Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Individuals who appear in stories have, as we've noted, expectations. They also have something to lose. Michael Henchard, in arguably one of the most powerful opening chapters in all of English-language literature (The Mayor of Casterbridge) had his wife and daughter to lose, indeed did lose them, providing traction for the rest of the novel and a profound change in him.

Some characters have only their pride, self-esteem, sense of direction, sense of proportion, good judgment to lose (in varying degrees). Others have quite literally their life, their career, their reputation. Others still have at risk their morality, their virtue,their sense of adventure, their ability to inspire trust, their will to live.

The more a character has at risk, the more she or he has options, which lead to decisions to be made. Placing a character in such a position makes the character step forth with more interest than someone merely along for the ride, a window dressing, a convenience.

Regardless of where the needle points on a given individual's moral compass, that person compels interest in direct proportion to not only the choice to be made but the time frame in which it must be made. Thus two time-worn-but-effective enhancements: It's now or never, and You're either with us or against us.

We tend to ally ourselves as readers with characters in terms of the risks they take, how they take these risks, and what consequences await them if the risks taken do not pay off. There are actual courses given in MBA programs relating to risk management, allowing some of us a delicious sense of complex response to fictional individuals who risk business losses, lead organizations into disaster, then emerge with enormous buy-out or exit bonuses. There are individuals who risk personal resources on inventions or artistic creations. There are yet other individuals who risk their personal freedom on ventures in which the prevalent law is breached or entirely broken.

Most of us who have lived past a certain age have taken a number of risks with varying results which we bear in some degree after the fact. I, for instance, still bear the residual anger of the wife of one of my oldest friends for saying no to chemotherapy when she had particularly urged. From time to time she reminds me with some pointed remark about how I played the luck card. Her doing so is an indication of her regard for me and her fear for my survival. Risks are choices with consequences, a reminder of the causal nature of story. If there are no consequences in a story, the events are merely episodic, a stream of vignettes with perhaps a thematic throughline, but only perhaps. Even in its modern, post-modern, and post-postmodern forms, story is still somewhat a domino theory in which one element, someone's goal, triggers something else, which triggers something else. Macbeth, coming home, runs into the three witches, spouting Republican propaganda, which leads him to wonder, hmmm, should I go whack King Malcolm and accede to the throne? Hamlet encounters the ghost who gives him the Republican line about whacking his uncle, and thus buys into a revenge throughline. Henry V sends his cabinet forth to come up with a reason to invade France. And so these stories go, one domino at a time. If Lear had not decided to retire, divide his estate among his daughters, one of whom was the governor of Alaska, there'd be no story. Dominoes. Consequences of tilting events. Risks taken in anticipation of a prize. McCain choosing Palin as a running mate, the act of which provides a roar of distraction from the tangible campaign programs of Barack Obama. A risk taken and, for the moment, being effective.

Narrative without risk is not story, not yet. It needs the catalyst of risk to propel the simmering energy.


Sally wanted to appear on this post, offering concessions such as not sneaking out through a breach in the back fence and going forth to hoorah and harass the Cudahy's. It is a risk I will have to take.


Wild Iris said...

you so concisely stated before (and please forgive me if this is not verbatim)not one damned thing after another, but one damned thing because of another. Yep, causality, consequences, and an inability to go back and change, because time in our perception travels in a singular linear direction... ever forward, whether we care to be carried with it or not, we are.

Marta said...

Sally clearly knows what she is doing. And she looks like my dog except with long hair.

I realize I've been writing that stream of vignettes. At least, how do I know anyone but me sees the dominos?

lowenkopf said...

Nichole, you nailed it. Not merely a+b, but b because of a.

Lin, the short answer is you don't. It helps if you see it, helps even more if you "get" it, but you can only go so far in leaving the trail of cookie crumbs. It starts with you.

Anonymous said...

I see that I left a message under the wrong name. Meaning, some of my characters got away with their own blog for a while and Lin is actually, well, fictional. Sometimes if I'm not paying attention, I get signed in under her name. Pesky girl.

Anyway, Lin is not really herself. She's me.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Hello Shelly - so glad to have found your blog through Rowena's. Will be back for a proper read once the children are asleep. Couldn't agree with you more - risk is the rocket fuel that propels the story up into its arc.