I’m not a big fan of the cinema, but occasionally I’ll latch onto a movie and not turn it loose until I’ve wrung it dry of its secrets. I have to know why I like it so much; I want to know what makes it tick.
One such movie is High Fidelity, directed by Stephen Frears from Nick Hornby’s wonderful book and starring John Cusack in a world-class performance. I’ve studied that movie and learned some valuable things about plotting. One of the keys to this story is the use of surprise. This is where I learned how crucial surprise can be in fiction.
Hideous, terrible spoilers begin here for those who haven’t viewed the movie. Do as you like, but you’ve been warned.
First, a brief setting of the scene: Rob, our protagonist, is a music devotee. He owns a record shop in Chicago (London in the novel). As the story opens, he immediately breaks the fourth wall to tell us how depressing music lyrics can be as Laura, his girlfriend, packs up some of her stuff and walks out. Rob wonders why women keep leaving him, and he sets out to learn the answer by talking with the top five women who have broken his heart. Soon, we also meet Dick and Barry — “the musical moron twins” who work in Rob’s store — and Marie DeSalle, a young, attractive singer. Enough recap.
Rob is in his office at his store, on the phone with his friend Liz. She tells Rob that she’s never liked that Ian guy Laura has moved in with. One second later, Dick comes in and tells Rob that Marie DeSalle is in the store. These announcements pull Rob in opposite directions at the same moment. It’s very interesting for the viewer. He chats briefly and clumsily with Marie before excusing himself to privately address the audience: “What … fucking … Ian guy?” The surprise was perhaps mostly for me: I didn’t know a writer could do that to a character and use it to drive the plot.
Later, Rob has had a heart-to-heart with Laura. He learns she has not (yet) had sex with the “Ian guy.” The fourth wall drops once more and Rob tells us, “I feel good. I feel great. I feel so good I went right out and slept with Marie DeSalle.”
That last bit comes out of left field. He has talked with Marie a couple of times and it was obvious to the audience that he liked her for both her looks and her musical talent. But he was aching over Laura and wanted her back. So his sexual encounter with Marie was a big, plot-moving-forward surprise. It was in keeping with Rob’s alley-cat nature but at odds with his stated goal of reuniting with Laura. This, again, pulls him in opposite directions simultaneously. I’m seeing a pattern, a successful pattern.
Furthermore: Laura’s dad dies. She and Rob hook up after the funeral, decide to get back together and we have our Hollywood ending. Except that it doesn’t end there, and Rob is given another chance to screw up. He’s given another chance to jump “from rock to rock to rock” with the cute reporter who’s doing a story on him. He manages to think through everything he’s been exploring and doing and learning, and we get a hopeful ending in which he’s making a mixtape for Laura: music she likes and that will make her happy. This is new for Rob, but he says he’s starting to understand how that works. And we see that he’s completed the journey he was on when the movie started and is on a different one now.
High Fidelity gives us a wonderful character arc and lots of surprises en route. Keep the surprise factor in mind the next time you watch it, and when you write.