Recently I plotted Carrion using a variation of “The Board” described by Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat.
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 a 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’s inevitably motivated by something else, something entirely political. Prohibition isn’t about public health, it’s about public control. Boiled down to its essence, 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. This leads him to become an insurgent in ensuing civil war. For his arc to be fulfilled his opponents need to articulate the conflicting points of view present in the war on drugs.
Adam’s opponent is prohibition, but prohibition is too nebulous a concept on its own. We need to see it as something concrete, both as an institution and as a character. Actually it needs to be seen through a number of characters on all sides of the issue.
Prohibition organises society against those who take drugs. It’s the laws prohibiting use. The “Code 10” laws that stop convicted users from getting the medical attention. Sanctions imposed on those who help users. Social pressure best described by the maxim, if you’re not with us you’re against us.
The institution of prohibition are only the backdrop to Carrion, what Truby describes as the story world. Its 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, articulating 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 saving Christine. 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.
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 his fear, there’s 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.
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, and prohibition is the tool that keeps us safe.
The irony is, prohibition is more of a threat to our public safety than drug use.
What if prohibition doesn’t protect public health, what if it’s a form of oppression? The choice to take drugs amounts to demand for freedom over 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 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, 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. By pushing each of their values to the extremities of the four cornered opposition they all become as different as possible from the others.