Today’s Carrion contemplation has me pondering the question; how does Adam change? In a previous post I noted that Adam shares the totalitarian mindset of prohibition; he acts in self-righteous manner towards Christine. In another I laid out a new inciting event that forces him into direct conflict with Reiner; he refuses to kill Christine at his initiation ceremony. But this event doesn’t suddenly change him, he’s still the prohibitionist policeman, it simply forces him to take the first step towards something else. The stepping stones of his eventual transformation are the subsequent conflicts of the story. Adam and Reiner go at it as each tries to win the goal, they fight over the kind of world will they live in; will it be a world of security or one of freedom? But their punch counter-punch confrontation is essentially a repetition of the same position played out with increasing intensity. Nothing wrong with that? But it doesn’t explain how Adam learns the right way to live in the world. It doesn’t explain how a foreclosed identity such as his, formed around the prohibitionist cause, is transformed into an identity personal to him, an identity willing to choose freedom. (1) That insight comes, I think, from the conflicts he has with other characters. Each character/conflict forces him to deal with things in a different way. Think of it like this. If Reiner is the motor of Adam’s change, the other characters steer him. Each character deals with the problem of the story in a different way. For example Michiko, the disgraced doctor, is compassionate towards Christine. Sexton, the radical drug dealer, refuses to submit to prohibition. Each encounter forces Adam to learn something new, understand himself and the world differently. So at the end, when he battles prohibition, he knows how he wants to live in the world and what he must do. He knows how to show Christine true compassion, even if that compassion means helping her to kill herself. He knows how to deal with Reiner, even if that means throwing him to the insects. And he knows how to deal with prohibition, even if that means picking up a gun a fighting it. One final thought. Something I think I learned while writing this. We don’t change. Other people change us.
In an earlier post “Adam’s opponents” I mentioned John Truby‘s notion of four cornered opposition. It’s a strategy that increases the depth of a story by increasing the number of opponents the protagonist has to deal with. It makes all the characters more rounded especially the hero because he’s forced to deal with the central problem of the story from at least three other points of view. For Carrion I’ve designed a four cornered opposition which places Adam in conflict with Reiner. They’re the mirror of each other. Similar in many ways. But because Adam decides to save Christine they become mortal enemies. Reiner is the prototypical prohibitionist fighting with Adam over the kind of society they live in. Which version of society will prosper? Will it be a society of freedom ultimately chosen by Adam or will it be a society of security demanded by Reiner? Adam’s second opponent is Christine. Although she’s his sister and it’s his attempts to save her that put him conflict with Reiner, they’re still in conflict with each other. While she articulates the point of view of the drug user in the story. Deep down their opposition is about how he treats his younger sibling. Is he able to respect her point of view, treat her as an equal, behave more compassionately, less patriarchally towards her? The final character in this four cornered opposition is Sexton. He’s not only in opposition with Adam and Christine but also Reiner. He is the binary opposite to Reiner. The antagonist’s antagonist. Articulating the dealer’s point of view in the story; I think? When I fist envisioned Sexton he was the stereotypical drug dealer. I had in my head the many incarnation of drug dealers in cinema. The hapless career criminal of Henry Hill in Goodfellas. He get’s high on his own supply and drops himself straight into witness protection. I thought of the accent wielding, coke snorting, gun touting nihilist Tony Montana in Scarface. Before considering the calculating, ruthless, out for profit businesspersons of Carlos and Helena Ayala portrayed in Traffic. The thing is, none of these interpretation of a drug dealers represent my understanding of who Sexton is in Carrion. It wasn’t until I realised Sexton has to be more optimistic that I started to get a handle on who he really is. A large part of that realisation came while reading Jack London‘s “The Iron Heel“. A dystopian fiction about the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. Completed in 1908 London’s novel is based on the fictional “Everhard Manuscript” written by Avis Everhard; hidden and subsequently found centuries later. Added to this manuscript are a series of footnotes written by fictional scholar Anthony Meredith around 2600 AD. It’s a Marxist interpretation of capital told as a love story between Avis and Ernest Everhard. Avis is the middle class daughter of an academic who’s eyes are opened to the plight of the proletariat at the hands of the plutocracy. Ernest Everhard is a hero of the working man who is martyred by the oligarchy as he attempts to progress the revolution and progress society to a socialist future. He’s a smart character with a clear view of the world and what he is fighting for. Reading The Iron Heel made me realise that Sexton needs to have something of the Ernest Everhard’s about him. Adam’s not going to respond to the hapless actions of a character like Henry Hill. He’s not going to listen to the nihilistic rants of a Tony Montana. The ruthless logic of a businessman like Carlos Ayala won’t persuade him to see the world differently. Adam’s only going to respond to someone who is able to see what is happening and articulate enough to communicate it. He has to be intelligent, articulate and willing to take direct action. I’m a little worried that he might come across as unbelievable, somewhat fanciful, an idealist. I know it’s a risk. But take solace in having encountered one or two character who are evangelical about drugs. Who take pride in prosthelytizing the grace offered by psychotropic substances. Carrion needs Sexton. It needs him to show Adam how to live in the world.