Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Understanding Power 4 - The character falls

Nothing demonstrates a change in power more than a scene or a sequence of scenes where a character loses power in a big way. The boxer gets knocked out. The spy's identity is revealed. Boy loses girl.

Scenes and sequences that involve loss of power can be among the most memorable in a story. And, though they are often near the end, they may be earlier on.

In The Natural, near the beginning, Hobbs is at the top of his game when he gets shot.

In It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey finally has the girl and a fistful of money for travel, and there's a run on the savings and loan.

One of my favorite examples is from Jerry Maguire. Jerry (played by Tom Cruise) believes his new concept in sports agenting will bring the profession to a new, more humane level. He is so convinced by his insight ("The answer was fewer clients. Caring for them, caring for ourselves, and the games too."), he writes up a new Mission Statement ("THE THINGS WE THINK AND DO NOT SAY"), prints it up in the middle of the night, and distributes it to everyone in his firm. Then he questions the wisdom of his actions, but it's too late to call the manuscript back. Still, it looks like success, like a high point. His peers applaud him. Then a hint: just for the audience:

AGENT # 1 How long you give him?
AGENT # 2 Mmmm.  A week.

More hints follow. Until he's fired. And he fights back. And loses with almost every client he has. And turns off the lights to his office. And keeps falling.

As I looked across these and other examples, I found some commonalities:

The protagonist is generally at a high point at the beginning. Full of power and confidence. (It's an illusion or an incomplete perspective.)

Then, there usually are hints of trouble that are not seen or are ignored. Those hints comes from the larger world in some way (experience, bigger network, larger concerns at play).

There often are opportunities to limit the damage, and the protagonist charges forward ignoring them. Often these headlong rush into disaster is driven by flaws or a distorted virtue (like overwrought duty).

Finally, though it might be anticipated by the audience, the disaster blindsides the protagonist, and drags him or her down. The loss of power is great. The loss is unbearable.

Looking across, I often find what I call the Big Fish in Small Pond Syndrome. The protagonist sees his power relative to a very narrow worldview. The fall is connected to a larger world (or Pond) asserting itself.

Not every big loss of power scene follows this exactly, but it may be a useful template to use as you analyze a scene like this for your own work.

Here are a few questions that might be helpful, too:
  • What is the protagonist's obvious power?
  • Why does he lose it? (Bad reading of the land? Betrayal? Blinded by arrogance?)
  • How is that power lost? (Consider step by agonizing step in your scene or sequence. There should be at least three steps.)
  • Is the loss emotional for readers?
  • Is it convincing?
  • What is the power that matters to the story as a whole?
  • How quickly should this fall happen? (Is it more effective stretched out? Sped up?)
As I alluded to, there is usually a big power loss toward the end -- the black moment for the protagonist. Often, there is a gain as the happy ending is realized. In both cases, some of the ideas here might help you to improve the scene or sequence. And, since almost all scenes include some sort of power shift, you can use these ideas and questions as tools to figure out how to make scenes that aren't working (or are just weak) better.

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