Celine Dion. 

SPOILERS (but really who hasn't seen this movie?)

But there is one scene that grates on me every time I see the movie.   It is when Rose gets on a lifeboat, and as she is lowered from the sinking Titanic, she looks up at Jack and jumps back onto the ship.  I understand that it is supposed to be a great, emotional moment, showing that Rose is choosing Jack.  She is choosing to stay on a sinking ship just to be with him.  She is giving everything up, her wealth, her privilege, her safety because she loves him too much to leave him.  I think it is supposed to be a great romantic moment, but I hate it.  It is the one flaw in what could’ve been a perfect movie.

The reason this moment is so passionately despised by me is that in that one action Rose essentially kills Jack.    In the end when Rose and Jack are in the water, he dies of hypothermia because there is no room for him on the slab of wood.  If Rose had stayed on the lifeboat, Jack could’ve had the slab, and he would’ve been the one who was pulled out of the icy water.

I would forgive Rose for killing Jack if her actions had been noble, if she had given her spot to another passenger, but she doesn’t.  She gets on the lifeboat and then changes her mind about being saved and jumps off when it is too late for someone else to take her place.  Rose knows that there aren’t enough lifeboats that half the people on the ship are going to die, and yet she takes a spot and then leaves it, without thinking about how she selfishly stole a chance from someone else to survive, like one of those little children that died with their mother (that scene was heartbreaking).

That scene could’ve so easily been rewritten so that Rose either nobly gives her seat to someone else or doesn’t have the option of getting on a lifeboat after she saves Jack from the brig.   Plot-wise there was no need for that scene.

But I doubt I’m seeing something that James Cameron didn’t see.  He is a master story teller.  His skills are way beyond mine.  He has written/directed/produced some of my most favorite movies of all time.  I seriously doubt that if he somehow magically came across this blog post he would think, “Wow, this chick has a point.  Why didn’t I or the other hundreds of other people working on this movie realize that Rose basically kills Jack?"

So why would James Cameron choose to have Rose jump back onto the ship?  I’ve never asked him nor have seen or read anything about him discussing this, but I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think I’ve got a decent answer. 

It is all about emotional payoffs.

Sometimes logic needs to take a backseat in storytelling (not always, just sometimes).   Stories, for the most part, are an emotional experience, and anything that gives an emotional payoff takes precedence over logic.

I read this blog post by writer Alexandra Sokoloff a while back on “What Makes a Great Climax.”  In this post, Alexandra talks about the ending of the movie Jaws (SPOILERS).  

It is powerful ending, where Sheriff Brody is hanging off of the mast of a sinking boat with his gun and Jaws is coming right at him, chewing on the oxygen tank.   Brody shoots at Jaws aiming for the oxygen tank but keeps missing until the shark is almost upon him and then he shoots the tank and Jaws explodes.

In her post, Alexandra talks about how author of the book and co-screenwriter of the script Peter Benchley reported arguing with Spielberg over the ending.  Benchley thought the shooting-the-oxygen-tank death of Jaws was completely implausible, that audience wouldn’t buy it.  But Spielberg believed that if he drew the audience in on this emotional journey that they would go with it, that they would trust him.

I’m going to quote Alexandra directly here because I love how she worded this in her post. 

Spielberg paid that movie off with an emotional exhilaration rarely experienced in a story. Those characters EARNED that ending, and the audience did, too, for surviving the whole brutal experience with them. Brilliant filmmaker that he is, Spielberg understood that. The emotion had to be there, or he would have failed his audience.

So maybe blowing up a shark by shooting at an oxygen tank he just happens to be munching on isn’t the most plausible way to kill a shark, but there is a huge emotional payoff there, in seeing the shark that had tortured Brody and killed and maimed his friends die in such a dramatic way.  It doesn’t have to be logical as long as it delivers the emotional payoff that the audience wants.  Honestly, I think that scene was brilliant.  It certainly worked for me.

I think that is the reason Rose had to jump from the lifeboat back on to the Titanic.  That was a big, emotional moment, and the scene needed to be big and emotional.  Rose needed to make that choice, choose to be with Jack and give up everything to be with him, and if she had missed the lifeboats, she wouldn’t have been able to make that choice.  And if she had given her spot on the lifeboat to someone else, that moment of choosing Jack wouldn’t have been dramatic enough.   It was the turning point of her character arc, and that moment had to be big. 

If you are on the emotional journey with Rose, you’re not supposed to be thinking about her taking someone else’s spot or how Jack might have survived if she had stayed on the lifeboat.  You’re just supposed to be relieved that she chose Jack over Cal and her mother and that soulless life of wealth and privilege that was destroying her spirit. 

