Saturday, April 19, 2008
Four Atlanta businessmen, answering the ancient call of men testing themselves against the elements, set out on a treacherous journey down a wild river in the backwoods America where they are catapulted into a life-and-death struggle with the wilderness’s most dangerous inhabitants and forced to dig deeply into their own suppressed primitiveness with the result that each, in his own way, realises that one can never be the same after glimpsing the sharp-clawed survivor in one's soul.
Essentially, this is a fish-out-of-water story in which the fish are undergoing a primal rite of passage.
Four suburbanites from Atlanta go into a wilderness, dependant on one of their party (Lewis Medlock).
This is a character-driven drama, and the characters are really archetypes.
The Four Principle Characters
Ed Gentry (John Voigt) - Joe-Average. Everyman. The Middle-Class. Respectable and Moderate. He craves the normal while flirting with the dangerous. He wants to be safe and indulges in vicarious thrills. Underlying value: to be secure.
Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds) - Physical man. Hunter. Athletic. Materialistic. Underlying value : to survive.
Bobby “Chubby” Tripp (Ned Beatty) - Appetitive. Desirous. A sensuous voluptuary who is preoccupied with his own sexual prowess (or lack of it). He is both feminine and lustful. Underlying value: to prove his manliness.
Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) - Artistic. Imaginative and creative. Aesthetic sensibility. A sense of proportion, balance and justice. “The Law”. The group’s conscience. Underlying value : to do the right thing.
The Dramatic Question:
Are these guys going to make it down the river safely, “in time to see the football game on Sunday”?
Knowing what the dramatic question of the story is, we are going to be alert to what stands in their way. And what does? Nature (the antagonist), as well as their own natures.
Interestingly, the source of each one’s strength is also the source of their vulnerability. Where each is strongest, he is also weakest.
Rape of nature is introduced right at the beginning. The reason for the canoe trip is BECAUSE Lewis is anxious to see the river before “they” – the powers-that-be (i.e.: progress) – build their dam and flood the river. They are, as Lewis says, going to rape the country. But the city boys are, themselves, expressions of the very progress that Lewis abhors. And in the film the Rapists become the raped; the defilers, the defiled.
What is the essence of the rape? Lack of respect for nature wedded to a sense of invulnerability.
The hillbillies are part of nature. They are presented as something to be feared – the dying child – inbred, grotesque, laughable. They are NOT respected by the city boys.
Every major turning point in the film is accompanied by a PLAN, starting with the plan at the beginning : “We’re gonna leave Friday and I’ll get you back in time to see the pom-pom girls at halftime cos I know that’s what you care about.” (Lewis Medlock).
The story presents a journey into the heart of darkness and joins other stories that comprise this enduring tradition of storytelling, from Huckleberry Finn to Moby Dick, from The Odyssey to Ovid’s tale of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. It is a journey into the unknown, into the unconscious, where each finds what he fears most and struggles to over come that fear or die. Water is highly symbolical in the journey, associated as it is with the unconscious, with memory (Neptune) – there is also the idea of initiation (baptism), and transformation.
Dreams are associated with the unconscious too – at the end of the film there is Ed’s dream of water and the resurrection of his most hidden fear.
The idiot savant (Lonny) = Spontaneity… as does the dancing hillbilly. There is no learned behaviour here, merely the natural expression of being inside the moment, inside nature, inside one’s own nature. It is what the city boys “sold” as Lewis points out. The banjo and guitar music at the beginning is improvised, free – the conscious mind goes on a holiday… at this point there is real COMMUNICATION between the locals and the interlopers. It is interesting to note that as soon as Drew wants to formalise or acknowledge the connection (with a handshake) he breaks the connection. Lonnie (nature) turns away from him.
The musical motif is repeated throughout at significant moments, sometimes in the form of reverie – as in a musical memory of what has been lost - or sometimes as a dirge or a slow ominous march towards the dark of the not-yet born.
Lonny is also the gatekeeper – their last connection with so-called civilisation. As they pass under the footbridge, they pass the threshold of the known world and enter into “the belly of the whale”.
The structure is unusual.
What is the inciting incident? Where does it occur? It all depends on HOW you “read” the story.
In the novel, it’s the men deciding to go on a canoe trip. In the original script it’s the men arriving in Oree. In the film, arguably, it’s the men’s encounter with the Griner brother and his agreement to drive their cars down to Aintry.
The story proceeds by virtue of the contrasts it presents and the tensions that result from these contrasts:
The primitive vs the modern
The backwoods vs the city
The old vs the new
The known vs the unknown
DELIVERANCE - A SCENE-BY-SCENE EXAMINATION
The quest to make it down the river- to literally survive -
can be examined from the perspective of the dramatic
action that occurs in each scene, and the emotional
energy that is generated by the characters' actions.
Positive energy (+) is evident when the actions work to
make it more likely that their objective or goal will be
attained. Negative energy (-) manifests whenever
character actions and the actions of the antagonists
work against achieving the goal. Sometimes,the actions
may appear to be positive but are really negative (+-)
or vice versa (-+). The following presents one
interpretation, tracking the movement of the emotional
energy of the characters' odyssey.
Sequence 1 – “Into the Wilderness”
Scene 1 ROAD and WILDERNESS (Two cars make their way along roads that become more and more primitive, accompanied by V/O conversation. First plan) +
Sequence 2 – “Oree”
Scene 2 - OREE TOWNSHIP +
Scene 3 - GRINER BROTHERS COMPOUND (Inciting incident?) + / -
Sequence 3 – “Heading Downstream”
Scene 4 - TRACK TO RIVER + / -
Scene 5 - THE RIVER / RAPIDS +
Scene 6 – FIRST CAMP +
Sequence 4 – “The Resting Place”
Scene 7 – THE RESTING PLACE -
Scene 8 - BY THE RIVER (Burial of the dead hillbilly & second plan) + / -
Sequence 5 – “Into the Abyss”
Scene 9 – RIVER/GORGE -
Scene 10 – CLIFFS + / -
Scene 11 – GORGE +
Sequence 6 – “Deliverance”
Scene 12 – RIVER (discovery of Drew) -
Scene 13 - RAPIDS +
Sequence 7 – “Civilisation”
Scene 14 - RIVER (third plan) +
Scene 15 – COUNTRY/CHURCH +
Scene 16 – HOSPITAL +
Sequence 8 – “Investigation”
Scene 17 – GUESTHOUSE -
Scene 18 – RIVER -
Scene 19 – ROAD (Church with ringing bell) -
Scene 20 - HOSPITAL +
Sequence 9 – “Return”
Scene 21 – PARKING LOT (One more question) +
Scene 22 – CEMETERY -
Scene 23 – ED’S HOUSE/ATLANTA + / -
THE HERO’S JOURNEY in DELIVERANCE
• Ordinary World
• Call To Adventure
• Refusal Of The Call
• Meeting With The Mentor
• Crossing The 1st Threshold
• Tests, Allies, Enemies
• Approach To The Inmost Cave
• Supreme Ordeal
• The Road Back
• Return With Elixir
In terms of the film, DELIVERANCE, it might be stated as follows:
• Ed Gentry (John Voight) makes the hero’s journey.
• Ed begins his journey from his hometown in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an innocent man, living the family life and working a good job. (Ordinary World)
• His friend, Lewis Medlock, invites Ed to join him on a camping and canoeing trip. This is his Call to Adventure.
• Ed wants to go from the first minute, but his friends Bobby and Drew refuse for a while. (Refusal of the Call) Eventually Lewis convinces them to go.