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about character change. Specifically Adam’s range of change. I wonder if there is enough room for Adam to move from one moral perspective to another without there being, dread of dreads, a kind of light bulb moment at the end. His actions at the end of the story must be the inevitable consequence of trials he has endured. But if John Truby is right and “true character change involves a challenging and changing of basic beliefs, leading to new moral action by the hero” I’m aware that I’ve plotted a story that demands a complete reversal of moral perspective in less that two days. Obviously this has the potential to be an implausible transformation. There is a pro-log that sets up Adam’s relationship with Christine. It happens six months before the major events of the story. My hope is that there is enough distance between the action of the pro-log and his action at the end to make Adam’s transformation plausible. Adam begins the story as a self-righteous prohibitionist. That’s the point at which I start him. Primarily because it’s the polar opposite of his moral perspective at the end. Adam’s self-righteousness drives him to arrest Christine and John. He takes a specific moral action based on his belief as a prohibitionist. His tough-love stance is born from a belief that he knows what is best for Christine. Chronologically this gives Adam six months to contemplate the consequence of his actions before the events of Carrion really get under way. My hope is that it introduces enough time for a level of self-doubt to creep into Adam’s character. He needs time to really feel the increasing threat of prohibition. So that when Reiner attacks the junkie at the end of act one the action he takes to save Christine don’t seem like too much of a leap. Hopefully the time between the pro-log and the inciting event is enough to make Adam’s arc believable. Ultimately Adam’s need to save Christine must fell not like the first step in his resistance of prohibition but something farther along the line. Something that is more like the forth or fifth step in a ten step journey. Starting this way will make the end point of Adam’s transformation that much closer. So that when he pick up a gun and attacks the forces of prohibition in the closing minutes of the story it doesn’t feel forced. It feels like the inevitable consequence of trials he has endured.
Recently I plotted Carrion using a variation of “The Board” described by Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat. More of that in another post. Working the board has thrown up several issues relating to Adam’s opponents. One of the key problems I realise needs pinning down is Adam’s conflict with prohibition; how does a prohibitionist find himself on the wrong side of prohibition? To understand this more fully I find myself going back to reaffirm what I think Carrion is about. I take the view, expressed by John Truby in his book Anatomy of Story, that a story is a moral argument. “Whenever you present a character using means to reach an end, you are presenting a moral predicament, exploring the question of right action, and making an moral argument about how best to live.” To make this argument the hero needs a collection of opponents (and allies) who force him to deal with the central moral problem. To find the best opponents for Adam I first need to recognise the question at the heart of Carrion; why are drugs prohibited? The usual reason given for drug prohibition is public health. Drugs are dangerous. They cause harm. So should be banned. For me this throws up at least one glaring hypocrisy; why aren’t drugs like cigarettes and alcohol subject to the same prohibitions as MDMA? Both cigarettes and alcohol have significant health risks associated with their use. Yet they are both freely available. For me the distinction between drugs that are banned and those that are not is arbitrary. And because it arbitrary it is inevitably motivated by something else. Something entirely political. Prohibition isn’t about public health. It’s about public control. Boiled down to it’s essence I am compelled to make the argument that prohibition is a form of oppression. An oppression that is inherently cruel and demands the destruction of anyone who opposes it. Faced with this insight it seems to me Adam’s only moral action in the story is to resist prohibition. Ultimately this leads him to become an insurgent in ensuing civil war. But for his arc to be fulfilled his opponents need to articulate the conflicting points of view present in the war on drugs. So Adam’s opponent is prohibition. But prohibition is too nebulous a concept on it’s own. We need to see it as something concrete. We need to see it both as an institution and as a character. Actually it needs to seen through a number of characters on all sides of the issue. As an institution prohibition organises society against those who take drugs. It is the laws prohibiting drug use. In Carrion it is the “Code 10” laws that stop convicted users from getting the medical attention. It is the sanctions imposed on those who help users. It’s a social pressure best described by the maxim; if you’re not with us you’re against us. But the institution of prohibition is only the backdrop to Carrion. It’s what Truby describes as the story world. It’s unrelenting cruelty is personified by the drug eating insects that attack users. They are the ever-present sanction prohibition imposes on the citizenry. They can’t be argued with. Which ironically articulates prohibitions intransigence. You take drugs you die. As an opponent the insects attack Adam indirectly through Christine. While they force him to take specific actions that contributes to the moral argument of Carrion. Adam’s real opponent, the opponent who challenges him directly, is