What’s your status?

December 24, 2009

Before they write a scene, a lot of authors carefully consider components like setting, goal, obstacle, conflict, and resolution, but how many think about status?

Today Mayor Tom Barrett visited my workplace for a short Q&A session for his upcoming 2010 gubernatorial race. He seemed like a nice guy but I found myself wondering how I would act if the two of us were alone in a room having a direct, one-on-one conversation together.

In terms of social status, he’s the Mayor of the City of Milwaukee, and potential future Governor of the State – practically a couple of steps away from the Presidency; and me – well, I’m a couple of runs of bad luck from bedding down beneath a cardboard box in a back-alley.

But on the flip side of the coin I’m not a U.S. Citizen, and I don’t have voting rights, so his political power has little consequence for me. I’ve had the experience of living in two countries (and on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line) while to the best of my knowledge he’s only lived in one state his entire life – and, for the most part, only one city.

If this were a game of Top Trumps, his career experience would quash mine, while my world experience might quash his. So, in a one-on-one conversation with this influential man, would I be calm or flustered? Assertive or nervous? Would I maintain eye contact or shuffle around looking at my feet? Would I have something to say or would I be lost for words?

Who would control the scene?

It was my wife that got me thinking about the element of status in fiction. Status is a commonly used tool in improvisational comedy. During scene sketches, the comedians tend to play to a particular status on stage – a “pecking order” if you will, where each characters’ sense of self-worth determines how they will act and how they will influence the events of the scene. A skit might have a number of status “transfers” or “inversions”, where dominance is passed back and forth between characters, making it more dynamic and interesting for the audience.

Aside from the fact that us fiction writers have the luxury of taking our time and revising our decisions, we’re really not that much different from improv comics. Sure, they can devise a coherent scene in real-time while it takes us days of hair-pulling, cussing and excessive caffeine consumption to get one right, but the techniques are similar. Status can be just as versatile a tool for the writer as it can for the improviser.

Think of strong scenes from your favorite books or movies and you’ll probably discover they contain a heavy element of status competition or some kind of riveting status reversal. Right now I’m thinking of one of my favorite movie moments – the scene in “A Few Good Men” where the powerful Colonel Jessop arrogantly tries to leave the court stand only to be told by Kaffee, an inexperienced lawyer, to sit down because he hasn’t finished with him yet – a brilliant and subtle reversal of power and the start of a scene so suspenseful that went down in motion picture history.

So how can we utilize status in a written scene?

Going back to my hypothetical one-on-one meeting with the Mayor, you can see that status in a scene isn’t necessarily defined by social position. While the social rank might be crystal clear (e.g. judge and plaintiff, manager and employee, warden and prisoner, king and subject, teacher and student etc.) the person of highest status isn’t necessarily the one with the highest social rank but instead the one who dominates the events regardless of social rank. For example, an employee might hold sway over his boss because he knows something the boss wants to keep secret; a kings’ consult might be the real influence on the realm while the king is just a puppet ruler; a strong-willed waitress might be condescending to a customer… it’s all about the underlying, sometimes unconscious, power struggle in everyday situations.

In writing, the status of a character can come through in a number of words and actions. The Improv Wiki has a wonderful list of behavioral traits that show if a character is high status or low status. Here are a few examples…

High Status Behaviours

    Calm and collected body language
    Maintaining eye contact
    Speaking directly and with certainty
    Not caring about other characters’ reactions
    Making leadership decisions
    Ignoring other characters

Low Status Behaviors

    Nervous and awkward body language
    Not maintaining eye contact
    Speaking in halting, indirect sentences
    Asking permission or explaining ones actions
    Looking for approval
    Avoiding leadership decisions

I’d suggest if you want to use the tool of status in a scene, ask yourself three questions:

1) What is the status of each character as the scene begins?
2) What do I need the status of each character to be when the scene ends?
3) Is there a moment where an interesting reversal of power can take place?

These three questions can lead you down interesting pathways.

One final word on the balance of power. I have a theory (entirely unproven) that the very best power struggles are those that are subtle and close contests. There’s not much tension or suspense in a scene where one character clearly has unbeatable power over another, but if two characters are almost equally weighted, and the reader knows that the balance of power could shift at any moment, well there’s a page-turner for you!