• Ed views Lewis as almost like a God. (Meeting with the Mentor) For Ed, Lewis convincing them could have seemed supernatural.
• They make their way to the river by car. (This is where the film starts!!)
• They setup the canoes and begin moving down the river. Here they cross the first threshold, "I edged up more, looking out--or in--through the ragged, ashen window he made." (Dickey, 79) This is where the adventure begins and where there is no going back. They are entering the “belly of the whale”.
• They move on down the river and camp the first night. Lewis hears someone or something in the woods. Ed misses a shot at a deer. (The beginning of tests, etc)
• The next day they move on. Bobby and Ed are in one canoe, and Drew and Lewis in the other.
• Bobby and Ed get ahead of the other canoe and decide to pull over and take a break.
• On shore they run in to some hillbillies. Bobby is sodemized by one of the men while Ed is held at gunpoint. Then they start to move on to Ed, but Lewis, who has finally arrived on the scene, shoots and kills one of the hillbillies. The other gets away. (Climatic test, enemies, helpers).
• They are in a dark terrible place and they have to escape. The initiation happens when the vote is taken to bury the dead hillbilly instead of taking the body and reporting it to the police. (Approach to the Inmost Cave)
• From here they move on to the rapids and the gorge (the Abyss and the Supreme Ordeal). Drew is shot by the hillbilly that got away, and Ed decides to fight “the dragon”, which is the combination of the cliff and shooting the hillbilly.
• They sink the hillbilly’s body in the river. Ed assumes leadership (Reward)
• They find Drew's body and sink it too.
• They go down one more set of rapids and at the bottom Ed meets his goddess. It is a golden tree (in the novel) that he uses to mark that spot. In the film, it’s portrayed by rusting car bodies. (The Road Back)
• As soon they get to land and get help the Apotheosis takes place. A police investigation ensues in which Ed comes face-to-face with a male authority figure “the father”) in the guise of the country sheriff. (Atonement)
• The ultimate boon is when they are getting ready to leave the town and they know everything is going to be all right. (Resurrection)
• They go home. (The Elixir, in this case the knowledge of what has happened)
Friday, April 4, 2008
“Each and every one of us is born into a tradition; even when our parents do not profess a belief, we still have access to a variety of histories—familial, local and national—that help to define us. What makes one history more ‘sacred’ than another is perhaps the measure to which it gives our life meaning. For some, meaning comes readily from inherited tradition; for others, it is much harder to acquire.” - Nora Leonard, from Sacred History
Character and audience provide the more conventional vantage points from which a screenwriter can usefully view and assess the effectiveness of a story’s dramatic action. As the relationship with character and audience deepens one is less inclined to make judgements and choices based upon personal prejudices and fears; instead of taking refuge in formula, the storyteller operates from the inner life of the characters and the audience.
There is, however, an indispensable third perspective that references the subtle and powerful relationship a storyteller has with his or her origins. It evolves out of the storyteller’s relationship with his or her tribe, and enables the storyteller to view story not only as a work of individual self-expression but as a “mythos” or weltanschauung grounded in ontological affiliations with which the storyteller identifies. As employed in the present context, tribe refers to those ancestors or antecedent characters – physical, historical, cultural and spiritual – that inhabit the storyteller’s being and whose lore, both real and imagined, connects the storyteller emotionally to the world of the story.
The writer/tribe relationship in concert with character and audience provides the crucial lynchpin in the process of finding and entering the drama, and, when vividly apprehended, lends authority to the telling of any story by building courage within the scriptwriter to jettison the fear-driven strategies that all-too-often interfere with the natural selection and evolution of the characters.
In the context of dramatic storytelling, a storyteller’s relationship to tribe operates as both the cause and effect of the writer’s imaginative apprehension of the sources of the story’s coming-into-being. These sources – which are cultural, historical, sociological, psychological, political, philosophical, geographical, mythical and spiritual – represent the totality of tribal circumstances from which the storyteller derives two fundamental and dramatically pertinent notions or insights concerning his or her identity vis a vis the story: the notion of belonging and the notion of separateness. The writer/tribe relationship both affirms and negates the storyteller’s identity and individuality. In addressing the question: by what authority do I tell this story? the storyteller cites the authority of the tribe, thus stimulating the sense of connectedness that exists between the storyteller and his/her origins, while affirming the developing bond and intimacy that is developing between the characters and the storyteller. As this bond grows stronger the storyteller is more likely eschew every inclination to inflict his or her personal and/or momentary enthusiasms and anxieties onto the characters.
Effective dramatic stories will always cause us to feel and recognise something about ourselves that is extraordinary. Great stories offer much more than mere flights of fancy, or some idle, imaginative aberration through which we might temporarily escape the so-called real world. Dramatic stories driven by characters whose actions build emotional energy also build courage by providing and provoking fresh and lucid visions concerning our place in the scheme of things, whilst enlarging and deepening our sense of involvement in the creation, apprehension and appreciation of the world’s they dramatise. Indeed, stories are the means by which the tribe propels its vital energy into the field of human experience, along with whatever hopes, fears and wisdom promote or impede that energy.
The act of apprehending character and story from the perspective of the storyteller/tribe relationship frees the creative potency of a self that is larger and far more generous of vision than the storyteller’s own ego-driven immediacy. The fullest expression of this is the transformation of the storyteller into a medium, which is the fullest expression of the dramatist’s self-actualisation, via self-denial, and the disappearance of the storyteller’s will into the will of the characters.
The storyteller/tribe relationship takes seriously the notion that dramatic journeys – for both the storytellers and the characters – are always journeys of self-discovery. Certainly, from the storyteller’s point of view, it could be said that every story-in-the-making represents that part of the storyteller’s self that is yet to be discovered. It is also that part of the self whose origins are rooted in the tribe or tribes whose story the writer is finding and telling. The tribe operates then as both a goad for and a source of self, as well as a goad and source for story and feeling.
Like the other perspectives, the storyteller/tribe relationship contributes to the storyteller’s ability to connect with the characters and their actions not only in fresh and unexpected ways, but also in ways that are far more intimate than might’ve been possible without a tribal perspective. Characters are personifications of tribal attitudes, values, beliefs, and affiliations. Characters act out of both the wisdom and the foolishness of their tribes, and are in turn affected by the consequences of their tribal-related actions. It is the tribe that creates the circumstances for dramatic tension; and it is this tension that cajoles and challenges and builds character. In addition, in the act of identifying and affirming one’s origins and ancestry, and in the identification of oneself with the characters and their actions (the story), the storyteller – in relationship with the tribe – enters into an entirely new region of the story’s meaning. Looking at character actions from the perspective of one’s tribe also alters one’s psychical distance to audience, permitting another contrasting reference point from which to apprehend one’s characters, including the character that is the storyteller interacting with his/her characters! In responding to the claims and sensitivities of one’s tribe one is more surely conducted towards a mediumistic grasp of character wherein the story appears to tell itself, and in ways one would never have thought possible if left to the predictable devices of the storyteller’s knowledge of dramatic convention and its allied forms of sophistication.
To operate as a medium for character and story is not so much a matter of what the storyteller does, as what the storyteller doesn’t do. It is akin to the Chinese idea of wu-wei (non-action), a concept that denotes effortlessness, spontaneity, or what Chuang Tzu refers to as “flowing”. Every well-told story flows. Every event, every action, moves the story forward, naturally, in a kind of karmic dance. The art of flowing, as applied to drama, requires that the writer get out of the way. One becomes “empty”, unobtrusive, so that the characters can become whatever the characters are, so that that which is yet-to-be can come into being, allowed to birth itself through the agency of the storyteller-made-medium. Indeed, one might say that unless a story is birthed in this manner it can have no lasting raison d’être, and as such, cannot endure.
