Moving right along, then. This is the third in a series of posts about story structure. The first part discussed “story alignments” and the second part talked about openings that established an alignment.
Now I am going to be talking about middles–specifically identifying examples of permissible and impermissible actions within the story proper, as defined by the expectations set up in the opening. To briefly recap, we are talking about three different stories; The Horrible Catastrophe, a disaster survival story about an earthquake hitting a small Indiana town, Brief Candles, a cyberpunk/noir story about a criminal gang pulling off a heist, and Marks Of The Beast, a horror story about a plague of lycanthropy.
Keep in mind that these are just examples off the top of my head and as such are not intended to show how plotting stories for consistency should or must be done, just one way in which it could be done. The goal of the exercise is simply to explore the concept of Story Alignments, not to create rules for their use.
Now on to the stories:
The Horrible Catastrophe: We have this huge rumble and crash scene, all kinds of running around screaming, things falling to the ground, dust and confusion everywhere, a nice montage of high dollar special effects showing all the folks that we just saw noshing grits and gravy in the diner being narrowly missed by collapsing masonry. Then we have the survivors shakily getting to their feet and realizing that they must now escape the devastated town. Then the real story begins.
- Permissible actions: We defined the story in the opening as Happy (a positive outcome for spotlighted characters) and Neutral (outcome not dependant on characters moral actions). Our narrative incidents should reinforce rather than contradict this. Thus the survival of the “elect” (defined, in this case, as characters that have been given enough screen/page time that the audience recognizes their names) should be assured. Narrational peril is acceptable, but the audience will know that anything really bad will only happen to walk-ons, not main characters. Thus the danger is shown by killing off characters who show up late.
- Impermissible actions: Death coming to any named character outside of a “Noble Sacrifice” (the “Noble Sacrifice” is a signature of the Happy Neutral story because it shows that the peril is real while still allowing for a positive outcome for the named characters.) Judgemental Peril (again to named characters–walk-ons can reap the consequences of their cowardice or betrayal) that makes survival contingent upon being a “good guy”. The disaster (and the aftermath) cannot discriminate between the worthy and the unworthy. The establishment of retributive justice as an end-state can be stated or implied, but the central conceit of the amorality of the disaster condition has to be maintained.
Brief Candles: The scam artist from the initial hotel scene is shown to have bigger ambitions. She gathers a crew of criminals–the crème de la crème of crime. Then they begin to make their plans for the big score.
- Permissible actions: We want to keep the audience rooting for the bad guys (Neutral Immoral), and that means we want to keep the bad guys sympathetic. We want to show the universe in terms of “clever vs. dull” rather than “good vs. evil.” The gang should be shown not simply committing crimes, but planning elaborate schemes. The audience should be admiring the cunning and daring of the gang rather than thinking of them as criminals.
- Impermissible actions: Thus we should avoid scenes in which the victims are sympathetic. Ideally the thefts should be from organizations so large that they can easily absorb the losses, or from other criminals shown to be worse than our heroes. Showing an innocent who is seriously hurt by our protagonist’s actions could break the mood.
Marks Of The Beast: We have introduced the mechanism by which the contagion is spread, and implied that effects of the contagion are grimmly moralistic.
- Permissible actions: Our central conceit is built around a fear of supernatural justice (Unhappy Moral) so that is the theme we want to keep in the forefront. At the same time we want to introduce our protagonist who, in this story, can be considered the agent for the restoration of normalcy. As such he should be an authority figure, let’s go with the cliche and make him a small town cop. (This also makes sure he’s involved in all of the incidents.) So we have an episodic morality play, with Cop Joe linking the episodes. The individual events should be predictable–in the sense that the audience will be able to anticipate who will be cursed next and what form the curse will take. That will foster a sense of inevitability. One last thing that we want to include is a sense of “overjustice”–that the punishment is too harsh for the crime. This will allow the audience to predict negative outcomes for characters who are sympathetic–without that, it’s not really horror at all.
- Impermissible actions: We have set up a fragile mechanism for suspension of disbelief, not simply in terms of logic (which we are not concerned with in these examples) but more relevantly in terms of tone. We want the audience to be imagining the form the retribution will take, but also wanting the characters (at least some of them) to escape it. The contagion can’t strike everyone who is set up for it, otherwise fighting it will seem pointless and we will stop wanting the hero to try.
Okay, this thing keeps rolling along. I hope to wrap it up in my next section, which we be about endings.