We’ve come to the portion where I attempt to break down story so that you can learn to write better. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel gives context clues, dramatizes the backstory, shows us rather than tells us what happens, and uses subplots effectively.
What we know about the characters and how
One of the hardest things to teach when it comes to reading is inference. Basically, inference means picking up on context clues that aren’t directly told in the story to piece together what you know. Most of the time, this happens without you even realizing what’s going on. The reason I mention it, is because it makes your writing richer. Don’t tell an audience what is going on. Show them the scene. Make them feel what the characters are feeling. Get them to understand the emotions of the character so that they can empathize with them.
Trust that your readers will understand what you are trying to say when you give them minimal information about a subject. They are smarter than you. What’s more, you only show who a character truly is by the decisions they make when under pressure. The greater the pressure, the truer the character. You don’t have to say a character is brave. Show the character acting bravely by making a decision. Not only will your reader understand that the character is brave, they will believe that they are because they formed the opinion without you, the writer, getting in the way.
Here’s some of what we know about the following characters based on inference and decisions:
She’s funny. Her speech was funny, she’s the type of woman who would run around outside basically naked because she wants to take her mind off the pain of bleaching her hair. And I do mean all her hair. Miriam has a support system which is clear from the fact that she lives in the same building as her parents who watch her children for her. She loves her husband, does what he wants, and yet hides her imperfections from him. She measures herself to make sure she’s “perfect” and not only hides her nightly routine from Joel, but lies about it.
Miriam doesn’t understand her truth. She believes things at face value. She’s surprised to find out that her husband stole his comedy routine from Bob Newhart. And, she hasn’t reached her full potential, nor has she decided she wants to. Miriam is happy being the doting wife. She things her and Joel have the perfect life. Even the rabbi is coming to their house for Yom Kippur again.
Joel is obsessed with comedy. It’s more than a goal for him. You can tell even before he let’s Miriam know because his goal is to “always make her laugh” and he takes it seriously. He doesn’t fully respect Miriam, yet he lets her support him by cooking to get a better time slot at the Gaslight. And, he doesn’t fully understand what it means to be a good husband and father: that you sacrifice part of yourself to build a relationship/family. He’s also kind of a boob (for lack of a better word). He can’t even tell Miriam’s parents himself that he’s had an affair and left her. Instead, he takes her suitcase, asks her to tell them, and walks away from his family.
Show don’t tell – dramatization
We have all heard the phrase “show don’t tell.” It’s probably annoying. We understand the difference. Usually, we can spot it a mile away. Then how come it’s so hard to pick up on in our own writing? Part of that is because we know what’s going on in our own heads. We know what we meant to say. If someone can’t see that, that must be their problem, not the writers. Right?
Again, assume your reader is smarter than you are. They pick up on context clues you plant throughout your story. They want to formulate their own decisions about a character. And they want to do so by being placed in the center of a scene where something is changing in the lives of a character they can empathize with.
To do so, you must employ all 5 senses in your writing. Try this: write 10 sentences about your scene using each of the 5 senses at least once. Now, rewrite those sentences so that they say the same thing in only 3 sentences. Don’t lose the feeling of the senses. Repeat as necessary.
Now, when you go to edit your own work, first and foremost you must be objective. I will be the first to admit that my writing is a part of who I am the moment I write it. But, that doesn’t mean it can’t be critiqued. Give yourself time away from your writing so that you aren’t so attached to it. Come back later.
Know that your scenes must start one place and end in another (a shift in values). But, you must also dramatize them. Show the reader what’s happening so that they can live it. Let them feel the decisions the characters make and go with them on their journey.
Mrs. Maisel and Showing
This episode weaves in details and backstory into scenes that are dramatized and show what is going on. The very first scene describes Mrs. Maisel without telling you who she is. She’s the type of person who gives a speech at her own wedding. You aren’t told that. You’re shown her giving the speech. From it, we learn the backstory of the lovers leading to the climax that is on screen: their marriage. And, we get to know the characters.
Compare that to being told that we’ve moved forward 4 years. We don’t need to know what happened during those 4 years, just that they passed. Therefore, we’re told that they happened.
Subplots (what they do and how they work)
There are 4 functions of subplots:
- Thematic contradiction
- Thematic resonance
- Set-up for the central plot
- To complicate the central plot
Mrs. Maisel uses subplots in these ways. They are not extraneous. The subplots of the first episode are: the Rabbi subplot, the marriage love story, the Susie subplot, and the Lenny Bruce subplot. I’ll let you pick them apart to determine what each one does for the main women’s society plot.
Let me know if there’s a particular story you’d like to see me break down.