In the search to discover those tribal associations that may be relevant to the storyteller and the story he/she is trying to find, the storyteller must be open to a self-interrogation process every bit as demanding as the process by which the storyteller interrogates the characters, and with a similar degree of passion and curiosity. Fundamental to this interrogation is the question, who is it that is speaking through me? or who is it that I am speaking for? The wisdom to ask these questions, and the patience required to effectively reflect upon the possible answers, depends upon one’s willingness to entertain the nature and meaning of one’s ancestors and antecedents. In craft terms this ancestral consciousness is not infrequently referred to as a tradition, and, when fully appreciated is associated with a deep and abiding faith in the conserving forces of Nature, what Alfred North Whitehead has called “the consequent nature of God” .
Whatever metaphors or symbols one uses to characterise the tribal perspective, the willingness and courage to connect with one’s tribe are elemental to the storyteller’s ability to become fully open and accessible to the characters. In connecting with tribe, the storyteller gains the first important insight of the mediumistic experience of dramatic storytelling: the fact that a story functions not only as something that one gives to an audience, but as something that is received by one’s tribe or clan.
So how does one come to know one’s tribe? And can we belong to more than one? Or is it possible that we might not belong to any at all?
A storyteller’s tribe manifests as the person or persons, culture, clan or community that the storyteller identifies with by virtue of a substantial emotional connectedness. Tribe is ontological. To be is to be part of a tribe. The storyteller/tribe relationship acknowledges the fact that in order to find and effectively enter into the lives and drama of the characters, the storyteller must connect with the story through a context that is larger and more encompassing than the storyteller’s (or the audience’s) individual ego and its drive to express itself. One could say that the storyteller/tribe relationship is the super-ego of the creative process. It is the conscience that is embedded in every part of the story, the “gristly roots of ideas that are in action” .
So how does a writer who isn’t already aware of whom it is that is speaking through him or her, come to find out if anyone is there? Where does one look in order to answer the questions: who am I speaking for?
Given the complexity of the modern world, it is not surprising that an inexperienced, unfocused storyteller may be psychologically if not spiritually crippled or fragmented by competing allegiances and claims made upon him or her by seemingly incompatible tribal associations. It might even be the case that the fledgling storyteller will be completely unaware of his or her tribal affiliations, or not cognisant of how his or her tribal connections impact and give meaning to the story that is being found. Nevertheless, all successful and truly dramatic stories are, by definition, tribal. Indeed, it is inevitable that the tribe with its complex customs, attitudes, laws, and traditions, will inform one pole or bias of the circumstances that stimulate and compound the tension that compels a dramatic character to be or not to be, just as it does the storyteller. Recognising and embracing one’s tribal identity is, therefore, essential to any storyteller in pursuit of meaningful relationships with authentic dramatic characters.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
In seeking an effective disguise, the successful maker of melodrama is guided not only by those character attributes and actions that promote the successful telling of the pre-determined story, but also by those attributes and qualities that are not directly relevant or germane to the actual plot, but are nevertheless useful in camouflaging those narrative decisions that, were they more obvious, might take away from the story’s unexpectedness or credibility.
In contradistinction to this, drama generates energy through a series of logical and emotionally meaningful actions enacted by ingenious characters that are involved in a quest that is imperilled by risk and danger. These actions are rooted in the character’s genuine emotional needs and desires, and the energy they build and release – when it is fresh, surprising and thoroughly credible – have the potential to evoke powerful emotional responses from an audience. As such, drama is character centric.
In dramatic, or character-based, stories plot is the ongoing outcome of the characters’ desires, hopes and fears as these are expressed in action. Character provides the focal point where all of the forces of the dramatic story meet and are played out. In dramatic stories, fundamental decisions concerning “what happens next?” are based not upon what the storyteller needs in order to move the tale from one plot point to the next, but upon what a character wants and why he/she wants it, and who or what it is that is stopping him or her from having it.
The storyteller/character relationship – including the storyteller’s relationship with both protagonist and antagonist – involves an exploration of the inward emotions of the characters as revealed in actions both on and off the page. The actions themselves are motivated by and grounded in the mutual pursuit of clear objectives and goals, and are may work to either advance or thwart the characters in their quest. Allied to this exploration is the task of the storyteller, namely to effect a transformation in which the storyteller becomes a receptive and responsive vehicle through which the characters speak and act. This transformation can be assisted by employing a vantage point unique to the storyteller/character relationship, and though it also assists in developing the storyteller’s intimacy with the characters, it also serves the story and the storyteller in ways that are quite different from the storyteller/character relationship, by altering the ratios between the storyteller and the characters, and between the storyteller and him/herself. In altering the “psychical” distance from which the storyteller perceives the characters and their actions – as well as the storyteller’s own actions in relationship to the actual telling or finding of the story – the storyteller is afforded a perceptual contrast enables a fresher view of those aspects of character and story that may have been neglected, misunderstood or simply lost in the inertia and entropy of habitual examination and expectation.
* * * *
Stories that endure and change the way we look at the world and ourselves almost always dramatise issues that have the most powerful consequences. Prejudice, greed, oppression and faithlessness are perennial themes in dramatic stories that move us because they strike at the heart of what it means to be human. To successfully dramatise the potency of such forces, one must have some experience of them. However, experience is not always enough. To become the vehicle through which powerful dramatic characters and stories come to life, the storyteller must have some feeling for those that have suffered as well as the courage to fearlessly explore and be true to the characters who actions convey the turmoil at the heart of the drama. The feeling with which “Jesus wept” – and his reasons for weeping – cannot be foreign to, or beyond the ken of, any storyteller hoping to connect emotionally with his or her characters. A feeling for one’s characters and the courage to follow them wherever they may take you is one of the surest antidotes to mediocrity and its yoke of predictability. This is rarely if ever effected solely from the perspective of the storyteller/character relationship. If one is to enter into the emotional energy that is the life essence of the characters, and thus become a medium through which they speak and act, then audience is indispensable. One might even go so far as to say that an effective dramatic story requires an audience not only to imbue it with the meaning and intelligence it would not have had without one, but, more importantly, to enable its very creation. Indeed, to conceive and present a story that is told without reference to an audience is absurd, for a dramatic story worthy of its name not only presents change but also creates it in the responses it elicits from both the storyteller and the audience. Until it has elicited such a response a story is not fully functional.
But what sort of response are we talking about? And who is it, exactly, that is responding? First of all, an audience should not be construed as a faceless group of paying spectators. In the context of an evolving script, it is both ignorant and unproductive to reduce one’s conception of audience to mere demographics; to do so misses the important, creative contribution audience makes to the realisation of the story-being-found. Far from dreaming about “bums on seats”, a more productive and enlightened conception of the storyteller/audience relationship, and one that is ultimately essential to the storyteller’s own process of transformation, involves the realisation that, far from being a generalised and sometimes quantifiable mass of potential viewers, an audience is personal, identifiable and capable of lucid visualisation by the storyteller. In short, audience is that person, known to the storyteller, to whom the story is addressed, that person to whom the storyteller is speaking.
