Saturday, November 19, 2016

Status in Story: An Inertial Guidance System

A practical but frequently overlooked device to feed the incessant demands of story shows its hand in the in the form of a shift in the status or power of one of the principal characters. Look no farther than Macbeth, wherein the eponymous protagonist may be seen reporting to his wife how his conscience forbade him to take the life of King Duncan as they had planned.

We see the shift in status not only from the change in Macbeth's earlier demeanor but as well from the manner in which Lady Macbeth responds to the news. She is telling him how less than a man he is in her eyes. 

This reversal is overcome later, when Lady Macbeth looks up from her husband's hands, dripping the blood of Duncan. The first words out of her mouth reflect a shift in status. "My husband!" she says.

Story runs on power, its energy the inertia of dramatic movement. The inertia begins with the intensity of interest and focus of a major character on a goal or intent, which means the actions of an antagonist to blunt the inertia of a protagonist will serve the dramatic purpose of keeping the story alive and moving.

Sometimes, particularly in longer works, two-act plays or novels, the writer will find use in bringing the action to a screeching halt by ending a scene on a matter of pending inertia, which is to say a cliffhanger. After establishing the outcome to be kept in a pending condition, the author injects another agenda, another character engaged in some compelling activity, the dramatic equivalent of bait and switch, which may--and has--extended almost to the limits of the writer's purpose.

Season four, episode six of the ever-shifting strands of power in Breaking Bad, illustrates such a point of transference. Skyler White, wife to the protagonist, Walter, fearful of the safety of her family, begs Walter to go to the police. 

Skyler insists Walt is "in over his head." In this scene, he takes, embraces power. "Who is it you think you see," Walter asks Skyler. He informs her of the amount of money he makes and the power he wields. "I am the man with the gun, knocking at the door. I am the danger."

In some drama, power is a matter of social status or tradition, sometimes inherited through position, sometimes obtained by the equivalent of blackmail. The holder of the power expects to be listened to, obeyed without question; the power holder expects a continuation of the status quo. As readers, we watch for the moments of shifting, perhaps recalling moments in our own life when we stood up to the established power, then stared it down.

In constructing story, you try to keep in mind at all times a definition you once memorized in a high school physics class, where the topic of inertia was presented for your consideration. "Objects at rest tend to stay at rest until their stasis is overcome by a governing force." In other words, the "another day in paradise" residents of Santa Barbara are so fond of observing much of the time--until the stasis is destabilized by a force intense enough to set the "object" in motion.

"Objects in motion tend to stay in motion until they are overcome by friction of sufficient intensity to bring them to a halt."  Thus story, which is inertia-in-motion, is propelled by the lead character's wish for an idiosyncratic outcome.  Story stops when the details or digressions take the energy away from dramatic inertia.

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