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Monday, October 20, 2008

The Protagonist's Emotional Arc

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

As we mentioned in a previous post, every story, whether it takes the form of a narrative poem, a theatrical script, a short story, a novel, or a screenplay, involves a character in a conflict which changes him or her for the better or the worse. This character, the protagonist, usually lacks something that he or she values or is burdened with something of which he or she wants to be relieved. There are many ways by which this simple, but effective, dramatic formula may be varied and enriched, as we shall see in this post.

The character’s emotional arc follows the story’s dramatic structure. According to Gustav Freytag, a story has five parts: exposition, rising action, turning point or climax, falling action, and resolution (a denouement in comedy or a catastrophe in tragedy). In the exposition, the writer provides background information, introducing the main character and major supporting characters, establishing the setting, and defining the basic conflict. The rising action complicates the basic conflict, adding a series of successively more challenging obstacles. The turning point, or climax, reverses the direction of the action. The falling action unravels the conflict. The denouement, or resolution, brings about the comedy’s happy ending, or the catastrophe brings about the main character’s ruin. (A comedy is a story in which the main character is better off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning, and a tragedy is the opposite: the main character is worse off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning.)

The action sequence, or dramatic structure, of the well-made plot is often illustrated by a diagram known as Freytag’s Pyramid:

At the same time, a parallel series of incidents occur within the character’s inner self, or personality. The story starts with the protagonist lacking something that he or she values or burdened by something from which he or she wants to be relieved. In an effort to attain this want, he or she displays increasing competence or incompetence until he or she experiences a moment of recognition in which he or she has an epiphany about him- or herself which equips the character to change his or her course of action. This change in perception, accompanied by a change in behavior, leads to increasing incompetence or competence, which brings about the protagonists’ acquisition of that which he or she had lacked by valued or his or her relief from the burden under which he or she suffered. This sequence of emotional changes can be illustrated by a diagram similar to Freytag’s Pyramid, since the changes parallel the incidents of the plot’s physical and thematic action:

Before we discuss ways by which the moments in the protagonist’s emotional arc may be varied and enriched, let’s look at an example of both dramatic structure, as analyzed by Freytag, and the parallel emotional arc that the protagonist experiences. The film version of The Wizard of Oz offers a familiar instance.
During the exposition, we meet the main character, Dorothy Gale, a nineteenth-century Kansas farm girl, her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, their three farmhands, Ms. Gulch, and a traveling fortune teller, Professor Marvel. We learn that Dorothy feels lonely and neglected. Her only friend, she believes, is her pet dog, Toto. Dorothy is dissatisfied with her home and dreams of going to a more exciting and glamorous place “somewhere over the rainbow.” The exposition introduces the protagonist and other major supporting characters, establishes the setting, and identifies the basic conflict, which is psychological. The inciting moment (the incident that initiates the story’s rising action) occurs when Toto escapes Ms. Gulch’s custody (she had been taking him to be destroyed for having bitten her) and, to save him, Dorothy runs away from home, to be caught in the tornado that whisks her, house and all, off to the strange, enchanted land of Oz that lies “somewhere over the rainbow.”

Almost as soon as she arrives in Oz at the outset of the story's rising action, Dorothy becomes homesick and the story’s rising action introduces a series of more and more challenging obstacles for Dorothy to overcome. When her house lands upon the Wicked Witch of the East, Dorothy gains the enmity of her victim’s sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, who wants to recover her dead sibling’s enchanted ruby slippers, which have appeared magically upon Dorothy’s feet, and the which harasses Dorothy along her way to the Emerald City. She also meets Glinda, the Good Witch, the Munchkins, and her traveling companions, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. They arrive at the Emerald City, hoping the Wizard of Oz, who resides there, may help each of them achieve what he or she lacks but values: a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man, courage for the Cowardly Lion, and a trip home for Dorothy and Toto. However, the Wizard refuses to help them until they have returned with the witch’s broomstick. As the foursome travels to the witch’s castle, Dorothy is abducted by their adversary’s army of flying monkeys. Her comrades infiltrate the witch’s company of human soldiers and rescue Dorothy.

