INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
RECAP: So for the last couple of weeks, we've been talking about negotiations. This is where two characters are engaged in conflict. And they're basically in a power struggle. And that a lot of scenes in your story are ultimately comprised of this very thing. In fact, that's what a scene ought to be made of. Even when people have the same goals in mind, they might have a different idea of how to attain those goals, and therefore, there is a negotiation. And so the goal then becomes, in each scene, to identify the obstacles and to find a way to overcome them. And sometimes the characters will prevail in that and sometimes they won't because sometimes their objectives are mutually exclusive. Both characters cannot win because they're after two totally different things.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: So, in the last episode, I started talking about what happens if there's multiple characters in a scene. And I briefly touched on this and said that if there are multiple characters in the scene, generally speaking, the scene has to be divided into the individual moments with those particular people with which the main character is engaging, to address the obstacles that have to do with their relationship, and then turn and address the obstacles that have to do with this relationship, and then turn and address the obstacles in this relationship. And that is often true if it's a truly multi-character situation.
However, there's another type of thing that we haven't discussed that I want to bring up here that can often be helpful in your own stories. Because there are a lot of scenes that involve other characters. Scenes involving more than two characters, generally place the other characters in a position where they are sort of being recruited by the other two characters to form an alliance of some sort. In other words, they're placed inbetween the characters, and both characters use those other people to try to bolster their position. They're trying to get them to agree with their position. They're trying to get them on their side. They're trying to bribe them. They're trying to do all these things. They're using the additional characters in the scene as a negotiation to prove their point or to get their victory, or whatever the case may be.
And by the way, this is true in real life, too. In fact, this is one of the things that drives me bonkers. It was all too common in my family of origin when two people were in a conflict for then those two people to start calling everybody else in the family to try to get them on their side, to bolster their position, to show agreement to win over the other person. And it's a very dysfunctional practice in a lot of ways because you're using those people as props to win in an argument. But this is something we see happen in real life, right?
This is why, though it is terrible, when a husband and a wife get a divorce, and all of a sudden, those kids become objects over which they wage their battle. And so instead of looking at the welfare of the kids, and what's best for the actual kids, they are simply used by the parents to try to beat the other instead of doing what's best for the kids. People start behaving in ways that allow the kids to be an object that helps them to look good or to win or to beat or defeat—prevail against the other person. It's something we have to resist in real life.
In real life, we should not be participating in this. It's called triangulation. It's a terrible practice. Psychologically, it does a lot of damage. It causes a lot of breaching of relationship because there is betrayal beneath it. And it's an attempt to polarize people's positions and divide. It's really not a healthy practice, however, that said, this is what happens. This is a default position. We tend to want to get other people on our side.
Now, we might try to pretend that we're only consulting those other people to see if our position is legitimate. But really, we're trying to get them to back us up and to tell us, "Yeah, you're right, that other person's wrong." It's a dysfunctional practice that anybody who grew up in a dysfunctional home has engaged in. We have. So we have to resist the temptation to follow that practice.
However, in story world, this is just what happens. Anytime you have multiple characters like that. The two primary characters ultimately engage in a competition to try to win the other people to their side so that they can prevail against the other.
Let me give some examples. Let's say it's a family movie and you've got a mom and a dad and kids and all of a sudden what happens? "Mom he hit me." "Well, she bit me!" "No, I didn't!" Da-da-da-da-da. And now what are the kids doing? They're engaged in conflict. But why did they bring Mom into it? Well, they brought Mom into it for this very reason. They're trying to get Mom to agree or to cooperate or to come in and be the strong hand. Whoever brings Mom into it is bringing Mom into it in the hopes that Mom is going to help them prevail over the other person. They're going to get their way.
But this is true in stories where it's all about adults. What would happen in the TV series Friends? Right? In Friends, you would have a situation where if there was conflict between two characters, they were going to the other characters to try to get them on their side. This actually happens in real life.
Now, the reason this is important, besides the fact that it's just interesting on a number of psychological levels, is because this is something you can use in your story. If you understand what's really going on, this is a technique. This is something you craft. And as I attempted to argue previously, many times if you can introduce an object in story that the characters now have to fight over, then you can reveal the true issues beneath the surface of those characters.
