In this series of posts I share with you some of the lessons I learnt from an old friend of mine – Hannah Kodicek. Hannah was a story editor in the film industry -she was story editor on the Oscar-winning film The Counterfeiters and moreover lectured on story structure and other aspects of story-making to people in the movie business. She also occasionally helped out friends with their novels – one being Danny Scheinmann (Random Acts of Heroic Love) and of course me. These posts come from long discussions over mugs of tea, informed by Hannah’s notes, further reading and my experiences. One of the most fascinating and important discussion we had was about the role of status in stories.
A Question of Status
Human beings are social animals and in our societies (both in terms of personal relationships and the wider society) we are obsessed with status. Competition for status is present in nearly every human transaction. Most of the time we are unaware of it, but it is still there. As writers we need to be aware of status within our stories and use that awareness to engage the reader. Quite simply the audience is always interested when status is being modified.
Status within the story
1) Social status – the most obvious use of this is in the rags-to-riches plot line or indeed the converse the fall of a great man (when dealing with the personal story), or the overthrow of oppression (where you are working on a bigger canvas). But we are not just talking of the plot, but also on a scene by scene. So we need to think about the following:
- who has higher status or ranks higher in the pecking order?
- how do they keep the other people down?
- are the characters vying to gain the upper hand and how do they do that?
We will convey that by words, actions and body language
2) Physical power – who is the stronger, has more weapons? Do they use their power andif so when?
3) Knowledge status – knowledge is power as they say. Which characters know more than the others? Who knows what about whom? Do they hold back that knowledge to the disadvantage of the other? Do they share that knowledge and if so when?
In tragedies we see a status see-saw – the hero or heroine destroyed, even a degree of sacrifice (the ultimate in status dynamic). Many comedies exploit the contrast between the obvious social status of a character and the status s/he plays at. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp may be eating a boot but he does so as if he is in a five-star restaurant. In stories with a happy ending we see the hero’s/heroine’s true status achieved or restored.
A key thing to remember when writing is that the reader usually is on the side of the underdog or lower status character. So make awful things happen to your hero/heroine, make them lose status, win it, lose it again. And you can go beyond that and place them in a position where they have higher status. It’s a way of playing with the allegiance of your readers.
Status outside the story
The most important status dynamic is not actually in the story. It’s in the relationship between writer and reader. Who is the more powerful? The novel is entirely your creation and you can use your power to deliver or subvert your reader’s expectations. But at the end how far can you go really? The reader has the ultimate power. S/he can put down your book and walk away.
In my September post I will be talking more about the tools the writer uses to keep their status in the writer/reader relationship and not just stop the reader from walking away, but keep them turning the pages.
**Please note that guest posts and columns reflect the opinions of the individual author and not The Indie Exchange as a whole. Also note, The Indie Exchange uses affiliate links to offset the costs of hosting etc.**