The icebox dilemma

The rapid pacing of movies allows script writers and directors a few freedoms that would be criticized in novels. They may stir in a scene that audience that reels in the audience in with mounting tension, but which ultimately does not make sense. Alfred Hitchcock is said to have referred to the incongruities in a scene in Vertigo as the kind that “hits you after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.” From that quote, we’ve gained the movie term “ice box scene.”

In Hitchcock’s Vertigo a woman named Madeleine is able to walk into a hotel, completely unobserved. She then enters the room of another woman that should be locked. There is no explanation of how Madeleine obtains the key without the desk clerk seeing her, or how she is gains access to the room. However, the audience is too terrified by watching the height fearing character played by James Steward on the roof of the hotel to question these plot wholes.

The screen writer cuts out exposition for the sake of economy to keep the movie on its scheduled pace. The movie viewers take in exciting scenes at face value in a movie and don’t consider why they occurred. However, a novelist must fill in between the scenes or provide a short exposition to connect events. Otherwise many readers will become alienated by events that don’t make sense. The constant “showing” that occurs in films is not feasible. Sometime the author must take a break from the amount of words required to show all action and simply tell the reader what has occurred.

The early action scene in Matewan (a film about a West Virginia coal miner’s strike) involves a train full of  replacement workers or “scabs” being brought to Matewan by the company. Unexplainably the train stops in the middle of the woods, not at the mining camp, to drop off these new workers. The strikers immediately appear to attack them. It seemed as if the whole point of the early drop off site was to expose new workers to a danger that the mine owners would want to avoid. So, why did this happen? No explanation is given. Movie viewers have no time to question why this occurs. The “scabs” re-board the train as if begins to move and the viewers watch breathlessly to see how the last of them, a main character, manages to be pulled into the rolling train by his friends. Then, the scene immediately switches to another setting in the remote mining town of Matewan.

The writer that attempts to keep action moving at the pace of a film faces the icebox dilemma. How do you deal with making sense without pausing the action in between scenes to fill in the rationale for the string of exciting events? Remember, you are writing a book, and reader will expect to think more than when watching a film. With their mind engaged they are more likely to detect plots holes. So, the writer of a novel must take to time to fill in gaps in logic and avoid “ice box scenes.” When the reader gets hungry and visits the refrigerator for cold chicken, he should be questioning what will  happen next and not doubting the likeliness of what just occurred.

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