So for example, I remember in my first marriage to my husband, one time, we were heading out the door, and I don't even remember what the fight REALLY was about. But it was about a can of Pepsi. We essentially were fighting over this can of Pepsi. And I kind of vaguely remember it was like, I wanted a Pepsi. I'd gone back in the house to get it because I really wanted a Pepsi. But we were already late to the meeting. And he thought it was very selfish of me to go get a Pepsi, but I was just running back in. And so I thought it was fine. And the next thing you know, we're fighting over this can of Pepsi. But we're not really fighting over the can of Pepsi. What we were really fighting about was his perspective that I was constantly making us late. I didn't respect other people's time. From my perspective, he was making a big deal out of nothing. He was being controlling. We were fighting about the can of Pepsi, but really what we were fighting about, in reality, was our deeper issues in the relationship and our problems with how the other person was operating in that relationship.
So the point is, when you bring in an object, it can often be the catalyst to allow those deeper issues to be revealed. But the same is true with other people, because ultimately, other people then become the object over which the characters are wrestling. And it allows for a deeper revelation of the true issues that they're struggling with, without commentary.
And this is an important thing because a lot of us will start to spell it out. We'll start to try to make it clear because we don't respect our audience and we're condescending to them. And we don't trust that they'll figure it out on their own. But we will. If we saw a scene about the argument over the can of Pepsi, we would understand that they were arguing over deeper issues and the Pepsi can is just the thing that brought it out.
So the bottom line on that regard is that negotiations over other characters are likely to take place whenever there is more than two characters in a scene. And if you don't utilize that, it actually affects credibility. Because we—on a subconscious level, we're expecting it because it's how it works in real life. And so if you're not aware of that, you might leave that out. And the audience might not even be able to put their finger on why the scene didn't ring true to them. But it might be this because you didn't take advantage of what we do in real life, which is try to win people over to bolster our position. And maybe it's because you're not adequately having people engage in the battle over power over the other person. And so both of these things, ultimately, are meant to serve you in the story so that you can make your story more believable, more realistic, more credible, more convincing to the audience.
Now, in addition to arguing or negotiating over people and objects, another big thing that people often negotiate over is space. Space. And what I mean is actually the physical space. Right? So if you've ever had kids, for example, "I call shotgun." And there's this rule, right? There's this rule in kid zone, that if you call shotgun, you get the front seat. I don't know how that rule came to be, but it is. "And maybe the other one says, "No I wanted to sit in the front." "Too bad. I called shotgun." But they're basically negotiating over space. Or "Mom, he is over on my side," right? Because we all know there is a line that goes down the middle of the car in the backseat. And if that other person even puts a digit over that line, then the kids are going to go ballistic because we're arguing over space. Our space, what is ours.
Now this ultimately can take place, too, when a person is violating either the emotional space, or the physical space of another character. For example, true story. One thing that always was disconcerting to me and uncomfortable to me, was that my mother, while she was not particularly demonstrative, in terms of showing physical affection—you know, she wouldn't like wrap her arms around you and stroke your face, and you know, hold you and hold your hand and put you on her lap or do any of those things. She didn't do a lot of that. But what she did was if you were standing there, she would come up into your space. And she would get super close. And she'd kind of look at you and evaluate you. But from this very, very close—I mean, my goodness. It was like, "Ah," like, "you're in my space." And I felt it. But I wasn't even sure what that was, of course, as a kid, but it was always disconcerting.
Well, in that sense, it's a violation of space. She's in my space. It is a power move because she's violating the space on purpose to show that she can. And she's the parent and I'm the child. And sometimes it was even funny, sometimes we would laugh. I'd be like, "Mom, you're a little close." Right? Like a violation of the space. But it shows the dynamic of relationship. And you can have characters do that, where they're violating either a physical space or an emotional space.
So an emotional space might be if you've got a scene with a boyfriend and a girlfriend and they're new in a relationship or something. And maybe she spilled something on her shirt. And she goes to the bathroom and tries to scrub it off or something, but then she comes out of the bathroom wearing his t-shirt. And he's like, "You're wearing my t-shirt?" "Yeah, looks pretty good. Don't ya think?" "But it—but it's my t-shirt." "Yeah, I know. It looks pretty good. What's the problem? Is there a problem?" "Well, I mean, you didn't ask." "I'm supposed to ask if I wear a t-shirt? I just got ketchup on my shirt." Or whatever the case may be. And "I know, but I mean, it's just, you know, I had it there for reason. I was gonna wear that tomorrow. I was using the shower to try to get it—you know, and now you're wearing it." And now they're negotiating over this object. But it's also an invasion of emotional space, right? It's really an argument over their relationship and how close they're getting and how comfortable they are.