A storyteller looking at a script solely from the habitual perspective of the storyteller/character relationship is more likely to read through gaps or contradictions in the emotional logic whilst, at the same time, reading energy into stale or unenergetic action; whereas the imaginative other – the storyteller as audience – functions very much as Hemingway once described it, as “a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”
In many ways, the storyteller’s relationship with his/her audience parallels the storyteller/character relationship, for just as the story is not entirely from the storyteller but depends upon the active participation of storyteller and character, so too does a story require audience to which it can be directed and through which its power and effectiveness can be challenged and tested. To say that a storyteller can tell an effective dramatic story without the slightest hint as to its audience is on a par with saying that characters are irrelevant to the creation of emotionally compelling stories. Dramatic stories require both characters AND audiences.
This second vantage point – the storyteller/audience relationship – explores story from the perspective of it being something that is told to someone. It embraces the notion that every well-told story has a good reason for being told, and that that reason is as important a factor in its successful expression as the language that is employed to express it. Hence, the experience of developing a dramatic story is not unlike the experience of entering into an engrossing and life-changing conversation, not only with one’s characters but with the person who needs to hear and see such a story enacted. Indeed, that person – or audience – might even provide an important reason for the story’s coming-into-being.
This dialogue between the storyteller and the audience may at first be largely unconscious, but even at the unconscious level it works to increase the storyteller’s sensitivity to and awareness of where and how the storyteller has intruded into the story. The storyteller’s awareness concerning both his or her unproductive intrusions, as well as those authentic expressions that evolve organically out of the character’s needs or fears or desires, increases as the storyteller becomes ever more conscious and sensitive to audience. Indeed, the ear whose innate understanding of what rings true and what does not, belongs largely to the audience, or least the storyteller/audience relationship.
In the process of “disappearing” into the storyteller/character relationship, the storyteller is still capable of aiding and abetting the dissipation of energy by unconsciously asserting his or her will over the will of the characters themselves. In the act of performing the role of the unseen player, the writer’s first goal is not to find the story that is trying to get itself told, but to answer the needs of the storyteller’s own prejudices and anxieties. The storyteller/audience relationship enables the storyteller to lose him/herself completely without losing sight of who the story actually belongs to – i.e.: the characters. In one’s relationship with audience, one is able to lose oneself completely in order to find oneself as character, and to challenge the wilful and unproductive intrusion of this “character” into the life of the story.
From the screenwriter’s point of view, the critical distance afforded by the storyteller/audience perspective is what renders the re-writing process meaningful, in that it calls the writer’s attention to the fact that an essential element of the re-writing process is a meditative encounter with both character and story. It is, in fact, a necessary part of the process of finding and entering more deeply into a relationship with the characters. From the perspective of audience, the writer is transformed into “character” whose prejudices and choices are now open to same sort of scrutiny that was once reserved only for the characters in the script. As such, the storyteller/audience relationship can be understood as an audience/character relationship in which the storyteller becomes an implicit character operating within the context of the other characters and their quest. It provides the critical vantage point that allows the storyteller to retain what is useful to the empowerment of the characters while at the same time giving the storyteller the strength and confidence to jettison whatever might be irrelevant, including the storyteller-as-manipulator with all of its accompanying airs, pretensions, doubts and delusions. Certainly, the storyteller who ignores this relationship does so at his/her own peril, for to create with a sense that no one is listening or watching virtually guarantees no one will be.
To ask who is my audience is to confront the crucial critical question: why do I care?
The ultimate answer to this question resides with the characters and with the energies that are being built or released in, by and through their actions. But isolated from audience, the storyteller lacks the necessary perspective to ascertain the effectiveness of the actions produced out of the storyteller/character relationship. In order to get close enough to the characters so that they can begin to actually answer the question, the storyteller must be able to view characters from a third perspective.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Knowledge is frequently cited as a conventional remedy for prejudice and fear, but in the case of dramatic storytelling knowledge can only take you so far. Possessing an intellectual grasp of plot construction and character development neither inspires nor sustains the courage and depth of insight necessary to the task of finding fresh and compelling characters. Nor will being conversant with the jargon, or having an academic command of comparable methodologies, assuage whatever doubts and insecurities accompany the process of grappling with a character’s inner and outer problems and contradictions. In fact, knowledge very often reinforces and legitimises the underlying anxieties that stand between us – the storytellers – and the story we are trying to find.
But if knowledge cannot help, and if fear and prejudice serve only to drive the anxious storyteller ever deeper into the complacency of formula, by what means might a storyteller fruitfully uncover those characters and actions that form the basis of energetic drama? How does a storyteller bring about the essential connectedness between him/herself and the characters that is the soul of the storytelling partnership? If one’s goal is to become a medium for character and story, how is it possible for the storyteller to identify so strongly with the characters that s/he becomes the characters, or, more exactly, the characters themselves “create” their own story?
Much of the storyteller’s fear is stimulated by an unwillingness to confront or acknowledge the emotional messiness that is buried in the dramatic actions of the characters. This can be further complicated by a lack of confidence on the part of the storyteller when it comes to tracking these actions back to their source in a character’s origins. When unchecked, the storyteller is likely to produce stereotypical characters that illustrate rather than dramatise the action.
Great characters never give up their secrets easily. Just as a character is capable and often eager to conceal from the other characters what is most important to him or her, so too is a character inclined to hide his or her deepest feelings from the one who would seek to publicise them, i.e.: the storyteller. One cannot address this problem by merely assigning one’s characters biographies and moving them around the page whilst thinking up new ways of describing their appearance and what they are doing. The imposition of traits and actions, short of an emotional connection with the character, breaks faith with the kind of relationship that allows a character to become a partner with the storyteller in the creation of the story. Indeed, such a relationship is impossible so long as the storyteller maintains his or her narrow role as cold-blooded manipulator. What is required is some degree of faith and courage and a willingness to trust one’s characters. Trust is everything, for it is only when one trusts one’s characters that they can become truly responsible for their own actions. In surrendering control, in allowing the characters to speak and act for themselves, a storyteller creates the circumstances for the characters’ eventual escape from the storyteller’s wilfulness. When a dramatic story evolves from characters that insinuate themselves in this way it creates the impression – at least, within the storyteller – that the story is writing itself. Indeed, from the point of view of the storyteller-as-medium, it is probably more accurate to describe the process as a finding rather than a making.
The storyteller/character relationship provides the usual vantage point from which dramatic screen stories are conceived and constructed. The incipient relationship between the storyteller and his or her characters owes almost everything to the storyteller’s continuing and developing interest in the characters’ as-yet-undiscovered possibilities, which involves the characters and their world, and some degree of curiosity on the part of the dramatist concerning the characters’ problems, goals and plans. As this interest grows, the storyteller is increasingly inclined to lay aside his or her fears, prejudices and habits of thought, exchanging them for a more genuine relationship. So long as the storyteller continues to be intrigued, the relationship will grow.
In the early stages of the storyteller’s relationship with a character, the storyteller is only partially cognizant of the problems and circumstances with which the character is struggling, and whatever knowledge he or she may have about the character is largely based upon a set of assumptions concerning what and who the character is. Building a relationship upon assumptions and the prejudices that they foster is hardly conducive to promoting the sorts of interactions one normally associates with genuinely creative relationships. It is difficult to imagine an authentic relationship between a storyteller and a character that is based solely on the storyteller’s need for the character to act and speak according to a set of prejudices and expectations that force the story to move in a direction that has already been conceived by the storyteller. To avoid the staleness and predictability this kind of non-relationship breeds, one must engage with one’s characters in a way that allows them to contribute something.