Reiner. He’s the “character who wants to keep the hero from achieving his desire.” He’s the one who tries to stop Adam from saving Christine. But as Truby points out “a true opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire but is competing with the hero for the same goal.” This point throws up a question. What are Adam and Reiner really competing over? Adam’s desire is to save Christine. Reiner wants to see Christine dead. But he knows the insects will do that for him. He could just wait. Let them do their job. So if Adam and Reiner aren’t competing for Christine’s life. What are they fighting over? Adam’s desire represents a threat to Reiner. It confirms a fear that there is someone out there willing to challenge prohibition. At the core of the conflict is a fight over the the kind of world they live in. They’re fighting to have either a free society or a secure society. Let me explain. One of the primary arguments for prohibition is that drugs represent a threat. Not just to public health but to our security. Users are dangerous. Dealers are criminals. Drugs tear at the very fabric of society. Prohibition is the tool that keeps us safe. The irony is that prohibition is more of a threat to our public safety than drug use. But that is the subject of another post. Getting back to the point. What if prohibition doesn’t protect public health? What if it’s a form of oppression? Then the choice to take drugs amounts to demand for freedom over a notion of security. Deep down they’re fighting for a world of freedom or oppression. Another of Adam’s opponents is his sister Christine. If Reiner articulates the voice of prohibition Christine gives us the users point of view. Her strength in the story is her ability to attack Adam’s prejudices. Without her Adam would not begin to see the dangers of prohibition. He would not begin to see the oppression. His desire to save his sister is his call to arms. Whatever he may think of drugs and those who take them. Christine makes him see prohibition as something that need to be challenged. The final opponent to challenge Adam is Sexton. He is prohibition as seen by the dealer. In an earlier post “Adam’s immoral action” I contemplated another of Truby’s tenants. “In the early part of the story the hero is losing to the opponent. He becomes desperate. As a result he starts taking immoral actions to win.” In trying to answer this problem I asked myself the question. What kind of immoral actions does Adam take? The answer can best be summed up as “not fighting back”. Only through his conflicts with Sexton does Adam start to behave in a moral way. Structurally Sexton enters the story half way through. Adam has gone as far as he can with his initial course of action. And has failed to save Christine. Then he meets Sexton. An unrepentant drug dealer who is willing to challenge prohibition by taking the fight to them. Sexton’s actions challenge Adam’s immoral action. Forces him to realise the only moral action to take against prohibition is to fight it. Structurally this collection of characters is what Truby calls a four cornered opposition. The system not only allows the moral argument to be fully explored. Each character articulating a different set of values. Attacking Adam’s great weakness in a different way. But because they are not only in conflict with Adam but all the other characters in the story the amount of conflict jumps exponentially. And finally by pushing each of their values to the extremities of the four cornered opposition they all become as different as possible from the other three.
I have a problem. While working on the plot for Carrion I have started to get this nagging doubt that Adam’s actions aren’t going to work. They’re not proactive enough. The moral vision for the end of Carrion has Adam taking action against prohibition. He starts the screenplay a self-righteous policeman and ends a humbled rebel. For this transformation to work Adam can’t just take up arms against prohibition. He has to go through a series of actions that teach him the right way to act in the world. He has to take actions that teach him not only to resist prohibition but to fight it. Structurally the problem can best be explained by paraphrasing John Truby. “In the early part of the story the hero is losing to the opponent. He becomes desperate. As a result he starts taking immoral actions to win. Other characters criticize the hero for the means he is taking. The hero defends his actions.” I think what Truby means is that only by taking immoral actions that fail can the hero learn the moral way to act. In trying to answer this problem I asked myself the question. What kind of immoral actions does Adam take? The answer can best be summed up as “not fighting back”. The actions he takes are immoral because it appeases prohibition. The problem I have with this course of action is that it makes Adam seem passive. Writing about it here. What I’m struggling to reconcile is who Adam is at the beginning of the screenplay and who he is at the end. The key to it seems to lay in his conflict with Reiner; a rampant prohibitionist who has killed his drug using daughter. How does Adam deal with that moral dilemma? He believes in the law so should arrest Reiner. But with the rabid hatred of drug users apparent in the story world of Carrion we’d be at the end of the screenplay before he’d begun. Alternatively the answer might lay in Adam’s desire to save Christine. Why does he want to save Christine? Who is he saving her from? He want to save Christine because she is his sister. Initially he is saving her from herself; that’s why he arrests her. But then he is saving her from prohibition. Alternatively a direct threat on Christine by Reiner would push Adam to take action; despite his overwhelming hostility to drug users. In this way he is not taking passive action to appease prohibition. But positive action to save Christine. The immoral action in the story world of Carrion is his attempts to save a drug user. Sorry if this all seems to ramble a bit. It really is me trying to work something out.
