Monday, February 9, 2009

A Whale of a Story

whale, the great (aka Moby-Dick)--a tangible, forceful adversary; a dramatic partner to the protagonist in story landscape; a presence eventually discernible as having an agenda opposing the protagonist.

Cruising along at mid-level in the sea of dramatic convention, surfacing on occasion for a gulp of air much as the whale does in real life, there is the convention of the worthy opponent, the man, woman, or child who not only believes utterly in the rightness of his or her position but who radiates the embodiment of that stand. It is the very strength of conviction within this opponent that drives the story toward its eventual combustion. Therefore it must be respected rather than demonized. In creating such a dramatic presence, the writer is clearly investigating opposing forces within his or her own sense of conviction and justice. It would be foolish to suggest that the great whale had a personal vendetta against Ahab or any crew member of the Pequod, but it is not so foolish to ask the reader-who-wants-to write, the writer within, as it were, to imagine the preparation need to prepare for portraying the role of the whale in a dramatized version of Moby-Dick. What does the whale want? The very question suggests parody, but that absurdity is mitigated by the further question: What does the whale represent? The whale represents forces of Nature, which is a start to the answer. The whale wants to survive, another answer. The whale has been witness to and present at events counter to its desire to survive.

In similar fashion that borders on risk of absurdity, it is instructive to think through the agendas and goals of the adversary, whether they be forces of Nature or teen-agers wanting to borrow the family car. This introspection is not for the purpose of finding the irrational in the dramatic partner. Rational partners don't make for drama, they make for moot court proceedings. Rational as he was, Sherlock Holmes could not have stood up dramatically without Dr. Watson. Although not an adversary in terms of plot goals, Watson represents a behavioral and social force antithetical to Holmes, just as Dr. Wilson represents antithetical behavior to the fictional Dr. Gregory House.

Let the great hulking whale represent a literary totem, representing the duality of partnership and adversary. A partner represents someone with whom the protagonist can confide, share, explore survival strategy. An adversary represents a threat to the protagonist's agenda in significant enough measure to cause the reader concern for the outcome of the story. Remember as well: the protagonist has caused some level of threat to the adversary--otherwise the adversary would not behave in such a gradually accelerating pattern of opposition.

The collision between protagonist and adversary can come suddenly, with no warning, in spite of preparations; the consequences may be highly physical as in plot-driven narrative or of more internal, morality-sensitive issues as in the character-driven story. Although a significant dramatic convention exists to turn the protagonist into a Cassandra, who is fated to see the future exactly but no one believes her, the consequences of a protagonist alone with no confidantes triggers the risky business of the protagonist having no place to go but interior monologue.

Think whale. Think partner. Think confidante. Then, without even having to think about it, you will be introducing layer upon layer of dramatic intensity.


Querulous Squirrel said...

Sometimes who is the protagonist, the adversary, the partner, the confidante can feel very, very ambiguous in writing a story with all of them. Sometimes three can each be all four. At least in bad fiction.

lowenkopf said...

Ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing in one's fiction, provided it produces the right thoughts and feelings.