Here’s a question I have for you--do we qualify as card-carrying geeks because we’re passionate about writing for children--obsessed with the language, the vision, the structure of story? If so, then we’re in mucho good company. I for one have thoroughly enjoyed the company of the writers who contributed their stories to Geektastic--so varied, so entertaining, so gripping. And what makes a story gripping?, I find myself wondering.
Take, for example, “Secret Identity,” by Kelly Link. Now that’s one I couldn’t stop reading, on the one hand, and didn’t want to end, on the other. I just fell in love with Billie. After all, she’s a writer, too, working out her conflict about Paul Zell, "dear Paul Zell," through--you guessed it--writing.
This story gripped me by the throat and didn’t let go. Scene after relentless scene, character after surprising character. Because Link’s story felt to me like I was watching a screenplay unfold, I wondered what McKee would have to say about developing character in the context of his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. In the chapter on structure and character he says,
“TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure--the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature” (p. 101).Link puts Billie under pressure, then turns the screws. Although as readers we know that in the end Billie survives, since she is after all writing the letter, it’s clear that she is under pressure from the first sentence:
“Dear Paul Zell is exactly how far I’ve gotten at least a dozen times, and then I get a little farther, and then I give up” (p. 223).The letter writer is already under pressure. Her first choice is between writing the letter and not writing the letter. She chooses not to give up, even though she’s wanted to--at least a dozen times. That’s her first choice--to keep writing. How does this choice under pressure reveal her character? She’s determined.
But the irony is that writing the letter adds more pressure. Billie’s second choice is to lie or not to lie as she writes the letter. She informs the reader that she’s going to pretend. She’ll pretend she’s not writing him a letter. She’ll pretend she doesn’t know him. She chooses pretense. But then she informs Paul that she’s “more or less” a liar: “Everything I ever told you about myself is more or less a lie,” which makes her a reliable narrator, in one way. Under pressure she’s decided to opt for honesty.
“The function of STRUCTURE is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self” (pp. 106-107).The pressures on Billie mount up, each one providing a decision point for Billie: Will she take the ring from the jeweler’s box in Paul Zell’s suitcase? What will she do when he is an hour and a half late to meet her for dinner? How will she react when she opens the minibar in the hotel room and finds miniature bottles of alcohol? When faced with brutal violence, how will she respond? And can she reach out to the girl who was mean to her when that girl is mistreated? How will she make amends for the mistakes she has made, and at the same time try to compensate for the cruelty of a bully? And how has she grown and changed over the course of the story? Each new situation ramps up the pressure, revealing Billie’s inner core, her “true nature,” by the choices she makes.
StorySleuths Tip #39 --Put your character under pressure--as Robert MeKee says, “the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” Then keep raising the stakes, “gradually revealing [your characters'] true natures, even down to the unconscious self.”