Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Devices and Deadlines

device--any stratagem, trait, or narrative technique that triggers consequences in a story; a framing pattern for including one or more stories within a longer work; a catch-all for narrative technique, metaphor, props, mistaken identity.

Although the reader may not see the device immediately, its cumulative effect begins to tell at some point and the reader goes forth, making assumptions about the left-handed individual who walks with a slight limp, causing the reader at the appropriate moment of hearing the sound of a halting step behind the protagonist in the alleyway to suspect that the protagonist has been betrayed and is about to suffer unknown consequences. 

Another such device is a frequent cliche in low-grade horror films where, #1, the protagonist is specifically warned about going up to the attic, and #2, the protagonist goes up to the attic, where it is quite dark and, #3, steps on something that produces an eerie yowl. #4, the genesis of the yowl was a cat, identification of which produces the catharsis out of early Greek drama, setting the protagonist for stepping something which produces an eerie yowl but the something is not a cat, it is the reason the protagonist was warned against going to the attic in the first place.

Device may also be point of view, particularly if the use of that particular point of view goes out on strike against a convention such as having a story or novel narrated by a dead person, such as the narrator of Machado de Asisi's Epitaph for a Small Winner or Alice Seybold's The Lovely Bones.

See also Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, in which two identical-appearing boys have their roles transposed, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, in which the character Viola pretends to be a young man, in which guise her love is sought by a woman, a device that could have stopped right there had Shakespeare not recognized the added device of having Viola fall in love with the man she is now serving as a confidante.

See also alternate universe novels such as those of the His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman, in which the device becomes an entire universe parallel to but slightly different from our own.

See also details.

deadline--the time by which one or more characters in a story have to make a decision; the time by which a character was to have completed an assigned task.

Often a moment of exquisite tension, the arrival of the deadline is a threat even in the abstract sense of the main characters in a story being reminded that the meteor will strike in one day, the dam will burst by noon tomorrow, the planet Earth is doomed in two years if scientists cannot determine a way to shift the tilt of it on its axis, a patient in an episode of House, M.D., being consumed by her own immune system and only five minutes left in the episode, a wrongly convicted man facing lethal injection in six hours unless... Thus time running out; the guttering candle, the remaining grains of sand in an hour glass, the needle flickering even on a hybrid auto's fuel tank.

Deadlines are stress situations writ large; they infuse story with a necessary sense of inevitability, which is, after all, one of the ways story takes an alternate route from life.

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