Now, the kiss of death would be for the writer of a scene like that to start throwing in words like "territorial" or "trying to have dominion over a space" or "fear of commitment" even. You don't want to call attention to those things. The minute you call attention to that it actually diminishes your brilliance because you've constructed a scene where there can be a negotiation that reveals the internal issues of the characters. So you don't want to call attention to it. You want to let the audience figure it out. Your job as a writer is to create a dramatic situation. Put it on display. Whether it be in a novel on stage, or on the screen, you create the dramatic situation. You put it on display and you let the audience interpret what it means. Don't comment on your own work. You will undermine your own brilliance.
Now going along with this principle of space, there's another concept that's worth mentioning, which is really when you're interested in manners of space, it's usually about a fear of invasion. It really is a territorial thing because your space is being invaded. So this is a thing that you can use. This is a tool if you understand that a lot of these fights, a lot of these negotiations are really a matter of territory being invaded and one character feeling like the other person has invaded them. Now, you can all of a sudden create a more dynamic scene that if you didn't acknowledge that it wouldn't be as realistic.
So let me give you an example. So let's say that I decided to take in a roommate and I I have my house set up, right? I have my house set up. I have this. I have that. Everything has its place. I'm very much an "everything has its place" type of person. And also I kind of don't change things. Once it's set up, I don't necessarily go around changing it. I like it to stay consistent. Why fix it if it ain't broke? But let's say I have somebody come in and they have different tastes or they have a different perspective of how something should go. And so they change that thing. And I'm like, "okay...that...erruhhh..." You know. Now it's causing me a little—but it's not a big deal. So I'm not going to bring it up. And then the next thing you know, they changed the way that they're loading things in the dishwasher. Well, I mean, come on. There's a particular way, right? Anybody who has a dishwasher knows there's the right way and the wrong way to load your dishwasher. And so if this person comes in and starts loading it differently, then you know, it feels like someone's invaded. Or maybe they change the dishes around, or maybe they start putting up paintings, or they've put up art in places that you didn't decide on—and it's your space. And yet, you've invited this person in. tThey are a roommate. They should have that right. But you feel invaded. Okay, that is a territorial issue. It is an invasion over space.
So what you would do is you would try to construct scenes that showed these sorts of aspects. And what it really shows is their own personality, right? It shows their own personality. And it reminds me of the scene from The Odd Couple where they've had all these problems, Oscar and Felix, about all these problems in their relationship. And at one point, whichever one of them comes out with this plate of pasta and he sits down at the poker table to start eating it. And the other character, I think, Oscar says, "Don't eat your spaghetti at the poker table." Right? Because he's the man's man. He wants to be able to play his poker without spaghetti stains on the table. And so Felix says, "It isn't spaghetti, it's linguini." At which point, Oscar marches over, picks up the plate, throws it on the ground and says, "Now it's garbage."
And then as the scene continues to escalate, Felix says, "Clean it up." And Oscar says, "No, I won't." And it's basically—it culminates from there. And they fight to the point that their relationship finally ends. Even though there's an object over which they're fighting, there is also the invasion of the poker table that sort of instigates it. Had Felix sat somewhere else, Oscar might not have taken issue over the pasta, even though it was causing the whole apartment to smell. It's that Felix chose to sit at his poker table. And that's his. And it's a violation of his space. And this is where the issues then can come up.
This brings up one more principle for today, which is that when you have these negotiations, it brings up the true stuff that we're liable to blurt out or that we're really, really struggling with. It allows it to come out in a more organic way. And then you're not basing it so much on dialogue and on language. And this is a mistake that a lot of writers make. They actually try to construct scenes through dialogue that allow this stuff to come out. And that's okay. But really, if you put in a negotiation over space, or over objects, or over people, it'll get to the issue much faster. And it will feel a lot more organic because it's so much closer to the way we work in real life.
CONCLUSION: So these are things that can help our scenes come alive, and help our entire stories come alive. And we can get to the true issues that audiences are really interested in. Anyway, I hope that this is as interesting to you as it is to me. I love this kind of thing. These are tools—basically tools that we're using to bring our stories to life and to allow the conflict to feel more organic, more natural to the story, more believable, to add credibility, and to mirror that which is real life. And that is when two people are engaged in power struggles, whether it be over other people, objects, or space.
CALL TO ACTION: If you're enjoying this podcast, please do consider sharing it with another writer that might benefit from the principles we discussed. And of course, if you are watching it on YouTube, subscribe, and rate the show. We need all that. That helps with the algorithm. And of course if you're listening to the podcast on Apple podcasts or any other venue, please do rate the show. Please do that favor for us. It will really help us.
Okay. In the meantime, Lulu is clearly in rare form today. And so I think it's time for us to sign off.
OUTRO: So I want to thank you so much for joining us on The Storyteller's Mission. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.