Making Progress

Not much new to report today.  Lousy weather kept me more confined to quarters than usual.  Good writing and good coffee this morning, a slightly more strained editorial process this afternoon.

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversations with friends about narrative energy in comedy, drama, and tragedy.  There’s a theory in dramatic criticism (I don’t know whose theory this is, this is just the kind of stuff I chat about on long walks to and from the gym) that developments in plot are ‘sold’ by the expenditure of narrative energy.  The more of a stretch the plot moment might be, the more narrative energy it requires.  Narrative energy is accumulated by the storyteller’s work—describing characters preparing to do things, or resolving emotional tensions, or creating new ones.  You can see this literally in scenes where the hero has to ‘believe in herself’ to jump across a chasm, or beat up a lion, or something like that.  Flashbacks, a swell of music, a sort of recap of the narrative energy accumulated so far—and then she jumps, and (if we’re in a drama) makes it.  Or (if we’re in a comedy or tragedy) something else happens–they fall, or get hit by a whale, or whatever.

This is similar to mechanics for story-driven games, as my friend Dan pointed out.  Think about the Spirit of the Century system, where you can spend points to use a character’s aspects (basically their story-handles) against them, or to their benefit.

I don’t know how useful this stuff could be to story writing.  At worst, seems like it could reduce some sensitive story architecture stuff to blunt calculus.  On the other hand, it could give us new questions to ask as we do our work…

3 Responses to “Making Progress”

  1. Alana Abbott (@alanajoli)

    There’s a very fun conversation happening over on the Mythopoeic Society mailing list about different narrative structures (particularly based around games vs. prose vs. film). I think you’ve managed a great example of something true in several types of structures. The more I have to suspend my disbelief as a reader, the more work you have to put in to get me on board? Makes sense to me! I’d think, in terms of writing, it could be a matter of figuring out where you have to hold your reader’s hand and get them to trust you enough to jump over the cliff, but that might be relying too much on metaphor to be useful. 🙂

    Mind if I cross-post this over at the Substrate blog?

    • max

      Your Mythopoeic Society conversations always sound so cool! I think you’re right—though I don’t know if the binary’s as simple as ‘suspend disbelief’ makes it sound. The idea as explained to me was that even if someone’s trying to do something within their capabilities, the writer needs to expend this narrative energy. It’s just that you need less narrative energy to justify, for example, a dude shaving in the morning (a common occurrence) than the same dude defending himself from muggers with a chair (a less common occurrence).

      The more I think about this idea, the more I like it, especially since recently the arbitrariness of fiction has been bugging me. (Anything can happen! Um… Great?) At the very least it’s a neat way to summarize story problems. “I don’t think you spent enough narrative energy to earn that last-minute rescue.”

    • max

      Oh, and doy, of course you can cross-post this to the Substrate blog. 🙂


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