Sunday, January 26, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Isolated, not Alone

We had an ice storm this week, icicles falling all around the house and non-essential personnel, like Damon, going in late, two hours and a half hours for the express bus from the Randolph AFB area to make it downtown, highways closed, that sort of thing. A Minnesotan or New Englander would've laughed at us, but you try getting around in that weather when you don't own a set of snow tires or chains, your heaviest jacket has a broken zipper you haven't bothered to replace, you've lost one of your gloves, don't own a furnace, and nobody within a mile radius of you has ever driven in icy conditions. I shut up half the house, had all the heaters turned up as high as they'd go, left the oven open and on warm all day (and the kitchen was still freezing; it's the coldest room in the house), wore my only set of long-handled underwear and my hiking socks, drank a lot of hot tea, and got buried in cats.

But now we're fine. I love Texas.

It's a classic literary dodge to isolate the cast in order to ramp up tension, focus attention, precipitate crisis, and put the characters on their mettle - in short, to enable story to happen, rather than letting all that narrative energy diffuse into the distractions of normal life intersecting outside the crucible of one specific social group. Because all social groups will generate drama if sufficiently isolated. In any given group, there's going to be dominance disputes, people who get more of their needs satisfied and people who get less, resentments passed over for the sake of keeping the peace, misunderstandings, tenuous accommodations, authority and rebellion, standards and variations from them, different rules for different classes of people and the dishonesty that maintains that as the norm, and mutually exclusive assumptions about any number of things. Any kind of conflict can come to the crisis point when the normal safety valves are shut off and no one can escape, even temporarily.

Weather is one popular way to isolate people, but in the society where I live it gets harder all the time. You'd have to take away both internet access (power outage; but how long do these ever last these days?) and cell service (well, if you can't recharge them...and cell towers do go out in storms, I think); but also access to neighbors (flooding rendering the house on the high ground incapable of evacuation?) and public services. Thanks to our much-maligned taxes, most rural areas have dedicated professionals working round the clock - the county's Essential Personnel, who don't get to come in late and often put in extra shifts - to keep them connected to their larger society, and the problems of urban people during major disasters are not taking place in direct social isolation, but instead involve an excess of contact with many more people than usual in a context of isolation from support services. Which is an entirely other kind of story.

It can be done, especially if the conflicts you wish to concentrate are powerful enough that bottling them up for a mere 24 hours (or less) will do the trick. The office whose boss insists they stay late despite weather warnings, trapped in the cold dark office building (possibly with the janitorial staff) till dawn; the extended family gathered for Christmas at the grandparents' hobby farm with the driveway too steep to leave safely; the gaming group riding out the zombie apocalypse in the fortified basement - that sort of thing.

You can start this from either end, with the characters or the situation; though I believe most people will start with the people around them and conjure up the situation that could isolate them long enough to force inherent conflicts into the open enough for resolution. How you isolate a group depends on how you define the group; but the reverse is also true.

The precise nature of the conflict will depend on the genre you wish to use. Anything from farce to murder can be generated out of the standard run of human small-group politics. The revelation of the disguised, unadmitted conflicts necessarily forms the bulk of the plot, with a shocking cathartic action occurring at some point during it; but the cathartic action might precede or follow the revelation depending on the genre. Murder mysteries, in particular, require someone to act to resolve conflicts at the beginning of the action, and the process of solving the mystery is the process of discovering whose conflict was strong enough, or character weak enough, to bring about this attempt at resolution.

Though part of the interest of such a story is that of survival in unusual, difficult situations, do not commit the fatal B-movie error of assuming that this is the main plot; that the mere fact of a horde of Dark Elves trapping a family of privileged white folks on their hobby farm will be interesting enough to carry the story. You don't want (well, okay, you probably don't want!) the audience to be rooting for the Dark Elves, and you certainly don't want them realizing that they don't care one way or the other whether anyone gets out alive. You want the audience to feel very much as they do about their own family, co-workers, friends, or Garden Club; exasperated and protective, loving and hair-tearingly frustrated, hateful and guilty, impatient and resigned, resentful and generous, entitled and put-upon, and the whole nine yards.

Everything else is window-dressing.

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