I have been struggling all morning with Adam’s desire. Desire is what Adam wants in the story. His specific goal. As Mamet might say; what does he want? The hypothesis I have been working with to date has been; Adam wants to save his sister. But this raises the question; how do we know when he has saved her? Does he get a prize? To simply “save” Christine is not concrete enough of a desire to carry the audience through the various twists and turns of the story to the end. I have thought of linking it to a location. If he gets her to a specific location has he saved her? Perhaps. But it still seems a little nebulous. His desire simply isn’t primal enough. It’s not a matter of life and death. This prompts the question; what is he saving her from? He is saving her from prohibition. Actually he is saving her from the physical manifestation of prohibition; drug eating insects. The logical conclusion to this line of thinking is that we will know Adam has saved Christine if she is alive or dead at the end of the story. So Adam’s desire is to save Christine from becoming carrion.
I realises today that it’s be almost two months since I posted anything. This lapse in activity is mainly because I’ve spent a lot of time helping my partner set up her new shop. Thankfully things are going well on that front so I’ve gradually been able to spend more time working on the redraft of Carrion. Specifically Adam’s weakness and need and desire. I was prompted to look at Adam’s story in this way by John Truby’s book “The Anatomy Of Story”. The thing I find most interesting about Truby’s approach is the end result. A story that delivers meaning through the actions of the hero. Central to this approach is figuring out your characters weakness. But the hero’s weakness should not just be a psychological weakness, something that is hurting just the hero. It should also be moral weakness, something that is hurting other people. Working the the character I found Adam’s weakness by identifying a virtue in him and pushing it until it becomes oppressive. Adam was an only child until he was fifteen. He developed strong connection with his parents. A sense of responsibility that led him to join the army when he was seventeen. He didn’t want to put the financial pressure on his parents of a university education. It was the same sense of service that forced him to leave the army and take care for Christine when their parents were killed. Adam’s virtue is his sense of duty. He does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. The flip side of Adam’s virtue is a propensity for self-righteousness. That feeling of moral superiority derived from a sense that one’s beliefs are of greater virtue than those of the average person. For me it is the single most identifiable quality of prohibition. It’s what makes Adam think arresting Christine and John for possession is the right thing to do. He’s doing it for their own good. And just as prohibitionist think they know what is best for an individual. Adam thinks he knows what’s best for Christine. So after I fixed in my head Adam’s weakness I then had to tease out his need. The need is what Adam must fulfil within himself in order to have a better life. This led me to look a the quality that is farthest from self-righteousness, the quality of humility. If Adam is to have a better life by the end of the story he needs to discover humility. He needs to be humble. This defines the plot of a character who’s weakness and need I define like this.
Adam’s weakness: He is self-righteous (psychological), tries to control Christine (moral), enforces prohibition.
Adam’s need: He needs to learn how to be humble (psychological), stop controlling Christine (moral), fight prohibition.
The other key element of this equation is Adam’s desire. Desire is what the hero wants in the story. Although it is intimately connected to the hero’s need it is not the same thing. I have been working under the presupposition that Adam’s desire is to save Christine. The question then becomes. How do I know he has saved her? Until that solidifies within the story I am forced to wander the plot looking for an answer.
