Saturday, September 8, 2012

Zen and the Art of Rock Throwing

In one of its more noble forms, an argument is a reason or stream of reasons presented as a formula, leading to a logical conclusion.  Such arguments, like stories, may also provide an emotional conclusion.

Argument is vital in story because each character believes in the integrity of his or her own argument.  Logic and story each have a spine of ideas and actions that follow some purposeful plan or focused line of inquiry. The more we move from logic to story, the more a plausible sense of progression becomes at risk, thanks to one of the basic principals behind dramatic narrative.  In story, each character believes himself or herself correct.

This is important to you because it is your default position when setting a story into motion instead of approaching dramatic narrative from plot.
You are in particular states of delight when characters at some stage believe they are in accord when in fact the reader knows or suspects different visions are at work.

You might even consider argument—dramatic argument—as the condition of expectation and anticipation resident in readers when they become aware of an impending clash between two or more characters.  The habitual reader knows such moments drive the story to exquisite and nuanced extremes.  Without such moments, story loses its sense of inevitability and reduces itself to a series of episodes.  These episodes, if they are explosive and given a shrewd tempo, produce responses that approximate a throughline of inevitability, but this is risky business because so many stories are effective in their manipulation of argument, and the inevitable responses to argument.

In the real world, arguments that go beyond staged debates or moot court argument are not likely to produce dramatic potential.  They may produce an intensified stage of illogical responses, each side growing more intransigent.  Perhaps some form of intervention or mediation or counseling will be of eventual value.  Perhaps not.  This is one of the reasons so many of us turn to highly charged story.  We’d like the world to be more based on negotiated settlement than we find it at the moment.

Argument drives and energizes us, alerting us to examine how we regard the world about us and those individuals who are close to us or, perhaps, those individuals we recognize as not being as close to us as we would like.  This remarkable force is somewhat like fire in that it is our friend when we use it to barbecue a chicken, but a much less controllable force—think dropped garden hose, spraying out of control—when we use it against ourselves or attempt to use it to bully our way through an argument.

No one wants a story without argument.  Could you, in fact, call a narrative with no clash of opinions, no opposing forces at work on each other, a story?

Story sometimes begins when a writer dramatizes opposing sides in a current social or moral value, which is, you believe, the ideal way to get started.  Pick the battlefield, then begin to design the opposing armies.

Someone in either of those two armies begins to throw rocks, perhaps at some innocent target, at first.  But someone from the other side sees one of the rocks coming a bit too close for his comfort.

“Hey,” he says,
“Hey, yourself,” says a nearby opponent.
“It began,” one of the survivors will write, “as an argument about rock throwing—“
“—but someone, attempting to demonstrate how close the thrown rocks were coming to innocents, said something that was an inoffensive regionalism.  But it was heard as something with pointed intent.  And suddenly, we were all throwing rocks and were all at war.”

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