Thursday, October 2, 2008

In That Event

An event is an inertial change from one state to another, from inactive, say, to active. Event may also be an accelerated progression of inertia. Story is a linked strand of dramatic events, influenced by characters who are trying to cope with them.

A character is portrayed watering a garden with a hose. No story, not yet. Another character, perhaps an adult, perhaps a child, perhaps a dog or cat, perhaps a bumble bee, enters the scene. Still no story. Now the other character says or does something that causes the character with the hose to drop said hose. Story on the way. The hose begins to behave as dropped hoses will behave when dropped, even to the point of spraying character or characters, causing some kind of event. The tipping point is at hand. Story is waiting for someone to sign for the package.

If another character, at a distance from the splashing hose but close in some degree to the faucet, turns off the hose, we witnesses are reminded of the concept of deus ex machina, a god in a machine, performing an act to end the story. Accordingly, we feel cheated and any sense of story has its metaphoric rug yanked from underneath it.

If the other character, the one closer to the faucet, howls with mirth at the attempts of others to regain control of the spraying hose, the delay increasing the degree of wetness to which the original holder of the hose is subjected, viable story is reintroduced and ratified. Still howling with laughter, the one closer to the faucet finally moves to it, then turns off the water. This event or inertial change is enhanced by the original holder of the hose saying, "You sure took your damn time." Story is alive and well, thank you, and thank as well the sequence of related events for making it so.

However opaque and character-driven the sequence of events may seem to be, they nevertheless contain the dramatic genome, the DNA of story. Watching the events from the point of view of the original holder of the hose or the individual closest to the source of water, we have a picture of something at stake. In this case it is the relative dryness or dignity of the original holder of the hose. (Not a bad definition of dignity: relative dryness in a potentially wet circumstance.) It may also be the point of view of the individual closer to the water source, who may even relish the moment of seeing the holder of the hose having lost control and thus being splattered with water. (Thus the basis of humor: a loss of control or illusion of dignity, coupled with attempts to regain control.)

When we speak of a linked strand of events, we look for overall intent of the strand. Story is recognizable as such as its elements are recognized. We recognize chickens and turkeys because of their defining characteristics, all the while knowing from general configuration that each is some sort of fowl. In a restaurant, particularly those of a more up-market or eclectic bent, we are often surprised and amused by the presentation of a dish, thrilled or not by the way our Thanksgiving turkey dinner is served up, thinking perhaps that at a less ostentatious restaurant, a less expensive restaurant, we'd be on the receiving end of the same turkey and trimmings, the bill anywhere from twenty-five percent to fifty percent less than the presentation we see before us.

Some stories are traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinners, others repackage the presentation while using the same elements in another form. When presented by the late alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker, the traditional Back Home in Indiana becomes the be-bop standard, Donna Lee, a repackaging of the chord changes. Similarly, the standard What Is This Thing Called Love, as presented by the pianist Tad Dameron becomes Hot House. Same chords, presented however with a different tempo and tonic notes.

Events in the dramatic sense are linked strands of notes, leading to some emotional payoff. There is more leeway in a longer dramatic work for what appears to be digression but which on later consideration is still relevant event. In classical music, soloists were encouraged to digress from the text with an individualized statement, a cadenza. But the cadenza was like a footnote on the text, a relevant expression of commentary on the existing theme. In jazz, members of the ensemble are called on to improvise on the original statement. In all dramatic art, the improvisation is the equivalent of a Talmudic argument on a stated proposition. Thus do Modigliani's elongated necks and Giacometti's extenuated sculpting provide thematic variations, thus does the opening clarinet cadenza in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue play on the sour-sounding modalities of the Klezmer music Gershwin heard as a youngster on the lower East Side.

With more a sense of structure than convention, present time in dramatic narrative trumps past time. As readers and writers, we more or less agree that all characters appear on stage (or the page or computer screen) bearing baggage from the past. Often we become curious to see or experience relevant moments from a character's past, moments or events we recognize as having a direct effect on what the character will do now. Accordingly we are willing to accept without complaint a sixty-forty balance, sixty percent of the story being in present time, forty relying on events from the past. Anything beyond that seems to our contemporary senses a speed bump, an attention getter. Why not start the story elsewhere if so much was in the past?

We do have the ability to slow or speed time; we also have the ability to chose the moment when the accretion of event begins. This moment is not always realized in early drafts nor, for some of us, is much else except the blazing light of truth that helps us scour the combination crime scene and archaeological dig we have articulated when we begin investigating events and assessing motives to the individuals whose artifacts are embedded within them.

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