Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Complication and crisis

This is a continuation of a discussion about Aristotle's theory of drama.

For Aristotle, “Man IS his desire.” A story is built on what a character wants, or wishes to avoid. If you figure out what your character desires and what he fears, you’re on your way. Plot arises out of the character acting on those desires – to achieve something, or to avoid something. To attain a goal, or escape the worst. But you cannot make it easy. If it’s easy, you have no story. Jimmy desperately wants the red bike in the window but it is expensive. Grandpa comes to visit and buys it for him. End of story. Instead, we need Mom to say, “I don’t have the money. You’ll have to earn it.” So Jimmy becomes a paperboy. After a while he earns enough and he buys the bike. Still no story. What needs to happen? Someone has to steal his papers, or swipe the money left out for him by customers, or he gets mugged on his way to the store, or when he gets to the store the bike is sold. These are ‘complications.’ “Complications” are obstacles to achieving a ‘want’ or an incident that brings the feared thing closer to happening. Things must get harder for your character, things must get worse every time he takes an action to attain the goal. There is always a gap between what the character expects as a result of a decision and what he actually gets. These complications, these setbacks, these new directions build toward a ‘crisis.

A ‘crisis’ is a moment of change where nothing is as it was before. The complications have led up to this change, this crisis, inevitably. This ‘change’ or ‘crisis’ is characterized by a major recognition and reversal.

RECOGNITION AND REVERSAL: or ‘a discovery and peripety’:
Good plots always have a major recognition and reversal near the end arising from all the action that has preceded it. Immediately following a startling recognition, an astonishing realization, a surprising revelation, there is a reversal – a change from one state of affairs to another. Aristotle’s favorite play and the best example of this is Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus recognizes who he really is and what he has truly done – murdered his father and married his mother – with an immediate and stunning reversal of fortunes into misery. The recognition and the reversal happen simultaneously. But this can happen in all kinds of stories, not just a tragedy. In a mystery, there is often a surprising recognition of who the real killer is and that you, the sleuth, have been chasing the wrong one all along – or your chief suspect has just been killed - and the killer is sitting next to you – recognizing that you are realizing the truth. This results in a reversal of your attitude toward the person and a change in your next action.

You’ll probably have smaller recognitions and reversals earlier in the book, occurring at every major turning point or ‘plot point.’ In a mystery, that could be the discovery of a clue, a recognition of a false alibi, a revelation of someone’s real identity – and each of these causes a reversal of some kind: a changed relationship, a changed plan, a changed suspect list.

Discoveries can occur without reversals – a narrator learns something about her past. Reversals can happen without some recognition involved – a happy wedding reception is spoiled by a shooting. But emotional power in a story comes from a recognition accompanied by a reversal.

Does your story have an interesting discovery or two, and is there a reversal as a result within the character, in a relationship, in the direction of the action?

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