Friday, April 30, 2010

It Changed Me, But How?

Season 3, episode 9 of Alfred Hitchcock Presents is about a man who is about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. As his last request he asks for a typewriter (this is 1957 remember) and he types a letter to the editor. He was with a woman at the time of the murder. It seems he wants to get back at the district attorney because and perhaps this woman. To show that the district attorney is an idiot, this convict tells of three murders that he did commit but for which other people were blamed. He seals the letter up and sends it off. Ten minutes before execution time, the warden comes in with the chaplain and tells him that the woman has come forward to admit that she lied in court. He will be a free man. But no, he has sent out his letter and it is in the hands of a prison worker who will read it before it is sent out.

I talked the other day about change. The best stories show change in the protagonist, but they also cause us to change. As I considered this story, I knew it had changed me, but how and why? As a reader or a viewer, it is enough for us to know that we have been moved by the story. We may sit there and consider it for a while, but we don’t have to consider it any more deeply. As writers, we would like to understand these stories and how they change us.

There are few similarities between the main character and me. He was a ladies’ man, a con-artist and an adulterer. His lifestyle put him exactly where we would expect, but there was something I could learn from him. To sum up what we learn from that story, it is dangerous to reveal secrets when we think they don’t matter anymore. He could have been a free man if he just hadn’t given up so soon.

When you consider that lesson, it doesn’t seem that impressive. When you get down to it, it isn’t the lesson so much as the way it is presented. If we want to change our readers, we must present our tales in such a way that it causes the reader to think. We may be tempted to think that the small lessons aren’t important. After all, why would we care about a lesson about revealing secrets when there are big things like abortion and adultery and sins galore? The big lessons have their place, but it’s often the small lessons that are the most effective in making us better persons.