When I was a young child, one of my favorite television cartoon characters was Snaggletooth. What I remember most about him was that when he departed a scene he always did so with a signature flourish, saying, “Exit, stage left” or “Exit, stage right.”
It was nonsense, but I loved the pizzazz of it. Whatever else he did, Snaggletooth had flair.
When writing, if we only emulate the most realistic mainstream novels or if we only view contemporary dramatic films, we lose out on the fun of “stagey” theatrics. Such antics aren’t appropriate in all story applications, but when they can be used they certainly add sparkle to our plots.
Audiences like the bling factors of flair, flourish, and sparkle. That’s why they gravitate to certain popular genres such as historical romance, paranormal romance, steampunk, horror, thrillers, comedies, and fantasy. These genres not only allow flair, they require it.
However, flair can be incorporated into more mainstream drama at certain key points. For example, there’s a superb Bette Davis film called THE LETTER. Directed expertly by William Wyler, this movie is based on a Somerset Maugham short story about a married woman in Malaysia who commits adultery and then murders her lover in a fit of jealousy. The film’s focus is on Davis’s lying to police and her husband in an effort to get away with her crime. It deals with serious issues of uneven relationships, infidelity, and ethics. Her attorney—a family friend—is taken into her confidence and told the truth. To defend her, he’s forced into concealing her guilt from her husband (his best friend), and he must himself commit a crime in order to buy and suppress evidence that would convict her if it surfaced.
Now all of this is heavy stuff—quite fascinating and compelling on its own. But Wyler understood that even serious drama can stand a little flair. The opening scene of the film shows a sleeping rubber plantation under the moonlight. Everything is peaceful until a shot rings out. The camera focuses on the veranda of the plantation bungalow. A man crashes through the doors, staggering and obviously wounded. Bette Davis follows him outside. She’s holding a revolver in one hand. Her expression is grim, intent, purposeful. She shoots him again, and again, and again, following him down the steps, until he’s finished.
Not only does this introduce the protagonist in masterful characteristic entry action that reveals her true nature, but it kickstarts the plot with a mighty big change in circumstances that can’t be ignored and hooks its audience firmly. This is not a point where anyone’s going to wander off to the refrigerator for a snack.
If you study just about any film made before the 1960s, you’ll see example after example of flair utilized. It shows up in the way actors enter and exit scenes. It’s used in some of the stunts and spectacles. Some of it is too obvious and hokey. Some of it is simply fun. (Now of course flair shows up in more recent films as well, but it’s so often downplayed.)
Please consider these examples:
Stewart Granger and James Mason in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA
William Powell and Myrna Loy in THE THIN MAN
Bob Hope in THE PRINCESS AND THE PIRATE
Gary Cooper in MEET JOHN DOE
Barbara Stanwyck in BALL OF FIRE
William Holden in SABRINA
Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULEVARD
Errol Flynn in THAT FORSYTE WOMAN (or CAPTAIN BLOOD or ROBIN HOOD)
Greer Garson in RANDOM HARVEST
Norma Shearer, and everyone else, in THE WOMEN
Marilyn Monroe in THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey in ADAM’S RIB
Cary Grant in THE BISHOP’S WIFE
Judy Garland in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS
Jimmy Stewart in THE LITTLE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER
Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW
Bette Davis in NOW, VOYAGER (or JEZEBEL or THE LITTLE FOXES)
Humphrey Bogart in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (or KEY LARGO)
Tyrone Power in THE MARK OF ZORRO
Marlene Dietrich in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
Claudette Colbert and John Barrymore in MIDNIGHT
Loretta Young, and everyone else, in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER
Ethel Barrymore in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE
Lionel Barrymore and Freddie Bartholomew in CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS
Olivia de Havilland in THE HEIRESS
John Wayne in THE QUIET MAN
Gene Kelly, and everyone else, in SINGING IN THE RAIN
James Cagney in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY
Jack Lemon in SOME LIKE IT HOT
Rudolph Valentino in THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE
Yul Brynner in THE KING AND I
Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY
Irene Dunne in THEODORA GOES WILD
Ingrid Bergman in GASLIGHT
Charles Boyer in ALGIERS
Fred Astaire in EASTER PARADE
Vivian Leigh in ANNA KARENINA (or GONE WITH THE WIND)
Laurence Olivier in HAMLET
Who have I overlooked? I’m sure you can name other films and actors that stand out in your mind because this is a very small list compared to the wealth that’s out there.
Shakespeare understood the need for flair in both his tragedies and his comedies. His best plays sparkle because of it, and he ain’t been forgot neither.
However, perhaps you aren’t into old classic movies. The sets and props may seem weird to you. Hairstyles are odd. You can’t relate to the grainy film quality or black and white. Dialogue can be too stagey. Mannerisms are beyond old-fashioned, etc. etc. etc.
Then consider the current hit television show, CASTLE. Lots of flair there, every week. DOWNTON ABBEY serves up classy fare with flair. Can we possibly even venture to guess that the hottie of “unscripted” TV—DUCK DYNASTY—throws in a little flair, albeit of the “I can’t believe he just did/said that!” variety?
So how do we get flair? How do we find it or create it? Where and how do we incorporate it into what we write?
My suggestions will follow in the next post.