Yes, I know it’s Friday the 13th, but I don’t want to talk about horror and dread. I want to talk about quite the opposite.
During the recent Unconference in Salem, Donald Maass spoke about emotional turning points in stories, and specifically mentioned how moments of forgiveness can have great dramatic power.
In my own talks, I too discussed the power of forgiveness. I believe forgiveness is a rare touch of grace in any life, given the human propensity to hold onto grudges and grievances and to fear that if we try to let bygones be bygones, we’ll only be hurt, betrayed, or taken advantage of again.
But the power of forgiveness on the page is complicated by the difficulty of conveying it convincingly. Just as you cannot make someone love you, you cannot force someone to forgive you. Love and forgiveness are gifts, not rewards.
Just as you cannot make someone love you, you cannot force someone to forgive you. Love and forgiveness are gifts, not rewards.
This means that no matter what your character does in her attempt to be forgiven, the actual act of forgiveness lies completely beyond her control. Even penance that convinces the reader that it’s time to move on may not have the same effect on the character in the story whose forgiveness is sought.
This is what makes forgiveness so powerful. It is uncommon, it is unearned, and yet when it finally appears there is something almost otherworldly about it. The great burden of guilt has been lifted, and a newfound freedom from the past is born.
A particularly moving example of how this can be done well appeared in an episode of the TV series The Crown this past season. The episode, titled “Bubbikins,” was memorable not just for how emotionally affecting it was but for how the moment of forgiveness was staged.
WARNING: spoiler alert. If you have not watched this episode and want to remain surprised when you do, stop reading now.
The episode begins in a convent in Greece with an aging nun standing in her dilapidated convent. What makes her particularly memorable, however, is that she is lighting up a cigarette, and clearly enjoying her first inhale.
The “chain-smoking nun” is an iconic example of a kind of contradiction I describe in The Art of Character as comic juxtaposition. And like all proper uses of contradiction, this one immediately fascinates—who is this woman? What makes her tick?
Shortly, we see her conversing in with her accountant over the convent’s lack of funds. A new roof is needed as well as medicine and food for the poor people the convent cares for. Reminded that in previous crises she always found some way to come up with the money, she replies that she has nothing else to sell.
This turns out to be untrue, and another contradiction presents itself. The nun goes to a bureau drawer and removes a large, stunning broach wrapped in a lace hankie. She passes through armed guards in the city streets—some kind of civil unrest is afoot—to a pawnbroker. The man refuses to believe the broach is real because he’s never seen a sapphire so large. She replies that he should get back to her when he’s willing to offer a realistic price. Instead, he reports her to the police thinking she was working on behalf of jewel thieves who used the shameless ruse of sending in this older woman pretending to be a nun to dispose of stolen goods.
Meanwhile, back in London, we see Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, a determined, intelligent, somewhat rigid man, responding in frustration to negative press about the royal family’s request for a pay raise, the first since Elizabeth’s ascension to the crown fifteen years earlier. He decides to make a documentary about the royal family that will show how normal and decent they are, how hard they work, and how much “value on the pound” they provide in what the British taxpayer pays them.
Greece undergoes a military coup while the documentary is being readied, and the old nun is informed that, as a foreigner, she needs to leave the country. At the same time, we learn that Queen Elizabeth is arranging to have her flown to London—for she is not merely an aging nun; she is Princess Alice, the queen’s mother-in-law, Prince Philip’s mother.
Learning that his mother is en route just as he is arranging for the filming of the royal family in its natural habitat, Prince Philip sternly and uncompromisingly forbids Queen Elizabeth to allow her to stay with them at Buckingham Palace. He says “the woman” is unstable, has been hospitalized on numerous occasions, and cannot be allowed to ruin the documentary he considers crucial to their standing with the public. The queen is stunned by the force of his reaction—and the anger it reveals.
QUEEN ELIZABETH: She’s your mother.
PRINCE PHILIP: Technically.
QUEEN: What does that mean?
PRINCE PHILIP: She gave birth to me. She was never a mother.
We then see two brief, unannotated flashbacks. In one, a young Prince Philip sobs hysterically and has to be restrained by relatives as he watches his mother, clearly distraught, taken away in an ambulance. In the next, he’s standing alone on a train platform presumably because his mother has neglected to come for him or arrange for someone else to do so.
