Character, Conflict, and That Infamous Oscar Slap

Character, Conflict, and That Infamous Oscar Slap

Character, Conflict, and That Infamous Oscar Slap

By the time this blog post runs, you will undoubtedly have heard about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock in the middle of the Oscars Sunday night.

Here are the facts: Chris Rock made a joke from the Oscars stage directed at Jada Pinkett in the audience–Smith’s wife–that he couldn’t wait for G.I. Jane 2, apparently a reference to Pinkett’s baldness.

Seconds later, Smith strode up onto the stage and directly over to Chris Rock and “slapped the shit” out of him, as Rock described it from the stage moments later, and as in fact it’s clear that Smith did.

While ABC silenced the audio for the next twenty seconds, a clearly upset Smith shouted from his seat that Rock should “keep my wife’s name out of your f***ing mouth,” an uncensored version reveals. When the audio resumed a fraught, weighty silence had descended over the Oscar crowd, and Rock proceeded with his presentation, clearly thrown.

I’m not making value judgments in this post about either man’s actions or who was right or wrong. But this seconds-long incident has captured the headlines and the attention of many–me included–and analyzing why is a great way to learn how to bring conflict and character to life impactfully in your own storytelling.

Analyzing the Elements of Compelling Conflict

If we don’t care about the characters, we don’t care about the conflict. This scene has conflict, obviously and overtly, and it comes with some baked-in character: Both men are well-established celebrities, each respected in his field. Both are familiar to most people from their large bodies of work. But it’s common to write scenes with good characters and strong conflict that may still fall flat. What made this “scene” reverberate so forcibly and widely?

It’s common to write scenes with good characters and strong conflict that may still fall flat. What made this “scene” reverberate so forcibly and widely?

Backstory: Part of it is what we know about these “characters”–some of their backstory, which gives a scene greater resonance. Pinkett suffers from alopecia and has gone public about that journey and its challenges for her. Rock had directed another joke at Pinkett the last time he was on the Oscar stage. Also, Smith and Pinkett have recently revealed publicly some of their marital and family struggles. Relevant backstory heightens stakes, and deepens our engagement and investment and may color how we feel about it.

Ambiguity: As a result, people may feel strongly about each man’s actions, and may take a clear side. Forcing us to consider our point of view is a surefire way to deeply engage readers. Did Rock step over the line with an insensitive joke about someone’s medical condition…? Did Smith overreact to what is Rock’s usual comedic style of edgy comedy?

And what about how you feel about the many involved nuances of the incident? Ambiguous gray-area topics demand readers’ consideration and make them part of the story:

  • Was this the chivalrous act of a man defending his family against perceived public attack…or an example of toxic masculinity, a man shifting the focus to himself and white-knighting to defend a woman who never asked for it and can take care of herself?
  • Should celebrities or the wealthy or powerful be allowed special license in consequences for their behavior? A man physically assaulted another man and was simply allowed to go back to his seat, rather than being escorted out of the event or even arrested.
  • Are celebs fair game, no matter their personal situation?
  • Do comedians–or any artist–have artistic license to skewer sacred cows?
  • Is physical assault ever warranted? Are unkind public comments about a person’s medical condition?
  • Do people have a responsibility to moderate their reactions in a public or professional environment, especially those in a position of being role models?

Universality: The situation was highly specific and personal–most of us are not celebrities standing on the stage of an internationally watched show or reacting to a perceived public slight against our partner. But what does draw us in and make us relate is the universal areas this incident hits on, colored by our own perspective: our personal experience and views on violence; the urge to protect those we love; times when we’ve been bullied, perhaps, or when we’ve put our foot in our mouth or gone too far; the pain or confusion or embarrassment or humiliation of being attacked, especially in public.

Authenticity: All you have to do to is watch the video of the brief altercation to know that moment was real, folks. Smith is clearly, visibly angry. That slap did not hold back and no one saw it coming, least of all Rock, who was very obviously genuinely unsettled by it. This was raw, and it felt that way, and authentic emotion compels readers. That kind of unexpected violence would have been dramatic regardless of the players, but it’s heightened by their familiarity to us, and also by the setting: You don’t expect a physical attack, furious shouted profanity, and an implied threat at the Academy Awards, one of the film world’s most venerated events.

Unexpectedness: A real, unstaged act of aggression like this isn’t something we usually see from A-list celebs in a public forum, unless they’re Russell Crowe or Sean Penn, and there’s never been this aggressive a physical altercation on the Oscars stage. Surprise readers and you hold their attention.

These two men are fairly broadly beloved, too—­it’s a shock to see Smith, one of film and TV’s most widely perceived “good guys,” act like a schoolyard scrapper in front of a group of this industry’s brightest lights and biggest power players, as well as an international audience. It’s a shock to see this kind of naked rancor between stars who, as far as is public, had no previous history of it. Upending reader expectations keeps them hooked.

Spectacle: Smith slapped and the world watched—literally the show was broadcast all over the world. The broader the spectacle the greater the impact.

Salaciousness: Hollywood feuds! Smith going on to win the Oscar! His tearful speech apologizing to the Academy and audience but notably not Rock! So many of the details are juicy gossip-column fodder; salaciousness has its own sordid train-wreck allure.

Secondary characters: Jada Pinkett Smith. The audience itself. Denzel Washington. Sean Combs. The Academy. The police. The rest of Hollywood. The reactions of the other involved characters add even more intrigue and interest to the already startling original event.

For more on learning to analyze other people’s stories to improve your own, check out my self-directed course, “How to Train Your Editor Brain”

I often mention that I analyze everything for story elements–because everything is story. This post is an example of that, and you can get into the habit of doing the same to deepen your own storytelling and editing skill. Analyzing other people’s stories—whether actual narrative stories or real-life events like this one—is the best way to learn to analyze your own and figure out what makes them effective and impactful.

