Friday, January 16, 2009

A Twofer

scene, the--the basic unit of dramatic storytelling; an integral moment in a setting which one or more characters have entered with agenda and expectation; the crucible to which the heat of ambition, agenda, or desire is applied; a period of dramatic engagement in a particular setting where personalities and goals collide, producing a sense of movement toward a resolution or trial.

Put enough of these basic units together and they assume a form suggesting a specific path toward some arbitration, trial, discovery, or resolution. As the collection of scenes emerges, the characters in them appear to grow in resolve or stubbornness, producing varying dramatic options to the point where they become memorable enough to eclipse the narrative in which they appear.

In varying degree, scenes have at least the following ingredients: setting, characters, beats, pace, blocking, tension, subtext, dialogue. They may also contain reversals of fortune for one or more characters, shifts in the power exerted by one character or organization over another character or organization, shifts of allegiance within the cast of characters, surprise, discovery of relevant information, and revelation.

The setting is the thematic and physical locale for the scene; the characters are the individuals who come into it, having just been somewhere else. The beats are movements or activities, a pause to consider, a decision to turn a response into a riposte, a reaction to an invitation or an insult. Pace is the tempo with which the beats occur, slow and leisurely or at staccato intensity. Blocking is the sense of movement and placement of characters in the setting, where they will go if they are in motion, where they will remain if sedentary. Tension is the atmospheric pressure of something about to happen, of impending pleasure or gloom or discovery, while subtext is yet another atmospheric pressure, the palpable awareness of the difference between what a character says and what that character is thinking. Dialog is what the characters say to other in ways that express who they are, what they mean, what they intend.

Characters come into scenes with expectations which may be met or frustrated. A character who achieves an expectation, no matter how deserving he may be of the success, may experience buyer's remorse or conversely indulge exuberant celebration. Just as likely, characters may enter scenes with fears, hopes, prejudices. A character who enters a scene with no expectations needs to be sent home and re-costumed to reflect the basic assumption of story that the characters within them have a sense of being right about something.

A character who is right about something--an interpretation, an entitlement, a sense of being a victim, a sense of having something to protect--has earned admittance to the tent of story and must now pursue the goals that drive him, perhaps tentatively at first, but then with the increasing intensity of ambition. 

 Some characters require one or more scenes in which to ratify or shore up their sense of being right, which instills within them the glorious dynamic of defensiveness, which they are free to interpret as Justice must be done. Even the ghost in Hamlet has an agenda, which drives the story forth, stirring up from beyond the grave the stew of ambition, power, and sexual jealousy. That lovely, dysfunctional family, the Macbeths? They are also propelled by ambition, but who can say that Dorothy Gale is a passive observer.

Scenes should be wound about the armature of at least one salient emotion. Characters may not agree with that emotion, may be prevented from recognizing it by the sun-in-the-eyes of their own agenda, but the reader will see through all that and be able to identify the emotion. A significant example of this is found in the character of Bobby Dupea, wanting at this point in the film Five Easy Pieces nothing more than a conventional breakfast in a small roadside lunch room. "You want me to hold the chicken," the waitress asks Bobby, producing not only the crucible overflowing but a subsequent persona for the actor Jack Nicholson.

A scene is a crucible, an arena, a place where characters go armed with the baggage of their past, their attitudes, their agendas, fortified with the toolkit of their abilities and hopes. The scene is the Swiss Army knife of story.


magical realism--dramatic narratives told from the perspective of one or more narrators who have a vision of reality that differs from the conventional; stories in which beings, places, and events appear as though conventional, their existence supported by the behavior of one or more characters and/or the writer; narratives which suggest alternate origins, universes, and abilities than those found in conventional literature.

Against a setting most characters and readers would agree is a rigorously plausible rendition of reality, the writer of magical realism adds one or more fantastical elements that barely slip under the net of reader believability or are not overtly challenged because everything else seems acceptably real. Accordingly, characters in magical realism are less likely to seem vulnerable than those in super realism, the measure of a writer's ability and popularity measured in accordance with the degree to which readers believe their characters are subject to harm. Thus the intriguing comparison between two seemingly incomparable couples, Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, and Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry in Pullman's The Subtle Knife, the former being lovers from an all-too believable wartime reality, the latter lovers in a reality infused with alternate universe topography and magical realism. The argument here is that while the relationship between Henry and Barkley is convincing enough and poignant, the young love romance between Belacqua and Parry is the more memorable because of a greater depth of detail and nuance, in spite of being set in a patently unworldly world. The further argument becomes: no matter how fanciful the setting, if the details of a commonly felt emotion are strong and nuanced enough, the reader is more likely to suspend disbelief to the point of accepting the magic along with the realism.

Such widely diverse authors of magical realism as Ben Okri, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Alice Hoffman employ the medium with a significant lack of defensiveness, while the Japanese author, Haruki Murikami, is so deft in his applications that the reader may totally buy into his uses of coincidence, dream states, and implied symbolism.

A good governing principle for the use of magical realism is to set one magical element into a world of detailed realistic detail.

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