The queen ignores his order concerning where his mother should stay and has Princess Alice flown to London. On the plane from Greece, she weeps openly at leaving behind her convent, the other nuns, and the poor people in her care.
She is placed in private quarters in the palace, far from prying eyes. However, unable to find a light for her cigarette, she spies the film crew taking a break outside, and literally runs down, as always dressed in her nun’s habit, to share a smoke with them. They begin asking her questions, and filming her charming responses. Prince Phillip catches this from a window, and orders that the filming be stopped. He also manages to get the film crew to bury the footage.
Meanwhile his daughter, Princess Anne, visits with Princess Alice, and is astonished at the story of her life. Queen Elizabeth ventures in during one of these visits, and learns about the dire financial straits of the convent in Greece. The two princesses wonder if something in the palace might not be sold to come up with the money. “Perhaps a clock,” Princess Alice suggests. “There seem to be a lot of them here.” The queen responds that they can’t just sell off palace artwork since the items don’t belong to the royal family in the conventional way.
The documentary is completed and shown on BBC to the largest audience in history. The reaction is the exact opposite of what was hoped. Rather than recognize in the royal family ordinary people like themselves, the public reacts with disdain at how small, dull, and uninteresting they seem—and unworthy of the millions the government provides for their upkeep. Prime Minster Wilson tries to explain to the queen that people don’t want the royal family to be normal; they want the monarchy to be ideal.
Prince Philip, sensing he has just created a disaster, calls in his daughter, Princess Anne, to help right matters. He reminds her that when he and his family were forced to flee Greece when he was a boy, they had to hide in orange crates (a story she has clearly heard more times that she cares to admit), and that that sort of down-to-earth account of real hardship is what was missing from the documentary. Referring to his daughter as the least pretentious of the royals and thus the best suited to regain the public’s goodwill, he tells her to contact the reporter at the Manchester Guardian who wrote the most scathing review of the documentary and invite him for a one-on-one interview.
Princess Anne—aka “Little Miss Dumpy & Grumpy”—has ideas of her own, however. When the reporter shows up for the interview, she pretends to have canceled it, but sends Princess Alice out where the reporter can see her. He asks, “Who’s the nun?” Told she is the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother, he jumps at the chance to interview her, and she graciously agrees.
As the interview begins, Princess Alice informs the reporter that everyone thought she was slow as a child, because she was born deaf. She was also institutionalized for schizophrenia and confined in an asylum where she was treated by Sigmund Freud (“not a kind man”), until she managed to escape. The reporter realizes he has struck journalistic gold.
When the resulting interview comes out, we watch as the royal couple read the paper. Prince Philip, jaw set tight, appears to be fuming. He marches to his mother’s quarters, paper in hand. As he arrives at the door to her apartment, he finds her kneeling on the floor in the midst of her prayers. She rises, discovers him standing there, and says gently, “Bubbikins,” her pet name for him.
Prince Philip, still seemingly in the grip of his rage, begins to read aloud from the interview, which begins by describing Princess Alice as “that rarest of creatures, a member of the royal family who has suffered more than the rest of us, worked harder than the rest of us, and created more good than the rest of us.” It describes how she was born with congenital deafness and as a result was routinely “misunderstood, marginalized, and underestimated.” Doctors inflicted untold horrors on her, including subjecting her womb to x-rays to decrease her libido and electroshock for her “hysteria.”
Prince Philip stops reading, folds the paper over, and stands there with it, as though intending to hurl it at the wall.
PRINCE PHILIP: It’s a love letter.
Princess Alice seems pleased. Prince Philip appears torn.
PRINCE PHILIP: I owe you an apology.
PRINCESS ALICE: Whatever for?
PRINCE PHILIP: My faithlessness. All this time, I’ve been trying to keep you out of sight of the cameras. Quite clearly, you should have been center stage.
PRINCESS ALICE: If anyone owes anyone an apology, we both know it’s the other way around. At least your sisters had something of their mother. When we were forced to leave Greece, I couldn’t cope. I needed care. I needed help.
PRINCE PHILIP: But it wasn’t help they gave you. It was torture.
PRINCESS ALICE: They tried their best.
PRINCE PHILIP: No. The treatment they gave you was barbaric. And the courage you demonstrated in overcoming it is remarkable.
PRINCESS ALICE: I didn’t do it alone. I couldn’t have. I had help every step of the way. (Pause.) You spoke of your faithlessness. How is your faith?
