Friday, February 20, 2009

I Can't Decide; You Decide for Me

decision--the result of a choice being made; an outcome arrived at either by logical deliberation,intuitive reach, or emotional propulsion; a character's solution to the need for choice.

Go on with a relationship (criminal, professional, religious,romantic) or end it; opt in or out, accept or reject; ignore or notice; deal with or let slide. Characters in dramatic narratives are constantly faced with such forks in the road; they've learned from experience that dithering only worsens their situation, thus they, unlike their real life counterparts, struggle with the choice. After some deliberation, they pursue a course of action. The equation in fiction is: decision triggers choice, choice triggers action, and of course action triggers consequence. One instructive example has the word choice in its title, William Styron's Sophie's Choice. Lack of action, you may argue, also triggers consequence, but the effect of those consequences is often cerebral. Unless you can cause your cerebral consequences such as guilt, remorse, or denial to trigger specific actions, your characters will begin dithering before you on the page, awaiting some directorial input from you. Dithering characters often wander into the dangerous verges of stopping the story dead in its tracks with such internal wonderment as Where had it all begun? or, worse, How had she let herself get in this situation.

The key to dramatic writing is to bring characters to the awareness of a decision point, from which position they will make decisions as their nature directs them, from which point they will become aware of consequences. This stream of events was true in Don Quixote, in Hedda Gabler, in Lonesome Dove, and in Lush Life, accordingly spanning dramatic writing from at least the late sixteenth century to the very present.


frustration--an emotional response to the blocking of an agenda or goal; a sense of the lack of power to perform a motivated behavior; a triggering device for aggression or passive-aggressive behavior.

Characters in fiction frequently find themselves with frustration as a pole star, alternately inflicting it and being victim to its consequences. Given the very nature of dramatic writing, frustration is a key component, the leavening agent in story, motivating protagonists to take steps to slough through its quicksand-like impediment and as well motivating antagonists to step up their behavior.

If a story line appears to be faltering, add more frustration in the form of reversal or surprise. Keep the goal to which the main character aspires in sight but just beyond reach. An out-of-sight goal may be forgotten or trumped; a goal within reach may be moved or shattered or stolen.

As an illustration of the far-reaching effects and landing sites of frustration, consider the universal desire to be understood, then recall the comedies and tragedies in which two individuals, believing they have the same goal in mind, begin to act upon that belief, only to encounter the reefs and shoals of awareness that they have completely misunderstood one another. Thus dramatic irony, the bedfellow of frustration.

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