The turning point, or climax, of the story occurs as Dorothy, to put out the fire with which the witch threatens the Scarecrow, throws a bucket of water on the villain, the witch shrivels to nothingness, and Dorothy retrieves her broomstick.

During the falling action, they take the broomstick back to Oz, where the Wizard grants the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion the gifts they’d sought, but is exposed as a charlatan when he is unable to help Dorothy. A moment of final suspense (an instant wherein the audience or reader is left in doubt as to what will happen to the protagonist) takes place when the Wizard leaves her stranded in Oz when the hot-air balloon by which he had arrived in Oz, purely by accident, floats off with only him aboard. Glinda appears and tells Dorothy that, all along the girl has had the power to return home at any time simply by clicking her heels together three times as she recites the phrase, “There’s no place like home.”

After a tearful farewell to her friends, she does so, and, as the story’s denouement occurs, she awakens in bed, surrounded by her family and their farmhands, to whom she relates the lesson she’s learned from her experience (the story‘s theme), concluding “There’s no place like home” and that if one cannot find happiness in his or her own backyard, he or she is not likely to discover it anywhere else.

We can diagram this same story in terms of the protagonist’s emotional arc, which parallels the physical and thematic development of the story:
In the exposition, Dorothy is dissatisfied with her home life, feeling lonely and neglected. She longs for a more exciting and glamorous life “somewhere over the rainbow.”

The inciting moment, during which Dorothy seeks to evade personal responsibility by running away from home, catapults her into the story’s rising action, where she Dorothy, becoming homesick, shows increasing incompetence in resolving her dissatisfaction with her home life by taking upon herself more responsibility for her own fate. The turning point occurs when she matures, taking action on her own behalf, thereby becoming, in principle, if not yet fully, independent and autonomous. During the falling action, she becomes increasing more competent in resolving her dissatisfaction with her home life as she discovers that the Wizard is incompetent and cannot help her to realize her goal. During the moment of final suspense, the audience wonders whether Dorothy will find a way home, now that her hoped-for rescuer has, in effect, abandoned her. The story, a comedy, reaches its denouement as Dorothy realizes that she alone is responsible for making her life satisfying, or “happy,” and she becomes a mature young woman, rather than the girl she’d been at the beginning of the film. Again, the protagonist’s emotional arc parallels the story’s dramatic structure: plot is a means of showing the development of character, and the development of character constitutes, on the figurative or symbolic level, the story’s plot.

Now that we have seen how plot and character are flip sides, as it were, of the same coin (story), let’s consider how we can vary and enrich the formula in which the main character either lacks something that he or she values or is burdened with something of which he or she wants to be relieved.

  1. The protagonist lacks something that he or she values; by the story’s end, he or she either gains or does not gain the desired object. (“Object” is used loosely, for the “thing” that the main character lacks and desires may be something quite intangible, such as peace of mind, love, or respect, rather than a material artifact.)
  2. The protagonist acquires the thing, and still values it.
  3. The protagonist acquires the thing, but values it less than he or she had valued it at first.
  4. The protagonist acquires the thing, but values something else more than it.
  5. The protagonist acquires the thing, but no longer values it at all.
  6. The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but still values it.
  7. The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but values it less than he or she had valued it at first.
  8. The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but no longer values it at all.
  9. The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, and values it even more than he or she had valued it at first.
  10. The protagonist fails to acquire the thing, but values something else more than it.
  11. The protagonist acquires the thing, but he or she loses it (or gives it away or has it stolen), with any of the consequences identified above following the loss--that is, he or she still more or less values it, no longer values it at all, or values something else instead.
  12. In acquiring the thing, the protagonist does not change.
  13. In acquiring the thing, the protagonist changes for the better.
  14. In acquiring the thing, the protagonist changes for the worse.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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