Monday, June 14, 2010

The Price

No matter what they tell you during the early stages of your growing acquaintance, your characters ultimately want to know how much this is going to cost, what the price will be for them to achieve or attain or otherwise grab hold of the thing they want, the thing that causes the story to come into being in the first place.


Perhaps one of the characters has thrown caution to the proverbial winds in an attempt to secure something of particular importance. Suppose the character has been successful, at which point you can ask if the character has or will acquire buyer's remorse. The Price and The Consequence are literary first cousins, a fact made abundantly clear to the reader if the character who got something or some one has been paying the price for some time and is in fact grumbling about it.

In back of every story and every front-rank character within the story, the price is some kind of issue; it was either worth it or it was discovered to be not worth the cost. Many longer stories are about the cumulative effect of a price being paid until, as many auto or home owners find themselves in the current financial downturn floundering in that condition euphemistically called "under water," where the amount due is more than the car or home is worth. The owner sees the position, decides to cut losses. Or not.

What price does a character pay for speaking up when silence would have done or, opposite, not speaking up and having to pay that price. In Budd Schulberg's memorable screenplay, On the Waterfront, Terry Molloy has discovered the price to be paid for allowing himself to trust his older brother, Charlie, when it came to "managing" his professional career as a prize fighter. I could have been somebody. I could have been a contender.

There is within any story, however oblique, a prize as seen by someone to the point where behavior is changed, perhaps even moral guidelines are moved or completely obliterated. Your vision of that prize and your understanding of the character's relationship to it helps in large measure to determine how you feel about the character, defines the ways you identify with that character or not.

Characters who have achieved some sort of prize, who have willingly paid a price to achieve or acquire or attain a status may be looked upon with bewilderment or bemusement by other characters who still have not achieved their goals or who have set their goals high enough to cause other characters and many readers concern.

Is it worth it? your character asks. Was it worthwhile? Did I pay too high a price? Do I undervalue the thing I got because I did not pay enough.

Look at it this way: At any point in a character's life, the character may endure significant introspection, wondering if arriving at this particular moment was worth all the effort necessary to do so. At any point in the construction of any kind of creative manuscript, the writer may similarly wonder if arriving at this particular condition of the draft in progress was worth all the effort necessary to produce it and as well wonder if the work needs more effort in any of a dozen possible areas.

What price will you pay for writing or, similarly, not writing a particular story that presents itself to you? What costs have you paid in the past for not spending enough time with a story or from having spent too much time working at it?

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