Sunday, March 24, 2013

Story, Intertia, Sisyphus, and Resistance to Change

Story is a skillful demonstration of the behavior governing objects.  When we first encounter story, we may see individuals at rest, where they wish to remain but for reasons near and dear to them, they cannot.

After some deliberation, the individuals overcome the conditions of rest or inactivity, either acting on a temptation to do what they fear or, for some reason feel constrained to attempt.  Perhaps, in the overcoming of moral and/or physical obstacles, they devise a plan.  If the plan is daring enough, the participants experience a sense of exhilaration which, however reckless the exhilaration may make them, overcomes the last vestiges of rest or inactivity.

The characters are now in motion, where they will remain until they have accomplished a goal or met a resistance of sufficient force to bring them to rest and frustration.

In this calculus, story is underway, their momentum propelling the characters to a position beyond the point where they have committed themselves.  Even were they to stop, there would be consequences significant enough for us to realize they could not hope to regain the rest and inactivity in place when we first met them.  This is an important benchmark in story.

As readers, we have to know these individuals well enough to know there would be some repercussions and consequences if they were to attempt to negate the movement to this point.
Thinking about this point, you are reminded of Mark Twain, writing in his essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" about the necessity of characters being made to seem alive and thus susceptible to consequences for which the reader can forge identification and empathy.  Of course, this makes sense for writers.  After all the times of reading this essay, each new time you approach it, you can still feel Twain's frustration with the fact of Cooper's popularity.

Twain did not, at this point in his career, have to worry about popularity, thus you are ready to absolve him of envy or, worse yet, jealousy.  All the while, you are able to agree with his sense of frustration and bewilderment.  You read the Cooper novels as a boy.  Even then, something seemed wrong.  Twain nudged you closer to understanding what the wrong things were, things you have been trying to purge from your own writing efforts, things you've been noting as a teacher to pass on to your students, suggestions you note for writers whose work it has been your privilege to edit.  Not to forget error points you pass along as a reviewer.

Removing palpable human characteristics such as needs, ambition, curiosity, and cultural purpose from individuals leaves little for them except to be mere objects, barely animate if animate at all.  Thus the point you've been working toward here, which is that without human participation, the movements and conditions of rest you've been discussing apply to the various states of inertia.

Inertia is a quality found in matter, but in characters as well.  Part of the quality of inertia has to do with resistance to change, a quality a character of mythic proportion discovered when he was condemned by Zeus to intimate contact with a boulder, which he was sentenced to push for all eternity up a hill, against the resistance provided by the grade of the hill and the weight of the boulder.  At the top of the hill, change was inevitable.  A greater force even than Zeus saw to that.

At the top of the hill, the boulder seemed to have a life of its own.  You'd be guilty of anthropomorphizing the boulder by giving it a desire to roll down that hill.  Boulders do what boulders do; they pay heed to the process of inertia either by resisting the move up the hill, or by barreling down the hill at a rate that could be calculated if its mass and weight and the downward slope of the hill were known.  They also come to rest, at which point some force relative to their weight and mass is needed to coax it into motion.

You offer the same potential for inertia within story because the humans involved are chosen for their own resistance to change, their ability to deliberate, be roused by, or justify beyond the state of rest, into a state of motion.  Equating the speed and potential effect of the downward motion of the boulder with the consequences of a character with a plan or, shall we say, a state of motion, we've made a jump from basic physics to basic drama.

In story, individuals are objects subject to the qualities of inertia.  They move in vectors, which is to say lines of direction, at a force.  The physics definition of force is:  a vector quantity, expressing magnitude and direction.  We stand out of the way of tumbling boulders with more alacrity than we avoid characters with magnitude and direction.

As readers, we admire and try to see how the author has achieved such dramatic inertia.  As writers, we try to set our characters on paths where their downward movement will begin to accelerate, gather speed, then attain a velocity we can no longer control.  Then our work has begun and, like Sisyphus, we are in for the long haul.

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