The initial stage of this engagement usually involves “a dialogue” in which the actions and motives of the character as well as the storyteller are interrogated and thoroughly scrutinized, both on and off the page. But the dialogue only really begins in earnest in the re-writing process when the storyteller is able to examine and question the weight and rhythm of the emotional energies that have been found.
Every re-write is a kind of seduction conducted by pushing one’s characters into one crisis after another and watching how they behave. As they navigate the problems and manage the threats inherent in the action, their own actions reveal aspects of their being. Dramatic problems provoke dramatic actions. Dramatic characters ACT; undramatic characters merely behave.
In drama, as in life, adversity that builds character. When seriously opposed or in danger of losing what he or she most prizes, the dramatic character acts and through that action shows us the stuff of which he or she is made. Whatever tricks the storyteller may employ to entice, cajole or coax the character out of hiding, nothing is more revealing of a character’s innermost attitudes and motivations than what they actually do in the face of life threatening circumstances. Hence, a character with his back to the wall will act in ways that reveal much more information about what he really thinks and believes and feels than a character who casually discusses the weather over an undramatic cup of tea.
In the process of discovering one’s characters, one also comes to realise that this is also a process of self-interrogation in which the storyteller must find, challenge, and sometimes transcend, those anxieties, beliefs and prejudices, that serve only to obscure his or her relationship with the characters.
Probing deeper, a storyteller may uncover resonances between the characters and actual people in the storyteller’s world. Drives, wishes and fears relevant to the storyteller and the characters are laid bare, exploited, or rejected according to the weight and relevance of the energy they contribute to the story-being-found.
Basically, the storyteller/character relationship begins where Drama begins – with a PROBLEM. In fact, the problem is the first, single most important dramatic artefact that the character and the storyteller have in common. But a problem only becomes a dramatic problem – with an implicit dramatic question – when it goads a character into action, action that is directed towards achieving a desired objective or goal. This goal must, in turn, stimulate a plan of action that, when enacted, carries significant risk for the character.
A dramatic problem is the kind of problem that gets worse if it isn’t dealt with. It’s also the kind of problem that gets worse because it’s dealt with, and will go on producing even bigger problems as a result of the character’s actions to resolve it, thus creating even greater risk. In this way a dramatic story goes on building tension and emotional energy until the characters (and the storyteller) are faced with a problem of such magnitude it begins to look as if there might not be any way of solving it.
The major creative challenge of dramatic writing is to create a problem that is thoroughly both coherent and necessary in terms of what has preceded it, and which inexorably and logically leads to a problem that is apparently unresolvable. The seemingly unresolvable problem is the brick wall at the heart of every dramatic story worth telling. It is the inescapable initiation ceremony that every story requires of its storyteller if it is to divulge the secret/sacred lore that contains the essential power of the story-being-found. In acknowledging this, Cassavetes stated one of the more profound truths of dramatic storytelling when he wrote “filmmaking is about asking questions concerning things for which one has no answer, while holding yourself tenderly open, ready to come across new questions at any moment.”
The seemingly unanswerable question – the unsolvable problem – is the source of the terror that lies at the base of the storyteller/character relationship. A writer who is brave enough to journey with the characters and undergo, with them, all of the anxieties that the risk and urgency of their problems visit upon them is thrown into temporary despair when faced with the seemingly solution-less riddle of the story’s last great obstacle; for until a solution can be found the story cannot proceed, nor can it be finished. And not just any solution will do.
Drama is concerned with the meaningful movement and transformation of emotional energy. But the change that occurs will not command our attention unless it is significant. Change is made significant – or emotionally satisfying – when it is authentic, i.e.: when it is the expression of a character’s genuine emotional state rather than being merely the generic expression of some emotion or another. In order to transcend technique and method (formula) – and thus make one’s characters authentic – the storyteller must find ways of making the characters present.
In order to become present, a character must become more than an idea or even a collection of ideas or word/images that refer to that character. To become present means to inhabit the realm of the utterly original – which is to say, the character is possessed of a nature that is unique to that character, which flows from every action that character makes, and allows that character to understand and be understood (susceptible to our empathy) in its own terms – including the terms of our world – without reference to characters extraneous to the story or any number of formulaic reductions (stereotypes) that serve only to rob it of its uniqueness.
A storyteller experiences a character coming to life when the character has been actualised in such a way that its attributes multiply their meanings by virtue of the internal and external relationships one ascertains in the act of witnessing the actions that are peculiar them. Merely adding personal details does not guarantee this multiplication of meaning, for only part of the life of a character actually exists on the page. A character’s most profound existence – even at the scripting phase – operates as a creative exchange of understanding between the storyteller and the character, mediated by text, context and subtext – but not limited to these. It involves not only those elements of character and story that are fully articulated and materialised, but also those aspects that are vividly implied by virtue of the imaginative associations inspired by what is stated and shown, as well as whatever is discovered as a result of the storyteller’s willingness to engage with character at a meta-linguistic level. This multiplication of meaning – which is really the essence of “modernism” – is elucidated more broadly in Eisenstein’s theory of montage and Ezra Pound’s ideogrammatic method, both of which lie beyond the scope of the present book.
Legend has it that when Duke Ellington was asked to define jazz, he said simply: “it’s what you leave out”. The same can be said for dramatic storytelling. It’s what you leave out that lends it its potency as well as its authority, which is something we bestow upon it by virtue of the emotional connections it invites us to discover.
In terms of story, the multiplication of meaning operates largely as subtext, creating the physical, psychical, emotional and intellectual spaces and distances that evoke imaginative leaps and personal, seemingly privileged, observations that promote identification and involvement. Subtext permits an audience to care about what happens. To the extent that the subtext is apprehended, it becomes the audience’s and the tribe’s contribution to the making of the story. But more about this later.
The notion that the multiplication of meaning begins with the storyteller and what the storyteller is able to show or suggest is a vast delusion. The multiplication of meaning is not only a function of the storyteller’s involvement with the characters; it is also a manifestation of the characters’ facility to stimulate discovery in the storyteller, and more specifically, a manifestation of the characters’ willingness to be involved with the storyteller. Stated in a different way – and borrowing a phrase from Pound – the multiplication of meaning is both the cause and the effect of the storyteller’s discovery and affirmation of those unexpected qualities that make a character and the character’s relationship with the storyteller NEW.
To make a character new, ingenuity is indispensable. Indeed, effectively written drama is the presentation of ingenuity in action, wedded to needs that are important to the characters: the thing we might have done if only we had thought of it! A character, and the situation into which that character’s actions propel it, might very well be dramatic, but this is no guarantee that the character won’t be dull. Drama alone is not enough. A character must also be fresh, and at the same time, thoroughly credible.
The value of the unresolvable dramatic problem, creatively speaking, is that it provokes ingenuity from the writer/character relationship, and in so doing – so long as the writer does not lose heart – provokes the character into becoming more present. Interestingly, it also provokes, or at least encourages, the storyteller into become less present! Or, at least, the storyteller’s prejudices and fears. Because the unresolvable dramatic problem defies method and formula by presenting a dilemma for which neither method nor formula can provide any fresh and satisfying solutions, it ultimately forces the storyteller to abandon his/her reliance upon those sets of prejudices and fears that parade as knowledge, thus leading the storyteller to confront the character and the character’s problems in their own terms.