I think the take home message here is that there are those moments that need to be emotional and need to be big to give the audience or readers the emotional payoff that they are waiting for.  And these are the times when logic sometimes has to step aside because the story comes first, and you have to do what is best for the story even if it isn’t what is most logical.  Of course there will be readers who might be annoyed with the lapses of logic, but those are the ones who are not emotionally invested.  You need to give that emotional payoff to your readers who are.

So tell me, did that scene in Titanic bug you too or were you too emotionally invested to think about it?



  1. I agree that Rose should be on the life boat. I love my husband but I would get on the boat. In stories I like the herione to fall her heart more then her brain. Rose is a teenager, and teenagers aren't the most logical. I love you so much I'll die with you is romantic to teenagers, but as a 30 something woman it doesn't appeal to me so much. Rose didn't know how in was going to end. Maybe it s a mistake that she made in the story. I like the movie and I has seen Cammeron talk about the movie. His main goal was to the class division of the Titanic which he says reflected the society at the time. He developed a good story to get people to care. Before Titanic I thought it was just a bunch of rich people on a boat.

    1. I agree that the I can't live without you if you die I die notion isn't romantic. Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy not a romance.

      I agree Rose didn't know how it would end, so I can't really blame her for Jack's death, but she did know that there wasn't enough lifeboats for everyone, and she did take a spot that could've gone to someone else, so it was a bit selfish of her.

  2. I don't think she killed Jack by jumping out of that boat. He wouldn't necessarily found that door or whatever it was if he were alone. I think if he would be thinking on how to save himself other than save her, he would be thinking quite differently. Most likely alone he would become part of the panicking crowd and start acting on everyone's impulse rather than common sense. And still die in the process.

    I like Titanic a lot. Even though it was sold as a romance story, I don't see it that way. The story is about Rose and how she was the only person on that ship whose life wasn't destroyed by that accident. Instead, it gave her life (by cutting her off her family) and a chance to become what she wanted to be. The beginning and end of the movie that's happening in the present gives sense to this explanation. She had to give something back to those people that lost their lives there. That's why she came to the ship and told the story. When she was finished, the explorers left the ship in peace.

    1. I really love the movie too. Like I said, it is one of those movies that I can watch over and over again. It is really compelling and well done. And while we don't know what would've happened to Jack if she had stayed on the lifeboat, I think he was a survivor, so I think if there was a way for him to live, he would've found it.

      I agree that the story was about Rose, and I do like how she found the courage and strength to become the person she wanted to be.

  3. I suppose I'm like you - I notice the moments that are too heavy on the emotion and light on the logic, rather than the other way around. I suppose I've read too many romances where the author goes to ridiculous lengths to keep the characters apart just so they can be dramatically reconciled at the end.

    I think the moral of the story is to plot your emotional payoff as carefully as the rest of your novel (especially since some of those endings seem tacked on - like someone told the author that they needed more emotion at the end).

    Also, there should be more romances with people blowing up sharks using oxygen tanks.

    1. Yes, blowing up sharks with oxygen tanks is just too cool not to be used more often.

      I agree that you should plot your emotional payoffs carefully. I too hate it when the endings feel tacked on or too sappy or that the author is trying too hard. I think it is a tricky thing to pull off and most likely won't work for everyone.

  4. Believe it or not, I've never seen Titanic. Well, unless you count the time it was the movie on the airplane, but I didn't have headphones (and I had a baby and a toddler with me). My eyes were pretty riveted on the screen though, as I remember. Still, it's pretty hard to live in the civilized world and not know how it ends. Awesome post, MaryAnn!

  5. I was 13 when Titanic came out. My sister and I used to walk to the dollar theater every Saturday and watch it. I think we saw it 14 times that year. In the fifteen years since then, I've never actually sat down and watched it, and probably never will. I don't even have a good reason, I just won't. (Probably for the same reason that Lord of the Rings is a theater only movie: it's just too darn long!)

    I never stopped to consider the selfishness of Rose's act, but like I said, I was 13. It seemed pretty romantic at the time. Looking back, I think you're right. But if this weren't just a movie, and say for instance, I was Rose, I might not have had a grasp on the situation. It's hard to make decisions in a moment of panic, and harder still to justify them when you look back later. Then again, if it were me, I'd have probably stayed in the lifeboat and waited for the Carpathia.

    I'm reading a book that I think over reaches with the concept of emotional payoff, and it's annoying me to no end. There's a limit, and I think Titanic tries to stay within those boundaries. (I've never seen Jaws. What's wrong with me?!)


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