This is a followup to my last post regarding the alignment of a story.
Before I get started I want to address a few points that I think are significant but didn’t spell out in my earlier post.
First, my list of Story Alignments is not meant to be either authoritative or exhaustive. I think it is one useful way of classifying what I mean when I speak of a story’s overall tone or feeling, but it’s not the only one by any means. It may not fit for some stories. For the purposes of this essay, however, I feel that it is a practical schema.
Second, I don’t intend that to imply that a well-told story can offer no surprises to the audience. Well-told stories will surprise–sometimes shock–the audience. What I am saying is that a story alignment regulates the sheaf of possible outcomes. The audience may not know what, exactly, will happen to the characters, but should have a clear expectation of what sort of outcome lies within the locus of events defined by the story universe.
Thirdly, when I speak of permissible and impermissible events and outcomes within a story, I am speaking without reference to any logical or scientific realism. If a hero is a human being, then of course from a logical standpoint it follows that he is mortal and that he can–will, in time–die. However, in the narrative context of some stories the hero–as a Hero–may be assumed to be immortal. That is to say that his death is not a permissible event, narratively speaking, within the story universe. (In other stories, of course, the character’s death may be permissible, and in still others, a required event.)
Now I am going to look at how to set up, maintain, and conclude a story alignment–the Beginning, Middle, and End of a story, viewed in terms of Alignment. I am going to make up examples and counterexamples, rather than trying to find examples from existing stories, both from a desire to avoid spoilers and because I don’t like pointing out negative examples from real stories.
I am going to start with three possible stories.
Let’s start with The Horrible Catastrophe, an Irwin Allen style disaster epic about, oh, a huge earthquake that makes the entire town of Horrible, Indiana drop into a deep hole in the earth. This is going to be Happy, Neutral in the earlier schema. (Are the characters better off than when they started the story? No, not really, but in this kind of story I think “Happy” can be defined in terms of “better off than when the action–in this case the earthquake–starts.”)
Next up is Brief Candles, a cyberpunk noir crime thriller about a gang of thieves planning and executing a high tech heist. This one is going to be Neutral, Immoral.
Lastly, how about Marks Of The Beast, a horror novel about a strain of lycanthropy that makes infected people turn into whatever animal they most resemble spiritually. That’s going to be Unhappy, Moral.
The Beginning: This is where we set the scene and the audience gets a feel for what sort of story is going to be told. Beginnings are delicate things and a misstep here can set up the audience for disappointment (and the author for scathing reviews).
The Horrible Catastrophe:
- The Right Beginning: We should begin by showing the characters as unaligned, as individuals who are about to be caught up in an experience not of their own making. A group of customers having breakfast at the Horrible Diner, for example, all dealing with the mundane details of their lives preparatory to starting the work day. Perhaps we have a pair of seismologists, discussing the odd readings from the day before as foreshadowing of the catastrophe to come, but as a value-neutral, scientific discussion–just part of their work.
- The Wrong Beginning: If, on the other hand, we present the seismologists as crusaders who are fighting to keep their funding against the greedy plutocrats who want to spend the tax dollars on building a mall instead, we are setting up an expectation of moral agency to the catastrophe. (Which is a potential story–just not the one that we set out to tell.) Many “ecological disaster” stories do include that sort of moral agency, but that puts them into the Moral rather than the Neutral category. In that case, we would be setting up the audience to expect that the outcome would be contingent upon any given character’s moral choices rather than their circumstances.
- The Right Beginning: We want to know from the outset that crime–in the context of this story–does pay. We want to set the audience up to root for the bad guys. The natural inclination of most people is to dislike criminals, so we have to overcome that by showing the protagonists as being admirable in some other way. A tried and true method is to open with one of the characters–the ringleader, generally–pulling off some minor, but clever scam. Suppose we open with a woman at the desk of a five star hotel complaining loudly that her credit card has been stolen. She gets the sympathy of the manager, who manages to calm her down and issue a temporary card that can draw funds from the hotel until such time as the thief is found. Then after the woman leaves, relieved and grateful, a second woman approaches the front desk, claiming the same name as the one who just left and we realize that who we thought was the victim was, in fact, the criminal. This lets the audience know from the start that daring and guile are rewarded in this story, rather than a pure heart.
- The Wrong Beginning: The same scene could work against us, though, if the focus were to be on either the desk clerk or the legitimate patron. The audience should be thinking, “Gosh, she was clever to get away with that!” rather than “Oh, that poor clerk is going to lose his job now!” The moral inversion necessary to want a criminal to succeed is dependant on, among other things, a willing blindness to the larger consequences of the crime.
Marks Of The Beast:
- The Right Beginning: Again, introducing the audience to the proper moral perspective is the key to laying the proper foundation. In this case, however, we want the audience to be judge, jury, and enthusiastic cheerleader of the executioner. Since we have a supernatural event as the core conceit in this instance, we also want to introduce that as soon as possible. So let’s say that we open with a dog pound. The night manager of the pound is someone that we don’t want the audience to like, so let’s make him mean to the dogs. He can’t do anything too overt–that would be noticed–so he just teases them, showing them food and then taking it away, poking them with a blunt broom handle, just generally being a jerk to the poor beasts. Then a night delivery is made–cops have picked up a stray on the streets and brought it to the pound. We let the audience know that this is no ordinary stray dog–a shot of the dog’s eyes glowing with an eldritch light, maybe some un-doglike behaviour like stopping to look at a sign as if it is reading it. This dog, the audience will realize after the plot is revealed–is a transformed human. Our nasty night manager, aggrieved at having to the paperwork to accept the beast, takes his frustration out on the new dog and it–showing more than canine cunning–bites him. The manager runs to his first aid kit, but, alas, it’s too late. He’s infected and begins showing strange symptoms, sweats, rashes, convulsions, and in the end falls to the ground and transforms (in what we hope is an agonizing process) into a snake. This snake, panicked at being in a strange new body, slithers into the dog run with predictable results. The dogs that he had tormented tear him apart. No tears are shed.
- The Wrong Beginning: Our primary conceit here is the uncanny as an instrument of divine retribution. Along the way it will menace characters that the audience finds sympathetic. In fact, defeating the threat will be our end-state. However, it has to be represented as a threat because it enforces an impossible standard of righteousness. (As an aside, the decline of the doctrine of original sin nerfs a lot of traditional horror conceits, but that’s a subject for another post.) The shapeshifting virus needs to be seen as having a legitimate claim to its first victim. Then, once we are introduced to characters who have flaws that we can sympathize with, we can hope that they escape justice and are granted mercy, rather than they escape an unjust fate. So, if we were to present the first victim as an innocent–someone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time–we have a different sort of story. Making the night manager of the kennel a simple, hardworking man who is kind to his charges would be “wrong” in this case–it would not set up the story that we want to tell.
Okay, this is getting long, so I am going to cut this off here and put the middles and the ends in another post. Maybe two.