Whilst caught up in the chaos of the unresolvable problem, bereft of knowledge and the slightest hint as to what might be done, the storyteller arrives at his/her first best chance to make a clean break from the methodologies and formulas that stand between him/herself and the characters. When the storyteller’s ego-self backs down, when it finally admits it has no answers, that it is in fact the veritable fool at the heart of a foolish enterprise, when it becomes completely undone under the weight of not knowing, there is a chance, to hear the characters speak, and to find the solutions that only each character-as-that-character can find.
To fully appreciate the primary storyteller/character relationship is to understand that it involves not only the storyteller’s relationship with the main character, but with all of the characters. Indeed, to produce fresh, surprising and credible dramatic actions, the storyteller must have an energetic alliance not only with the main character, but also with those that stand in opposition to the main character’s plans and goals.
This shifting of allegiance – the storyteller-as-betrayer – is itself a dialogic that the storyteller navigates by translating into meaningful actions, the inner beliefs, attitudes and motives of all the characters. In short, the storyteller must care just as much about stifling or impeding the main character’s progress towards its goal as he/she does in seeking a successful outcome to the problems that the character encounters. This shift in loyalty is, in fact, a shift in point of view. One might ask: from what psychical position or distance is the storyteller viewing the actions of the characters? From whose point of view is the writer telling the story? The question goes to the core of every dramatic problem, for without an empathetic perspective, the writer will neither hear nor see the authentic character that is struggling to escape the prison of the storyteller’s prejudices and fears.
Successful storytellers are not limited to one point of view. Only by entering into a story through every character’s perspective and with every bit as much empathy as one has for the main character, can a storyteller find authentic characters that multiply the emotional meanings of the energies being built and released by their actions. The effectiveness of the storyteller/character relationship hinges upon this inclusiveness, for unless the relationship involves all of the characters that are relevant to the story’s telling, and only those that are relevant, Drama’s bastard brother, Melodrama, takes over.
So what is the essential nature of the storyteller/character relationship? It is much more subtle and complex than a mere résumé of the storyteller’s bio or the character’s circumstances might suggest. The relationship is both implicit and explicit. Implicitly, it is based on enquiry. The storyteller, searching to find surprising and credible solutions to the problems faced by the characters, probes the characters’ possibilities and potentialities by ascribing individual attributes, aptitudes, motives, values, fears, and idiosyncrasies to them, expressed in actions that are tested against other actions, which invariably creates new insights and possibilities that, in turn, are also tested, incorporated or dismissed. Superficially, the aim of the inquiry is to identify possible solutions to the problems confronting the characters AND the storyteller, but more profoundly it is to enable the storyteller to intersect with the characters emotionally, to experience the same anxieties that the characters themselves experience in their pursuit of answers to the problems that threaten not only their well-being but the well-being of the storyteller, as well. Through this quest, and the anxieties it gives rise to, the storyteller develops an increasingly intimate sense of the characters’ inner life, which gradually creates a pivot point.
It is at this pivot – where the storyteller’s and the character’s anxieties and understanding of one another reach critical mass – that the storyteller/character relationship becomes explicit, where the flow of energy between the characters and the storyteller undergoes a radical shift. Where once the energy flowed from the storyteller to the characters, it now flows from the characters to the storyteller, and almost as if by some alchemical action, the characters begin taking charge.
Ironically, the ultimate expression of the explicit storyteller/character relationship is the obliteration of the dichotomy of storyteller and character, which is a fundamental component of the storyteller’s transformation into a medium. In other words, the storyteller seemingly stands aside, letting the character be what the character is, without the mediating filter provided by the storyteller’s cerebral cortex.
In this sense, the most eloquent task facing any dramatic storyteller is simply to get out of the way. Once the character is in the driver’s seat, and the storyteller made into the vehicle by which the character transports his or her story from the storyteller’s subconscious onto the page or screen, the story begins to take on the quality of something that is telling itself. This is the finest and most complete expression of the explicit storyteller/character relationship, and is the key to building the energy that will effectively drive the dramatic story – or any series of inter-related dramatic actions (the so-called “story arc”) – in a manner that is both fresh and surprising as well as being utterly coherent and thoroughly credible. It results in the storyteller and the character becoming active partners in a story that is happening both inside and outside the script.
The storyteller/character relationship is the primary relationship of dramatic storytelling – the primordial building block upon which every successful dramatic story is constructed – for it is through this relationship, from this relationship, and into this relationship, that every particular action, image and/or sound, implicit or explicit to the story-being-found, rushes towards or away from meaning and relevance.
Effective dramatic characters are bundles of contradictions. They command our attention by virtue of their contradictions (or their depth), which is another way of saying complex characters are more interesting and, except in the case of some forms of comedy, more likely to produce emotional energy than one-dimensional, stereotypical characters. The quest of dramatic storytelling begins with a willingness to embrace a character’s contradictions, and this involves something more than merely thinking them up and writing them down.
A storyteller’s characters are usually conceived of as the creation of the storyteller. But the storyteller is also a creation of the characters. They create one another. To create as well as be created by one’s characters, and experience that sense of give and take that is the soul of a genuine relationship, the storyteller must find ways of embodying the drama. It is not so much a matter of understanding it, but of entering it; and getting rid of every thing that is an impediment to entering it. One is either in the drama or out of it. Only when one has entered into it can one see and hear the characters, not as they appear from the vantage point of the unobserved observer (the storyteller), but as they see and hear themselves and one another.
But how does one enter into the drama without having already established the very relationships that one is seeking? It’s one of those chicken and egg questions, only it’s the wrong question.
To enter the drama is to intersect with the dramatic problems that are facing your characters with the same degree of emotional seriousness and gravity that you would feel if the problems were actually happening to you. So long as you merely stand by and watch the gathering crisis and impending calamity with the mild gaze of a mildly interested spectator, you will never connect with either the drama or the characters. To mean is to care! And to care is to operate at the emotional level that is appropriate to the threat that is driving the action. The meaning of every action and every emotion is robbed of meaning without this psychic translation, and the storyteller who avoids making such a translation does so at his or her own peril, and at the expense of remaining entirely ignorant of the dramatic possibilities afforded by the deep grammar of both the character’s and one’s own origins.
The surest way of gaining access to a character’s inner emotional life is to make the same emotional journey the character is on. This cannot be done at arms length, nor is it merely intellectual. One must follow the character and the energy wherever they lead. This is the single, most potent secret (and problem) concerning the art of dramatic storytelling. Though the screenwriting gurus might allude to it, the idea itself has not been adequately addressed or explored by them because it is not something that can be reduced to a recipe, or encapsulated in a scarcity of jargon and methodology. The question is, how does one climb inside the skins of the characters? How does one find one’s own fear in their fear? In short, how does a storyteller transform him or herself into a MEDIUM.
An emotionally satisfying character-based story is seldom if ever the product of intellectual wilfulness. Even when supported by a thoroughgoing knowledge of the mechanics of story construction, willpower is simply not enough. To produce such a story the storyteller must undergo transformations every bit as dramatic as those experienced by the most dramatic of dramatic characters; and unless the storyteller is able to do this it will be almost impossible for him or her to discover characters that are capable of doing so.
The sort of transformations I refer to begin and end in the unconscious. Even as they occur and rise to consciousness, they evoke a sense of mystery and wonder, possessed as they are with a delicious otherness, as we have been invaded by persons or forces that have chosen us to tell their story. To work as a medium is to stand outside oneself, or more nearly in oneself, than is the case when one works from the narrow perspective of self and self-interest. To undergo the kinds of transformations that enable one to shift one’s psychical distance to story, and through that shift to encourage and stimulate greater vision, is to enter into three primary relationships whose efficacy in illuminating story becomes so palpable that the storyteller often feels someone or something other him/herself is telling the story.
