Thursday, January 22, 2009

Nora and Sophie: The Golden Girls

vector--the direction a story takes and the magnitude of intensity with which it moves; the goal-seeking movement of a dramatic narrative; the orbital path of the attempt(s) made by one or more characters to cope with a dramatic problem.

A vector is a quantity with some degree of magnitude or motion as well as a direction. What better way to look at story: A dramatic force with some inherent inevitability, pointed in some specific direction. A group of individuals seated at a large dining table is not a story, in fact barely a concept until someone at the far reaches of the table asks for someone at the other end to pass the mashed potatoes. Now we have an essential ingredient--someone wanting something. All we need now is opposition, as in someone saying No; the last time you were passed the potatoes, no one else got any. Had the request to pass the mashed potatoes been politely and promptly filled, there would also have been no story because there was neither opposition nor any demonstrable ingenuity on the part of the individual making the request. Vector is the tracking of initiative against the friction and inertia of opposition. This is another way of saying that the emerging character with some want or need must earn his or her place by taking some steps toward achieving the goal, must not be awarded the goal as a result of passivity or lack of caring about the outcome. It matters less whether the character is successful than if the character tries to implement a strategy. Even though the protagonist of Jack London's short story, "To Build a Fire," is ultimately unsuccessful and dies in his attempts at a relatively simple goal, the story resonates poignancy because the character tried. (See throughline and story arc)

commercial story, the--a dramatic narrative in which the payoff is a direct product of the protagonist's ingenuity; a story in which there is some tangible prize or reward, achieved or at the very least strived for; a plot-driven narrative; a story in which the promise of a particular genre is paid off either as a prize won or as a surprise, ironic reversal; a story in which the ingenuity of plot and deployment of events trumps the complexity of characters and their moral choices.

Another view of the commercial story: the problem with which the characters cope or the choices they must make emerge as being larger than the characters themselves, more or less directing the reader to the cadences of plot elements falling into place.
Simplistic as it is to comment, the commercial story is any story that appears in a mass publication platform, meaning that a literary story may have enough of the qualities listed above to give it entrance to a larger audience.

choice--a decisional or pressure point inflicted on front-rank characters; a forced or self-induced decision made by an individual that will have relevant consequences in a story; some overt form by which a character takes a stand for which there will be a price to be paid, something to be gained or lost.

William Faulkner described fiction as "the agony of moral choice," a vivid way of illustrating the importance and variety of potential choices in any given story of his and of all writers. A character may chose to ignore something, take a stand on some issue, commit a particular act or deliberately not perform another; the character may stay, go, protest, smile outwardly and seethe inwardly. These and other similar acts are the individual beats a character performs during a story; they all have relevant consequences, which is to say they will have some effect such as provoking a recognizable emotion in another character.

One of the Newtonian Laws appropriate to fiction treats the effects of physical action by observing that each act has a consequence that is equal in effect and opposite in motion. In fiction, acts bring forth consequences, some of which are quite wonderful and positive in their nature, others are painful, inducing regret. A character faced with choice stands the risk of vulnerability, which may make that character more sympathetic for a time. The Newtonian product of choice is consequence and of course consequence may lead directly to subsequent actions and, no surprise here, more consequences.

If Daisy had accepted Jay Gatz straightaway in their courtship, the world would be missing The Great Gatsby; if Juliet had thought Romeo a dork, they would likely have gone on to marry others, living entirely different and considerably longer lives. If Sophie had not been forced to make her aching choice, William Styron would not have had nearly so plangent and moving a novel. If Nora Helmer had less spine, that door would not have slammed at the end of act three of A Doll's House.

Thus the paradigms are presented, the lines drawn in the literary sands: You're either with us or you're against us, In or out? Yes or No? Coming or not? Are we going home yet? I can't do this any more.

Choice allows the reader to see large and small moments in the lives of characters, moments in which they set sail on a causal sea of events that leads them through the white waters of conflict and resolution; characters who are confronted with choice become strategically immunized from the one condition that renders them ineffective in fiction--passivity.

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