Alcohol and Real-World Plot Devices

Going to a few Halloween parties this past weekend meant, of course, encountering drunk people. I saw drunken friendship-making, drunken secret-telling, and drunken hook-ups, all of which made me wonder about something: can fictional stories include big emotional beats while the characters are under the influence?

TV has virtually every variety of drunken encounter: the drunken bonding, the drunken hook-up, the drunken fight, etc. There’s one thing I’ve noticed, though: if there’s a central will-they-won’t-they romance, it rarely culminates because of alcohol.

There’ve been some great TV episodes with characters getting drunk together. The 15th episode of “New Girl,” “Injured,” involves the characters getting drunk after discovering that Nick Miller might have cancer. This leads the funniest and most heartfelt episode of the first season, and it pushes forward the central romantic relationships of the show: Schmidt and Cece, and Jess and Nick. At this point in the show, though, Schmidt-Cece is in a casual hook-up phase; this is merely the first introduction to a real emotional component. And Jess-Nick is still only hinted at in “Injured”; their romance won’t actually become explicit until a full season later. This holds true in other TV shows too, though. Pam gets drunk and kisses Jim in the second season premiere of “The Office,” but fans don’t really consider that a true expression of attraction. They much prefer to single out the second season’s finale, which features their first real, sober kiss.

Based on all this, I’ve come to the conclusion that a huge plot development based on some character relationship can almost never happen just because of alcohol. It’s a cheat. We want to see these characters act on their feelings sober and not have to worry about whether they’re acting a certain way just because of what’s in their system. If Jim and Pam had been blackout drunk during their first kiss, it wouldn’t mean as much, because it’d so clearly be a plot device. Same with Nick and Jess, or Ross and Rachel, or Ben and Leslie, or any of the countless other great sitcom couples. Alcohol can spark connections, but it can’t define them.

Of course, this is more a rule for art than a rule for life. I’ve had friends who’ve had surprisingly positive experiences with alcohol and relationships, whether those relationships are ultimately casual or something deeper. As bad as it might sound, strong friendships and strong relationships in college are sometimes born under the influence. Alcohol is one of life’s many real-world plot devices.

It shows that art abides by different rules than life. In my English class, we read an essay by Philip Roth that essentially pointed out how the stories we read in the news strain credibility – if we wrote a sexting scandal a guy named “Anthony Wiener” into a book, using my professor’s example, people would say Wiener’s name was too on-the-nose. Real life stretches credibility, so we can’t truly tell just any real-life story and expect readers to believe it; we have to somewhat de-sentimentalize some stories, and de-contrive others. If an author wants to retell his story of his first kiss in the rain, he might have to take the rain away, because that sounds too much like a sappy romance novel. Similarly, if the author’s first big romantic moment with his wife happened mostly thanks to liquid courage, retelling his own story verbatim might not have the power and charge it could have with a fictional sober character.

When you watch so much TV and movies and read so many books, you become aware that what comes across as a plot device in stories can be a naturally occurring agent in real life. When you hear from one of your good friends that he really did meet his year-long girlfriend from a drunken hook-up, it’s kind of hard to rule it “contrived and unsatisfying.”