LET’S STEAL FROM THIS: “But She Doesn’t Know It”
I’m baffled whenever someone doesn’t like Mad Men. I think it’s my favorite show of all time. Nothing else, for me, has ever created as full and exciting a world, and I frankly don’t understand when someone says it’s “cold.” Mad Men is funny, it’s heartbreaking, and there are huge emotions going on. Maybe, for some people, the problem is the business setting or the distancing effect of its period clothing or the fact that most of those emotions aren’t being shouted or bawled for the Emmy reel. But I love it, and I will be sad when there are no more new ones.
So why are we here? Ah: Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner recently gave an interview to HitFix wherein he said this:
…the story of the show has always been about — I always joke in the writers room, when I’m pitching a story, the key phrase is, “But he doesn’t know it.” Like, “something happens, but she doesn’t know it.”
I’m always on the lookout for useful ideas, so to have one boiled down to a single phrase is invaluable. In this case, the idea itself certainly isn’t new — surprise is a key element of storytelling, and if your characters know everything that’s going on in their world, it’ll be a dull story indeed. But there’s something about Weiner’s phrase — but he doesn’t know it — that feels like a key turning in a lock. It’s not unlike the Ernst Lubitsch maxim popularized by Billy Wilder: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” You know these things by instinct — we’ve all heard stories our entire lives — but there’s something about the neat phrasing that helps externalize them, gives them life.
But she doesn’t know it is particularly great because it’s a magical phrase that activates surprise as if surprise were one of the sleeper assassins in The Manchurian Candidate. I don’t know when surprise stopped being important to fiction writers, but I can tell you it never stopped being important to readers. I’ve been in a lot of workshops over the years, and I very much remember certain elements — surprise, coincidence — being dismissed as hokey or commercial. Yet, who do we still hold up as comprising the literary canon? Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, the Brontes. Guess what they used all the time?
But she doesn’t know it is merely the dangling of the other shoe. So much of drama comes down to a character’s expectations. In fact, 99% of the time when someone says “this comes from character,” that’s what they’re talking about: a character expects something, and it either cannot come true for them, OR it can come true but never in the way they originally expected. The shoe kind of has to drop in one of those two spots.
Likewise, if someone’s ever told you, “Not enough of this comes from character,” they meant you made stuff happen without thinking of what your character(s) wanted.
In Mad Men, Don Draper expects things to work out for himself because he’s so handsome and charming. He also expects, way deep down inside, for his truths to be discovered — that he has no formal education, that he was raised in a whorehouse, that his name isn’t even Don Draper.
These two expectations work together to create a massive amount of tension in Mad Men — and to create 100% of Don Draper’s problems. He takes crazy risks and treats people poorly because he’s living in a country and an era that delights in guys like him. He also sabotages himself every step of the way because he knows he’s not really that guy, and he knows the world he’s charmed is always one phone call or clearheaded moment away from figuring it out. Meanwhile, for all this self-awareness, Don’s greatest survival tool is his capacity for denial. So when your entire existence is built on supports you’ve either booby-trapped yourself (then denied doing so) or whose erosion you’ve willfully ignored, you’re going to be “surprised,” and in the worst way, pretty constantly. For Don Draper, there’s always a But he doesn’t know it lurking around the corner. Doubly so for Pete, who has all of Don’s puffery and denial, but none of his actual skills.
A very basic illustration of but she doesn’t know it would be “The Gift of the Magi,” right? She’s selling her beautiful hair so she can afford a new fob for his old watch, but she doesn’t know (it) that he’s already sold his watch to buy silver combs for her beautiful hair.
A caution: why that story wouldn’t fly now is precisely because But she doesn’t know it is the whole story, irony its only currency. The characters don’t really shift or grow, except for learning, I guess, a crucial lesson about never doing anything nice for anyone. (I’m being mean, but this was a happy couple to begin with.) If you were to write “The Gift of the Magi” today, you’d have to make it more about the why of it all. You’d make it more about what was really going on inside either Della or Jim, and what they expected would happen as a result of their sacrifice. And something more palpable would shift between them, or for one of them. There’d be stakes, whereas in O. Henry’s version they start out in a good place with each other and they finish in a good place. Also, the writing is dreadful. It’s maybe the worst-written best-known story of all time.
A final example of but she doesn’t know it can be the simple story I made up for this posting on character. Jeff, who works at a grocery store and wants a fancy car, decides to take his co-worker’s offer to help use the stockroom for some shady business in exchange for more money than he could normally make in months.
- This shady business is being conducted by people who are already on the brink of internal warfare — but he doesn’t know it.
- While Jeff’s on the way to the store that night, something goes wrong with these shady-business guys — but he doesn’t know it.
- Jeff shows up, everyone’s dead, and there’s a bag full of drugs. The drugs most definitely still belong to someone, someone not in the store and thus very much alive– but he doesn’t know it.
- The store security cams are still functioning — but he doesn’t know it.
- Taking that bag will change and endanger his life in a dozen different ways — but he doesn’t know it.
The reason any of this story progresses, by the way, is because all Jeff can see are his expectations of a better life with better stuff. The but he doesn’t know it stuff would certainly work with a dim patsy of a character, but what makes it feel real and full of stakes and moments that make you cringe for the character’s well-being? That comes from the character’s involvement, from his or her complicity because of those expectations.
Next time: William Trevor’s story “On the Streets” and the case of the displaced epiphany.