The psychic metamorphosis that brings about the storyteller’s transformation into a “receiver” of story requires the storyteller to enter into an elemental dialogic predicated upon a heuristic notion that dramatic stories, as well as being about relationships, also evolve from relationships, and that not all of these relationships are circumscribed by the script or screenplay. The on going and evolving quest of the medium is to free one’s characters from the preconceptions and prejudices that one imposes upon them in the service of one’s needs and fears. If the storyteller is to transcend those prejudices and fears then his/her participation in a dialogic that is grounded in the storyteller’s relationships with characters, with audience and with tribe. This dialogic has its roots in the essence and nature of every dramatic story, which is necessarily conceived and told from a point of view, in a context, to an audience. To grasp this notion is to enter into the relational contexts by which and through which characters and their stories develop and attain authentic and thoroughly fresh meanings.
Collectively, these three primary relationships – the storyteller/character relationship, the storyteller/audience relationship, and the storyteller/tribe relationship – excite the imagination with visions that evoke discoveries conducive to the writer’s transformation into a medium. Also, the writer’s active engagement in each of these relationships is instrumental to shedding the egocentric stance to storytelling that is both the basis of the storyteller’s fears and prejudices and the source of a story’s predictable mediocrity.
It is only when the storytelling process allows not only the characters but also the audience and the tribe to become part of the creative act, that the dramatic story has a chance of affecting us deeply. The perspectives provided by these relationships, and the contrasting opportunities for grasping and multiplying meaning that these vantage points suggest and illuminate, trigger a perceptual engagement with story that takes us beyond or behind the mere expression of its visual and aural content. Taken together, these relationships – or multiple perspectives – conduct and encourage the storyteller into interactions with the story that breakdown the habitual referencing and code-reading that frustrates the possibility of entering into a living and dynamic involvement with the action and energies that the characters generate. Indeed, the primary function of this relational dialogic is to conduct the storyteller into the drama, so that he/she enters as a participant, intimately involved with the characters at a psychical distance that is appropriate to the energies that are in play.
The three relationships, which are really vantage points or perspectives from which to view the story, supply the critical contexts through which characters internal and external to the story attain the emotional presence that enables them to become co-creators of the story-being-found. As one’s participation in all three relationships develops, one is conducted into a catalytic dialogic that promotes an ever-increasing susceptibility to the emotional energies present in the action by allowing one to jettison or transcend the insecurities that have been keeping characters at bay. Ultimately, the degree to which a storyteller is able to enter vividly into all three relationships is proportional to the storyteller’s success in becoming a medium for both character and story.
When dramatic screen stories are effective and fresh they present energy that moves and transforms in ways that keep their audiences inside the action, identifying with the characters. A story’s effectiveness in eliciting a relevant emotional response from an audience is traceable to the story’s action as it operates within a logical, syntactical-like structure that shapes and nuances the interactions that are taking place. In other words, dramatic action – as a way of communicating emotionally meaningful energy – embodies a grammar that is illustrative of the basic principles and processes by which the energy is successfully built and released. It might even be said that dramatic storytelling is a language insofar as it expresses and embodies meaningful shifts in emotional energy by way of a series of structured and rhythmic actions.
Issue-based stories referencing situations that are charged with emotions not present in the stories themselves are capable of seducing careless storytellers (and audiences) into believing the stories are more dramatic than they really are. The seductiveness of “the real” frequently militates against a storyteller’s critical instincts, especially when he or she has an emotional investment in or attachment to the subject of the story that is being told. When the subjective emphasis of content over form detunes the storyteller’s sensitivity to the story’s grammar, the storyteller is at risk of reading energy into actions where in fact there is no energy at all.
The antidote to this fallacious reading (and writing) of dramatic scripts is to approach and examine story in terms of its grammar. By looking at the dramatic grammar by which the energies of a story move and interact, a storyteller is better able to usefully explore and more thoroughly assess the effectiveness of the action, scene by scene, sequence by sequence. As one becomes more fluent in the grammar, one is able to take a script apart, to see where the energy is coming from, and how it behaves and impacts on every character in every scene, sequence and act, including the implied energy that operates “in the cut” between each scene. In understanding a story’s grammar, the storyteller gains an invaluable tool for illuminating and exploring dramatic action, thus making every scene more susceptible to objective, critical observation, and every re-write a product of more incisive and dispassionate analysis than might have been the case had the grammar been ignored.
In focusing on a story’s grammar – that is, its structure and the movement of its emotional energy – a storyteller is conducted into the way in which drama means and the special syntax of dramatic actions that either facilitates (when present) or obscures (when absent) a story’s power to make us care. As one becomes more familiar with the grammar one begins to recognise that it has a bearing not only on the ways in which the energy moves, but the effectiveness of its movement. Indeed, a story’s dramatic grammar is instrumental not only in the creation of dramatically viable and absorbing characters, but also in promoting an audience’s willingness to engage emotionally with them.
When its origins intersect with our origins, a story’s grammatical soundness – the emotional and syntactical logic by which it means what it means – adheres to our deepest intuitive understandings concerning our own humanity. Hence, to say that a story is grammatical means that its energy moves in a way that is in keeping with our intuitive understanding of human desire and its frustration, including the unexpectedness of both. Its grammar is its credibility. The danger in creating non-grammatical stories is that one runs the risk of unnecessarily obscuring and interfering with the significance and flow of the energy and its movement, with the undesired effect of undermining the emotional energy and casting one’s audience out of the story. An ungrammatical story is a story that is unable to conjure emotion and is therefore, dramatically meaningless.
Like its grammatical cousin, the sentence, a dramatic scene is composed of a subject (character/s), verb (action/s) and predicate (the recipient/s of the action), and, like the sentence, aims at expressing a complete idea. However, in order to express a complete dramatic idea a scene must also present at least one significant change affecting the emotional energy of the character or characters involved. Such changes affect the movement of the story insofar as every change either propels the character closer to his/her goal or further away from it. The pressure or tension that a character experiences, and the actions that that experience provokes, transform the energy within the scene by either increasing it or releasing it. Where change is not present, the story remains static; the scene does NOT advance the story, and the energy dissipates.
A dramatic character is, by definition, someone or something that strives to transform the frustration (or anxiety) inherent in the dramatic problem that he/she or it is facing, in order to enact a healing, or bring about a resolution that will either end or significantly alter or transcend the frustration under which that character is suffering. The key word here is "strives", for a dramatic character is dramatic to the degree that he/she ACTS and, as a result of that action, effects CHANGE.
More often than not, a character is successful in his/her quest (“the happy ending”), but success is never a given, nor should it be. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that successful dramatic stories produce significant shifts in energy that manifest as changes in character, the character’s relationships, and the character’s world; and that an essential component of a story’s success is its adherence to a grammar that promotes the building and releasing of the emotional energies through fresh and thoroughly credible character-based actions that enable us, the audience, to care about what is happening.
The fundamental duality expressed in dramatic action is one of emotional connection (empathy, consonance) and emotional disconnection (antipathy, dissonance). Drama results when something that had been connected is suddenly disconnected, broken or interrupted, so that the main character cannot go on thinking, or believing or feeling the same way he/she did before the disconnection occurred. Disconnection introduces the element of conflict. Indeed, the disconnection is the conflict insofar as it disturbs or interferes with something that had previously been connected, asserted or assured, be it a relationship, a belief, or a state of nature.
