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Nov
3
2015

The Caine Injury -- by Paul Pro

Over the years, my wife and I have watched “The Caine Mutiny” at least a half dozen times, and yet, amazingly, had never noticed that Jose Ferrer's right hand was bandaged. Not until the other night, that is, when we watched the movie for the umpteenth time. My wife, who is legally blind and uses special vision-conversion binoculars, picked up on the bandaged hand, and it then became a glaring distraction to both of us. Ferrer was portraying a court-martial defense attorney. There was absolutely nothing in the plot that called for him to have a hand injury, so it seemed to be an extraneous “bit of business”.

The injured hand is referred to when Ferrer initially appears in the film, and Van Johnson asks him, “Have a crack-up?”

“Yeah,” Ferrer replies.

My conjecture is that Jose Ferrer had actually hurt his hand, and in order to keep filming of the movie on track, the mishap was written into the storyline. I checked that idea out on Wikipedia and a couple of other sites, but found nothing to confirm my premise

No matter. There is still a writing value to be noted here. Anything in a movie, or a story, that strongly draws attention to itself should have a point. If you wrap a guy's arm up in a tent-sized bandage, your reader or viewer is going to want to know why. And you must have a good reason.

One of my favorite scenes in my recently completed novel is based on an actual confrontation involving the wife of a friend. This woman once pointed a shotgun at some utility workers who had come to chop down her beloved oak tree. She threatened to shoot them if they so much as picked up an axe. But the scene that I created based on that incident would be of no value unless I provided a “payoff sequence”. The reader will demand to know what relevance the “tree incident” has to the overall story.

There are no extra pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

Or in a good novel.

Posted by Paul Pro 3 Nov 2015 at 01:03
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Responses to this blog

Bethanne80 3 Nov 2015 at 06:19  
Interesting concept! I think you're quite right, though. And it's something we sometimes forget as writers.
Kcm 3 Nov 2015 at 07:02  
Are you familiar with Chekhov's gun?

Kevin
Sherryh 3 Nov 2015 at 09:03  
I think you're right, and I love the line "There are no extra pieces in a jigsaw puzzle"!

I think this has some bearing on the lack of characters with disabilities in fiction. If you have a character with dark glasses and a white cane, or who uses a wheelchair, or who is missing a limb, readers expect that fact to be relevant, or at least explained. It's very rare for such a characteristic to just *be*.

I think that in the past, this was also more true of racial or ethnic or religious minorities, or characters who violated gender norms, such as a female CEO or a stay-at-home dad. Such characters could exist, but they had to be explained, or those characteristics be relevant to the plot. Thankfully, I think that's changed nowadays.

Perhaps in time, the other will as well.

Great post - you've given me a lot to think about!
Dsritter1 3 Nov 2015 at 14:20  
Yes, thank you!

This is definitely something budding writers seem to forget. I know I have.
Rellrod 4 Nov 2015 at 18:18  
On the other hand, in science fiction and fantasy, minor details that help fill in the background but don't lead anywhere in the story — I think of them as threads that continue "offstage" — can help cultivate that willing suspension of disbelief, precisely because the real world is full of such extraneous details. I've always felt the well-deployed obscure reference is a useful tool in the SF writer's bag of tricks.

There's probably a way of distinguishing between distracting details like the tent-sized bandage and minor flourishes like Tolkien's reference to "Queen Beruthiel's cats," but I'm not sure what the distinction is.

Rick
Western2 16 Nov 2015 at 03:00  
There has never been a mutiny in a ship of the United States Navy. The truths of this film lie not in its incidents but in the way a few men meet the crisis of their lives . The time - World War II...
Latieplolo 5 Oct 2016 at 09:50  
I think this is true mostly when the story takes place in our real world. But like Rellrod mentioned, it works differently when the author is creating a world from scratch. Queen Beruthiel's cats (which I think you may have noticed from Drout's analysis of Tolkien, or am I wrong?) and other referents may not contribute anything to the plot, but do contribute to a vast network of culture and history in the world of the story.

Then again, there are times when details like this can be useful in other ways in realistic fiction or memoirs. Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano is infamous for novellas that are just dripping with extraneous details. His style is all about creating a feeling of looking through an old photo album or reminiscing on a rainy afternoon. In one novella, he spent pages talking about a girl he saw from a distance a few times at a cafe but only mentioned the death of his brother in one short sentence. This slow style works for me most of the time, although it's definitely not for everyone.
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