I’ve been reading William Indick’s Psychology for Screenwriters on my Kindle. It’s an interesting book that offers an insight into the way psychology can be used to build the conflict within a screenplay. Early in the book is a chapter about developmental psychologist Erik Erikson. Erikson was a neo-Freudian. Best know for his theory on psychosocial development across the entire lifespan. Anyway. When thinking about a character’s identity crisis. Indick urges writers to “keep in mind the element of “moratorium”; the stage of actively searching that precedes identity achievement.” The thing that interested me most about this notion. Especially in relation to Carrion. Is the element of “foreclosure” in Erikson’s model. Foreclosure is “the danger of ending the search too early and settling on an identity supplied by others rather than a personally meaningful identity achieved through self-discovery.” I think Adam has a foreclosed identity. Until his sister Christine was born in his late teens he was an only child. This meant he was the sole beneficiary of his parents emotional. Physical. And financials resources. The affiliation he felt for his parents meant that he ended his search for identity too early. Accepts their authority. And foreclosed on their’s. So when he joins the army a couple of years after Christine’s arrival. He was swapping one family dynamic for another. Indick sights Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” as an example of a story specifically about moratorium. Malcolm X is a story about one man’s “life-long search for a meaningful sense of personal identity.” Just as Adam submits himself to a career of service. First to the military. Then to the police. “Malcolm submits himself completely to the Nation of Islam.” Both men accept a foreclosed identity. Identities “originating from without rather than from within.” It is only when Malcolm comes into conflict with the Nation of Islam. And Adam comes into conflict with the insects. Prohibition. And the government. Do they have to look into themselves to find an identity personal to them. In the same way as Malcolm “must dig within his own soul and find a religion and philosophy that is personal to him as an individual.” Adam is forced to look within himself to find an identity that is less intolerant. Allows for personal freedom. And accepts his sister. To expand the idea a little further. I also think if “society” were a personality. Society might have accepted a foreclosed identity when it comes to drug use. The war on drugs is an identity supplied from without. Rather than from within. Official institutions routinely repeat the mantra “drugs are dangerous”. Without considering they are no more or less dangerous than sanctioned drugs like alcohol. Does this mean society has settled on a foreclosed identity? I don’t know. Certainly it warrants some exploring.
Within the world of Carrion. Christine Leigh’s boyfriend is Stephen Joseph. Not any more. I have decided to change his name to John Quays. Why the change? Because John Quays sounds like junkies. As his fate reflects the fate of all the drug users in the story. It seems fitting to giving him a name that reflects that fact. I took the name from a track on The Fall’s “Live At The Witch Trials” album “No Xmas For John Quays”. John Quays is said to be either a reference to seventies politician Hugh Jabaals. His name in the song was changed at the last minute to avoid any libel. Or it could be a reference to a former member of The Fall who succumbed to the lure of heroin. Or my favourite. A “riff” on William S. Burroughs story “The Junkie’s Christmas”. A junkie gets the immaculate fix when gives away his junk on Christmas eve. It’s hard to know. Mark E. Smith’s lyrics are significantly obscure to make any definitive interpretation impossible. Anyway. I chose it because John Quays sounds like junkies.
I read an interesting articular by Cory Mandell. In “The Real Reason Why Most Scripts Fail” he argues that the majority of screenplays fail because “most writers haven’t yet trained themselves to write in professional-level compelling conflict.” Initially I thought I knew what he meant when he said compelling conflict. But when I started to think about it. And turned the words compelling and conflict over in my mind. I started to doubt myself. To compel is to force or drive. Especially to a course of action. Conflict is a struggle or clash between opposing forces. In “The Anatomy of Story” John Truby describes this as the central conflict. And poses it as a question. “Who fights whom over what?” This conflict forces the character to undergo some kind of change. He describes this change in the form of an equation. W x A = C. “W” is a characters psychological and moral weakness. “A” is the action the character takes. And “C” is the change the character undergoes. The simple logic of the story is described as another question. “How does the act of struggling to do the basic action (A) lead the character to change from W to C?” While Truby’s equation describes a conflict that forces the character to change. It doesn’t identify what makes a story compelling. Interestingly compel also means to force to submit. Or to overpower. The word compelling seems to imply a force. A character. An event. A circumstance. That asserts its will. Subjugating a character. This elicits a response from the character. And leads to conflict. I think compelling conflict is somewhere in this binary polarisation of these forces. One character asserting their will. The other resists. Perhaps I am being too literal in my understanding of the term conflict. But it seem to me. When you are looking for what’s compelling. You are looking for what is forced upon someone. That one thing that pushes that someone to the point at which they must take action. Truby describes it as the character’s weakness. I’d describe it as the character’s breaking point. The point at which they can take no more. And push back. At this point the stakes are at their highest. And you have a compelling conflict.