PRINCE PHILIP: Dormant.
PRINCESS ALICE: That’s not good. Let this be a mother’s gift to her child. The one piece of advice. Find yourself a faith. It helps. No… Not just helps. It’s everything.
PRINCESS ALICE: Oh, it looks like it’s clearing up. What do you say? A walk?
We next see the queen nixing the prospect of the notorious documentary being shown overseas and repeated on BBC. “Best it never be seen again, not by anyone, anywhere.”
She then goes to the window and looks out, where she sees Prince Philip and Princess Alice walking on the stone porch toward the lawn. As they near the grass, Prince Philip offers his arm, and his mother takes it. The episode ends as we watch them walking slowly, arm in arm, across the palace grounds.
The difficulty of rendering forgiveness on the page obliges us to look at how this episode is staged to understand why the turn from resentment and anger to forgiveness works so well.
As I noted at the outset, the difficulty of rendering forgiveness on the page obliges us to look at how this episode is staged to understand why the turn from resentment and anger to forgiveness works so well.
First, it’s important to recognize that the unforgiving character, in this instance Prince Philip, has a legitimate grievance. He experienced serious neglect and has suffered humiliation at his mother’s hands, or at least that’s how he honestly perceives the matter.
We need to see that sense of grievance in resolute terms—an absolute line is drawn in the sand. Compromise is unthinkable.
Then circumstances increase the intensity of that resentment and anger. Bad enough his crazy mother neglected him; now she shows up at the most inopportune moment imaginable.
Then we see Prince Philip, seemingly still in the grip of his rage and resentment, storming toward his mother’s quarters, presumably for the sake of a confrontation. We’re expecting him to call her out on self-serving falsehoods or even delusions in the article, or on some other grounds. Even as he reads the glowing account, he does so in a manner that suggests he still is finding fault. The way he says, “It’s a love letter,” could easily be interpreted as not just dismay but indignation.
This is crucial: he remains angry, but his anger is now turned on himself. It’s at this moment, and only now, that he says the crucial, “I owe you an apology.”
What we learn is that Prince Philip has come by information he did not possess, which allows him to see things with a distinctly new perspective. Specifically, he was unaware of the savage treatment his mother received at the hands of doctors purporting to treat her. He realizes he has been wrong about her, and that his anger is at least in part baseless. He may also realize it was self-serving, a way to deal with the pain her condition caused.
What this scene reveals is the role humility plays in any act of forgiveness—recognition that one’s anger and refusal to forgive have been used to amplify one’s own sense of righteous victimhood at the expense of accepting the full, complicated humanity of the other person.
That misconception may be the result of a lack of information, or it may be due to a self-exonerating fable the unforgiving one has nurtured, the better to hold on to the sense of grievance. We get the sense that both may be in play in the case of Prince Philip.
The key point, however, from the viewpoint of dramatization, is to recognize the need not only to justify the unforgiving anger but intensify it right up to the moment of forgiveness. This coheres with the general rule that to properly convey a strong emotion, you must build to it in such a way that the reader or audience fully expects its opposite.
To properly convey a strong emotion, you must build to it in such a way that the reader or audience fully expects its opposite.
Adding to this particular moment’s power, however, is the fact that Princess Alice recognizes the merit in her son’s anger. Her son isn’t the only one exhibiting humility. The one who is forgiven cannot take that forgiveness for granted, or the moment is ruined. It must feel like the gift that it is, and needs to be accepted with grace, usually through recognition of the pain inflicted on the other person.
Finally, the simple act of extending his arm to his mother as they take a walk—their first in decades—and having her accept it, provides a gentle capstone that renders the moment so much more powerfully than tears of joy or a sudden embrace or some other hokey, over-the-top gesture would have. That too is important—to make forgiveness work, don’t oversell it. The moment is most likely a bit of a shock to both concerned—honor that sudden unexpectedness.
What moments of forgiveness in fiction or film or TV have particularly affected you? Why did they move you so profoundly? What did you learn from that example about staging such moments? Do you have any moments of forgiveness in your current WIP? Has the example of Prince Philip and his mother given you any ideas on how to present that moment in your own work?
P.S. The holidays are an especially good time to contemplate how we might be more forgiving, less scared and angry and resentful. Here’s hoping we all experience a little forgiveness in our lives this month. See everyone here in the new year!