Writing Wednesday – Charlie Chaplin and suspense

Leslie’s desk

A few weeks ago, Mr. Right and I took a road trip through central Montana, where we grew up, though in different towns. We spent a couple of nights in Great Falls, staying in a historic hotel where I cribbed details for my WIP. Prowled the galleries at the Charles M. Russell Museum, which we love, and visited a few other favorite spots. And Saturday evening, we went to the Mansfield Civic Center to watch Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, his 1931 silent romantic comedy, accompanied by the Great Falls Symphony playing Chaplin’s original score. (The last time we heard them? With guest artist Joshua Bell. So, yeah, we knew they can play. And play they did.)

The entire experience was wacky and delightful. Though we’d both seen snippets of the movie, with Chaplin as the Little Tramp, neither of us had seen the full movie.

What struck me was how Chaplin pushes the gags. The Little Tramp is in a fancy club with his billionaire friend, eating noodles on New Year’s Eve. He’s slurping them up, one at a time. A curly streamer drops down and winds around a noodle and he keeps slurping. And slurping. And slurping. Just watching makes you respond physically. You lean forward. You wonder how long this can go on. You physically need some relief. And when it comes, your body relaxes and you laugh and laugh. And then it happens again, with the Tramp and the Billionaire lighting a cigar, and the Tramp and the lady whose dress he’s set on fire and another man exchanging seats in a sort of game of musical chairs. The gag goes on to the point where it is almost but not quite too long. You want, you need, a resolution, and when it comes, he has you.

As writers, we can’t do that the way music or physical comedy can. But we can make our readers physically respond, make them want and need a resolution of the tension on the page.

What other lessons can you learn from other art forms? Have you seen City Lights? If you get a chance to see it with a live orchestra, go! And be prepared to laugh, silly and wacky as it is.

BY THE WAY, you’re a writer. That’s why you subscribe to this blog. I don’t very often post here about my books, except around launch time, which is coming up — Peppermint Barked, the 6th Spice Shop Mystery, will be out July 19, and Blind Faith, Alicia’s second suspense novel will be out October 11. If you are interested in more book news, including what I’m writing and reading, where I’ll be and more, I do hope you’ll subscribe to my newsletter, through this link. Subscribers get a free download for a short story, currently “The End of the Line” (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Dec, 2006) featuring an elderly Greek man who seriously hates change.

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