Moreover, the initial disconnection presents a PROBLEM, which actually starts the story going – a problem that will not go away, and, at the same time, cannot be ignored. This problem, which is itself an energy shift, effectively interrupts or undermines the security of the main character/s, and the anxiety produced by the interruption compels the character/s to ACT.
However, if a character is to act he/she must first of all have a PLAN, and the plan must be a plan for something – i.e.: there must be a GOAL. So the basic grammatical building blocks of dramatic meaning, as conveyed by characters ACTING, involve problems, goals and plans.
Of course, the initial plan in any dramatic story is invariably doomed. It has to be. If it were to succeed the story would be over. If the story is to build emotional energy then the plan must not succeed. In fact, the plan must produce actions that compound the problem, thus leading the character/s into further PREDICAMENTS that force the adoption of new plans, or even new goals, which, if the story is to continue building energy, will involve greater and greater risks (stakes) for the characters. In other words, the plans that are devised to overcome the problem or assist the character in achieving a newly discovered goal, unwittingly lead to ever-greater problems and threats. Dramatic problems are, by definition, problems that are made worse by a character’s attempts to fix them. A character’s ongoing responses to the problems that his/her plans encounter are what an audience sees enacted as a story.
This is HOW a dramatic story works. It is the basic grammar that informs the formulaic decrees of all those screenwriting gurus from Syd Field to Robert McKee. However, taken on its own, this understanding is virtually worthless. Knowing HOW a dramatic story works is not the panacea it’s cracked up to be; it certainly won’t lead Joan and Joe Screenwriter out of their predictable and all-too-comfortable mediocrity. Strange as it may seem, it might very well lead them ever more deeply into it! Why? Because the knowledge of how drama works provides no assurance at all for the creation of compelling dramatic stories! The screenwriting gurus have been running a con. PROBLEM, GOAL, and PLAN are merely place-markers at the banquet table of dramatic action. It is with those that are sitting in the chairs that we must concern ourselves. In short, it’s the CHARACTERS, stupid! And characters are, by nature, a slippery mob.
Dramatic stories are structured presentations of emotional energy given form and movement by the actions of characters who are struggling to overcome problems and anxieties that threaten their safety or well-being. Guided by objectives and a clear goal, as well as a plan or plans for achieving that goal, the dramatic character encounters mounting opposition accompanied by ever-increasing risk. The source of opposition may be either the other characters, or nature, or both. Acting under a substantial threat, dramatic characters will go on acting until they either succeed or fail to achieve their goal and thus resolve the problem that is causing them to suffer. The rhythmic, sequential, and contentious interplay of competing agendas and conflicting actions builds or releases energy. These two elemental tendencies – the building and releasing of emotional energy – are what characterise the movement of all dramatic narratives. When successfully realised, this energy elicits a palpable and appropriate emotional response from an audience. Conversely, when a story stops building energy or is unable to effectively release it the energy dissipates, which is another way of saying the story becomes undramatic.
The energy that is built and released in dramatic stories is emotional energy, which is primarily grounded in the characters and their relationships. A story’s emotional energy is built and released by the actions of characters whose struggle we care about by virtue of some significant and identifiable relationship that that struggle puts at risk or strives to conserve or re-establish. Unsympathetic strangers vying for contradictory goals and oblivious to one another’s existence are, on their own, unlikely to have much of an impact on us. But make them empathetic brothers in love with the same woman, or a well-meaning stepmother so smitten by her stepson that she cannot keep her hands off him, and, suddenly, everyone is terribly interested. In drama, “to mean” is “to care”.
It is, therefore, dramatic relationships that drive a story’s meaning. Relationships become dramatic when suffering touches them. When characters act in the hope of lessening or ending their suffering – when they are actually striving for something – they become susceptible to our caring. Suffering is the motive force behind a story’s emotional energy; it is what provokes the urgency that compels a character to act. Psychologically, this urgency manifests as an ontological anxiety. To be a character is to be anxious.
Though one might conceive of numerous possible sub-sets, there are basically four types of anxiety relevant to dramatic storytelling. These are the anxiety of doubt, the anxiety of guilt, the anxiety of death and the anxiety of meaninglessness . Each of these, in its way, is symptomatic of any number of psychological wounds or beliefs (often false or imagined) that stimulate action by aggravating the anxieties that inform or condition the characters’ relationships with the other characters and with their world. As characters grapple with their anxieties, and the frustrations inherent in their relationships, their actions expose these wounds and, quite often, exacerbate thus promoting even riskier and more urgent action. Without anxiety and action there can be neither energy nor drama.
The external manifestations of a character's emotional state (dramatisation) provide perceivable, rhythmic alterations of energy that underscore the central element of dramatic action, i.e.: movement or change. To be involved in a story’s energy is to be awake to it emotionally, and to realise that the energy is always moving and that this movement is happening in time. In this respect drama shares an affinity with that other “time art”, music; for, like music, it builds emotional energy – between consonance and dissonance – “in time”, and releases it “in time”. Dramatic energy is so infused with pace, timing and rhythm, that the lack of any one of these is capable of robbing a story of its power and, consequently, its meaning. Through an extremely visceral, albeit rigorously intuitive and some times physical process, a storyteller finds, selects, orders and emphasizes the dynamic energy relevant to the characters, and in so doing takes the measure of the story’s pace and rhythm, finding in its timing the authenticity or otherwise of the emotions expressed. At its most basic, the art of dramatic storytelling is the art of managing time.
But to say that dramatic energy is always moving, and that its movement is rhythmic, is only part of the story. If the movement is to be meaningful, it must not only move but move for some purpose; that is, the action must be directed towards achieving some objective or goal. However, rhythmic action, even when wedded to plot and driven by a final cause, will not guarantee the sort of unexpected energy shifts that create surprise and provoke attention. Divorced from some deep and identifiable emotional source in character, plot too easily veers into melodrama.
In order to break from formula and find characters that are capable of generating potent emotional energy through genuinely surprising and credible actions, change must be rooted in, or connected to, the origins of both the characters AND the storyteller. Only when the emotional energy in a story flows from one’s origins – the characters’ and the writer’s – does the story become possessed of that most special of all artistic qualities: FRESHNESS.
Freshness is not a commodity; it is not something that can be practised or stored up to be taken out and used whenever it is needed. Unlike knowledge, it is neither a consequence of method, nor something that can be affixed or added to the action after it has been written down. Rather, it emerges from the dynamic and on-going energy exchanges that occur among the characters and between the characters and the storyteller at their origins, and finds its voice and body in the surprising, unexpected and thoroughly credible utterances and actions of utterly dramatic characters.
Energy that springs from one’s origins is, by definition, energy that is centred in one’s Being. It is the energy that comes of sitting squarely in the middle of one’s own anxiety, but without the fear reaction that so often accompanies anxiety. To attend to one’s origins is to find the “what” that stands behind the “who” that chooses to be or not to be. It is to reacquaint oneself with one’s belonging place, where the as-yet unmade Self is constantly in the process of becoming present. In one’s origins one finds the natural confidence and spontaneity that makes freshness possible. In one’s origins is the birthing place of the “true voice”. To work from one’s origins is to be original. Every act of originality is an action that comes straight from one’s innermost nature. Freshness is originality. It is that secret and rare ingredient that everyone knows about, that is made more rare because of the knowing. It is the essential quality of emotional energy without which a story remains merely a construction of one’s will and whatever set of values and prejudices one’s taste and fears dictate.