Nonlethal Drama

by F.

I like a good cops-and-robbers story as much as anyone. For instance, I recently began watching The Wire, the HBO series which has recently been renewed for a fourth season, I believe. It’s good. So good, in fact, that it pretty much puts other cops-and-robbers shows/stories to shame, like Law and Order did before it, and like Hill Street Blues did before that, and like Police Story did back in the day.

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I noticed this when I went from watching The Wire to reading an Elmore Leonard story, Maximum Bob. Now, I know Elmore Leonard isn’t trying to be totally realistic in his stories. He’s trying (and mostly failing, I think) to be funny. But Maximum Bob is just dumb. Who’s the protagonist? Kathy? Or it is the judge? What does Kathy want? To figure out who is trying to kill the judge? Why? What’s at stake if she doesn’t figure it out? I mean, if she doesn’t have anything at stake, it’s hard to stay interested.

And, shit, these characters are neither quirky enough to be funny or complex enough to be realistic. Maximum Bob is about 300 pages, or about 100,000 words (I would guess). I tossed it it the “To the Used Bookstore” bag after page 216. No reason to waste my time reading that sort of shit.

So I picked up Farewell, My Lovely. I’ve never read any Chandler before, truth be told. It’s kick ass. Shit, it just moves. It’s like watching a movie. And it’s 66 years old! Chandler had his flaws, like exaggeration. It’s cartoonish, oftentimes. But the plots are good. Really good. In every scene, “something happens”—in other words, the protagonist is either closer to or farther from his objective at the end of the scene. The story moves and something is at stake. Always.

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The story doctors always suggest “raising the stakes” to make a story more interesting. But what are “stakes,” anyway? And why do they keep us participating in the story?

The short answer is that “the stakes” are “something to be gained” or “something to lose” or both. Generally, “something to be gained” is not enough stakes to keep the audience participating in the story. For instance, suppose that Marlowe gets a case—to find a girl. If he gets her, he gets $10,000. OK, he has something to gain—$10,000.

Now, what if he doesn’t get her? He’s back at status quo. And that’s not enough, usually. It’s like a rich man trying to get richer. If he doesn’t get richer, he’s still rich. Who cares?

But if he has to, say, put up his house, gamble, then he has some skin in the game. There’s something at stake—there is something to gain (more money) and something to lose (his house). This locks him into his pursuit of the objective and gets us, the audience, to participate more fully in the story. We’ll care more the more the protagonist has at stake.

This probably explains why cops-and-robbers shows, and legal dramas, are popular. There are stakes: life, death, and going to jail. These stakes are obvious and everyone can understand them. They are “objective”—they don’t rely on the idiosyncrasies of a certain character, as in a story where, say, the protagonist really cared about what the 1,000,000,000th digit of pi was. Suppose he was on a quest to find out that digit.

Kinda hard to get engaged in that story.

But it can be done. Nonlethal drama can be exciting. It’s all a matter of externalizing the internal. Sure, most of us don’t give a shit what the 1,000,000,000th digit of pi is. But we can be made to care, because we have all had idiosyncratic hobbies and desires. The challenge in a story about a search for that 10,000th digit of pi is getting audience to feel that the protagonist cares a lot about it.

How?

Simple: we see him put something he values at risk to reach his goal.

Our folk psychology suggests the following principle, which is used by storytellers:

  • If someone puts something really, really, really valuable at risk to get something else, then he really, really, really wants the something else.

And here is a corollary:

  • The greater the value of the thing put at risk, the more he cares.

So, our pi geek in the example above mortgages his house so he can buy some PCs to make a Beowolf cluster of Linux machines to do the decimal expansion. Then he quits his job so he can devote most of his time to his work. Then he breaks up with his girlfriend. He thinks he’ll put his life back together when his quest is complete.

But there’s risk. It may not work. If not, he won’t be back at status quo. He’ll be in a bad situation.

So he goes for it after all. But then, he starts running out of money. And the power company threatens to cut his power, which means no more Linux cluster. With all that, we might care, even though no one is going to die.

Nonlethal drama is, I think, more challenging to do than lethal drama, but I tend to gravitate toward it. So, while I like The Wire and stuff like that, I prefer a story like You Can Count on Me. The stakes just have to be high enough.

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