Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Power Play

After spending some time looking at the interior and exterior apparatus of our characters, let's go back to the basic elements of scene for a moment to gain an important sense of how characters behave. As iron filings are drawn to power, characters are similarly attracted in ways that are magnetic and chemical. A character in a scene is doing something he or she has to, whether from being driven by an impulse or love or duty, by a need to remain still or take some particular action, by being yanked like a Gummy Bear at a Chuck E. Cheese convention, caught between polar forces.

Somewhere in every scene, there is a power cloud, not always fairly distributed, not always logical. George Pelecanos nails it in his latest, The Turnaround, where three teenage boys are set off in motion by the energy of one of their number who has close to the surface something the other two lack in some degree and yearn for. This particular surge of power influences them for the rest of their lives, having created a situation they will now have to live with. Somewhere in and between the lines of a short story, Two Girls Shopping, there is a cloud of power extending its reach over two sisters, a power each recognizes not in so many actual words but in many unspoken words.

Power is the politics among characters. I pay you to do a job. With that employment comes certain spoken and unspoken assumptions about how, when, and with what attitude you'll perform the job. My hiring you and paying you, even paying you handsomely, does not guarantee your respect of me or, in fact even your sense that the thing I've hired you to do is worthwhile or practical. I have one kind of power over you, you have the power to dislike, dispute, disrespect me.

Sam loves Samantha, which extends to her some power. Loving her, Sam is aware of boundaries, rules, expectations. If Samantha loves Sam in what appears to be equal measure, the politics of power becomes shunted to the things each do that infuriate the other. Sam has a nervous laugh that really bugs Samantha. Samantha tends to chew her food noisily, which causes Sam to cringe somewhat at mealtime. How does the power play out with each cheerfully sitting on the offensive thing about the other? Ah, we shall see.

Squirrel mentions The Gift of the Magi as a favored love story. Indeed it dramatizes a refreshing unselfishness that is one of the more attractive things about love, making many of us, me included, sanguine about falling in love. Let's modernize The Gift of the Magi, set it in Baltimore, give it a The Wire spin. We open on the Magi couple in a roach-infested railroad flat in the Baltimore eastside. Christmas. A noble attempt at a Christmas tree, made with wire coathangers, some stringed popcorn, some old beads, an imaginative use of pop-tops from soda cans.

We actually start where the old one ends, because this is about a hundred years later on.

HE: Yo! What with the ski cap?
SHE: Where your daddy's watch?
HE Needed a small loan. (extnds package wrapped in nespaper pags) Merry Christmas.
SHE: (takes package, rummags under sofa to find a purple velvet bag, associatd with holding a pint of Seagram's VO) Back at you.

They nod smiles to one another, fall to opening the gifts.
He looks at his gift, a watch chain. Hefts it for a moment, raches for her ski cap, yanks it off her head.
HE: What is with you, selling your hair to some sleaze wig maker?
SHE: And you? You sold your daddy's watch to get me THESE? (hefts a pair of tortoise-shell combs) I can grow hair back. You can't grow that watch back.
HE: I wanted something nice for you.
SHE: So you could like objectify me.
HE: No, man. It isn't that way.

and away we go.

Power resides in every scene and we need to look at who has it, how it's used, and what that person's motivs are, because that's the unspoken undersurface of story.

In real life and drama, who are you into? Who's into you? Name me one surprise source of power over you. Name me one surprise source where you have the edge.

Now you know how it feels...


Querulous Squirrel said...

Completely hilarious and totally convincing. I swear, Shelly, you should start a whole separate blog commentary on The Wire. We could all watch it segment by segment and then discuss it. I can't believe all the literary bloggers who haven't seen it. Then, again, I can't believe all the books I haven't read that they all probably have. I'm about to do a post soon on one aspect of the Wire the relates to other writing, maybe this weekend when I have time to think and also rewatch a few episodes for material. It's amazing how quickly the language of it leaves your brain.

Anonymous said...

Wow. No one has ever used a story of mine as an example of anything. I'm moved beyond reason.

As for power...a surprise source of power over me? I don't know if anything/anyone I can think of is really a surprise.

And the other way around? I don't know if this counts but I am always surprised when I discover I influenced or changed a student's behavior. It's like, really? You were listening to and believing me?

Wild Iris said...

Magnetism is a very powerful force in story telling, and essential for the motivations and interactions of the characters, but even more essential to transfer that magnetic pull to the reader. My magnetic pull is knowing how a person responds to whatever stimulus is put into play, whether for good or for ill... give me the response. I am fascinated by human bahvior.