My favourite literary device is the Rosetta Stone moment: the piece of information that illuminates the story, backwards. You realise there has been a second narrative running under the first the whole time, and while you haven’t consciously been reading it, part of your brain has been picking up the cues, so that when that last piece of information clicks into place you don’t have to laboriously piece the whole thing together – all it needs is illumination.
I recently watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and while the tone of the film wasn’t so much my thing, it had a perfect, spine-tingling Rosetta Stone moment. I’m going to go through how it was done, complete with spoilers. It was by far the best part of the film, so if you intend to watch it, don’t read on!
The sub-narrative is all about Charlie’s relationship with his Aunt Helen. These are all the cues we’re given throughout the film:
Charlie is a troubled kid who has been in hospital. He’s going to high school for the first time, and he wishes he could talk to his Aunt Helen. She would understand.
Later, he remembers his Aunt Helen coming home to their house, with a Welcome Home banner and everything. She looks up at him, on the stairs, and they share a smile. They are special to each other.
When he sees his older sister’s boyfriend hitting her, he tries to intervene. She tells him not to get involved. “How could you,” he says, “after Aunt Helen?”
He goes to sit in the park, and remembers being there at Christmas with Aunt Helen. The pathway was lit up with lanterns, and she bent down and told him it was Santa’s runway. She told him to stay just where he was, while she went and got his birthday present.
Charlie loves a girl called Sam. She throws a Christmas party just for their close friends. Charlie gives her an old record of the Beatles song ‘Something’ and afterwards they sit on her bed together. She asks if he’s ever kissed anyone, and he shakes his head, bashful. “What about your first kiss?” he asks. “I was eleven,” she says. “His name was Robert. He used to come over to the house all the time.” “Was he your first boyfriend?” “He way my – he was my dad’s boss.” Charlie, who is so innocent and naïve, listens without judgement, but we see it hit him. Sam doesn’t know if she can become more than she is – get into a good school, make something of herself. Charlie tells her she can. “My aunt,” he says, “had that same thing done to her. And she turned her life around.” “She must have been great.” “She was my favourite person in the world,” Charlie says, “until now.” Then Sam tells Charlie she wants his first kiss to be with someone who loves him, and she kisses him.
While they’re kissing, Charlie strokes Sam’s back, down to her bottom. He stops. She asks if everything’s okay, and he says it is, and they keep kissing.
Later, Charlie remembers more of that Christmas scene from his childhood: Aunt Helen tells him to stay where he is while she goes to get his birthday present. She whispers in his ear, “It’ll be our little secret.” We see her driving, a record of the Beatles song ‘Something’ on the passenger seat. A truck hits her car, straight into the drivers side.
Charlie starts going out with the wrong girl, and he does the wrong thing. His friends – the first real friends he’s ever belonged to – disown him. His mental state deteriorates. He has no-one to talk to. He’s seeing things again. He’s at home alone, and he can’t stop seeing things.
He’s back kissing Sam on her bed, and his hand slides down her back, to her bottom. He’s remembering a hand touching his leg that way, and he’s a small boy, and the hand belongs to his Aunt Helen. She’s giving him that special you-and-me smile. He remembers finding her at the kitchen table, crying, and touching the long scars on her wrist. Then he’s back where she’s touching him, and whispering that they shouldn’t wake his sister, who’s asleep on the rug. He can’t stop thinking: What if it’s his fault she died, because he wanted her to die?
Charlie ends up in hospital again, and we never see it onscreen, but he finally tells someone what his aunt did to him.
Every memory leading up to the revelation is recast. Everything she said to him, every way she looked at him. His wilful innocence in that conversation with Sam. The way he can’t own his own experience.
Casting their relationship as special and important gives this sub-narrative so much more power than if it had just been couched in mystery. There’s a deep emotional truth in Charlie processing it that way. It’s also impressive from a storytelling stand-point, because there were enough cues that something wasn’t right, that it made complete, stunning sense when the truth came out. The way Charlie deals with Sam’s story of abuse, and the way he reacts to physical intimacy create an emotional resonance for his own experience, once it comes out. We’ve actually been reading that story the whole time, just without realising it.
It’s clear to us that Charlie loves and misses Aunt Helen, and that she was incredibly important to him. But we instinctively feel some piece of information missing from the core of their relationship: What binds them so tightly together? There’s an element of obsession about how he always thinks of her that is low-level creepy, but easy to dismiss because the narrative is telling you this was a good, special relationship.
There are more obvious cues, such as her saying, “This will be our little secret.” That phrase is so coded as abusive that I even thought of abuse outright at that moment, and then uneasily dismissed it.
Charlie’s denial recasts their relationship into something impossible. As his vision of things sits more and more uneasily alongside reality we begin to see how it is impossible.
There’s a powerful narrative lesson here. He doesn’t express blank denial, or bottled up rage. He feels something that’s emotionally true, the way dream logic is true, and it’s heartbreaking.
Lovely. I so want to be able to write a story with such subtle but resonant emotional truth. Thanks for the break down. Now to see if I can apply it to the WIP somehow.
Thanks Marcella. When I see something done this well I marvel, and then I break it down, and then more often than not I despair that I’ll ever reach this level of craft :-). But bit by bit the lessons seep in, I think.
In this case that Rosetta Stone moment would break my heart – in other cases the villain becomes the hero because his motives are understood in a new light. Or something suddenly makes sense (Fight Club!). I love these moments too but I imagine they are hard to write so well so that there’s not information missing in the first part which makes it harder to mentally recast. When it’s done so wonderfully well it looks easy, but I’m sure it’s not.