Okay, authors, over to you–what other storytelling elements did I miss in this story that have made it so compelling to so many? I’ll even open it up to opinions about the incident itself if you want to share yours—what are your thoughts about what happened? I’m aware there are some very sensitive elements involved, so please be mindful of that.

11 Comments. Leave new

  • Ruchama Burrell
    March 31, 2022 11:13 am

    I am offended by your use of the term “sacred cow” when the “joke” was about a woman’s appearance caused by a disease. This is equivalent to making a joke about a disability. The term “sacred cow” generally refers to something that is not to be touched for unknown reasons, with a hint that the designation arises from superstition or ignorance. Mocking someone who has experienced hair loss is cruel. It’s not about attacking a “sacred cow.” It’s about mocking a woman making the best of a disease that disfigures. Because for black women their hair is always an issue, the remark is exponentially cruel.

    • I mean no offense, Ruchama; I’m using the term in its original meaning–harking back to Hindu veneration of cows, which to me connotes something sacred to someone, whether another person understands that or not. Thank you for sharing your feelings here.

    • 1) Because for black women their hair is always an issue….

      Really? Is this a fact, or how you write your character here?

      2) a disease that disfigures….

      Really? Disfigures, huh? Fact or how you write your narrative?

      I think Tiffany is doing some real good here. Taken as intended, I believe this is a great opportunity for Tiffany’s pupils to gain incredible skills.
      Maybe think of this as a CRITIQUE, and Tiffany is saying so, here is what I see.

  • Redemption is a future story element at play.

    Ironically it is so easy to offend when you put yourself out there with acting, writing, or other, as your comment above points out! I look forward to your posts every week. This was a brave take away.

    • Oh, redemption is a good one, yes. Especially given how beloved the two players are, and all the gray areas. As this opinion piece points out, there are no heroes in this story. But I think we’d like there to be, in general and in particular in this case, and when a “character” we care about transgresses, we do hope for redemption. Thanks for chiming in, Sharon, and for your kind words; it means a lot.

  • Hello Tiffany,

    When I first saw your email in my inbox, I was offended. Then I opened it and saw the brilliance of the *writing* exercises before me.

    The FACTS are never going to be the same for everyone.
    EXAMPLE: Your facts about the characters (yes, they are real people) are what you know by research, reading, filtered, or second hand information.
    This is how writers develop the character (s) they wish to bring to the page.

    Now my FACTS are different which is also common in writing, but for the story, are the facts relevant? What story about these folks do I want to tell?

    Readers and writers bring assumptions to the page which can sometimes throw readers off, or resonate. Depends.
    In this EXERCISE, if I were critiquing your narrative, I would suggest you dig deeper into the relationship (facts and long history) between the protagonist and the antagonist. What do we not see? What do we not know? What would move the story along and make it more interesting?

    Basically, I would apply the same principles (in your book and teachings) you ask us to be mindful of in our writing.

    That is it for now. Gotta go to a seminar!

    • Love this, Melody: “The FACTS are never going to be the same for everyone…. What story about these folks do I want to tell?” That’s so much of the writer’s prerogative…and their job, isn’t it? Purely as a writing exercise, as you clarify, consider how POV might change this story. How changing the characters might–you suggested make the slap-ee a white woman–but even make either one a white man…or two women…or instead of Chris Rock, the Rock and Kevin Hart with their very lopsided physicality…or an older actor and a younger one… So many permutations change the tone and impact of the “scene.”

      And yes, backstory does too–if, for instance, Rock and Smith were close friends prior to this, or had a longstanding feud, or there was a history of offenses from one to the other (or both)…or Rock dated Jada Pinkett Smith, even.

      This is why I love analyzing everything–it can be so enlightening to us in creating our own stories. Thanks for weighing in with your insights, Melody.

      • Thank you, Tiffany!

        This is good in so many ways, especially when thinking about revision, right? What do we learn about our pages as we pen them?

        I have written parts of my book with a clear understanding of what is. My beta readers are great with saying, well, wait a minute…

        Keep teaching, Tiffany!

  • For writing and teaching purposes…

    Let’s change this up!

    Let’s have the slapper slap the shit out of a white woman actress on stage at the Oscars.
    Sit in that for a minute.

    Write the next part. Go ahead. Get creative. Go fiction or nonfiction.

    You got this!

  • Well, you picked a prickly, sensitive one, but good for you to not shy away. I gotta say you kinda nailed all the elements and turned it into the ideal teachable event.

    Beyond the story elements, I’m fascinated with how my reaction changed over the several days afterward. At first, feeling like we were making a bigger deal out of than was warranted. Later thinking it was pretty audacious what Will did. Damn, that was crazy!

    • Ha…you should read the comments when I analyzed the New York Times piece “Bad Art Friend” in Writer Unboxed a few months back. Also a polarizing issue. 🙂 But this is where narrative juice lies too–in these stories of high emotion.

      I try to stay out of the value judgments when analyzing–and actually that’s yet another element of why exercises like this can be valuable for authors: It teaches you to maintain that removed, objective, editorial mindset without being colored by personal reaction/emotion, an essential skill in editing your own work.

      I love that you point out how your reactions evolved. That’s interesting to observe and analyze too, as to why. More info came out…we maybe considered more elements than we did in that first knee-jerk reaction to the moment…dug deeper into our thoughts… That’s how great stories haunt us too, isn’t it?

      Man, everything is story, truly. It can be hard to distance ourselves personally sometimes in analyzing the storytelling elements, but if we can, there’s so much of value that can apply to our craft. Thanks for your thoughts, Ken!


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