Playing With Status
by Judy Sternlight
Judy Sternlight will teach Active Storytelling–How to Build a Strong Narrative Arc for the Center, starting on March 8th. In this essay, Sternlight reflects on how acting exercises can strengthen your writing.
As an independent developmental editor who specializes in fiction, I help writers to fine-tune their novels. Sometimes a central character needs a stronger intention to drive the plot. Or one character is rock solid but others feel sketched in. Multiple storylines may obscure the central narrative arc; or the stakes should be raised, to build suspense. I love solving these puzzles with one writer at a time, on the page. But before I became a book editor, I worked with actors on similar storytelling challenges. And some of the improvisational exercises we did are perfect for writers who want to hone their narrative skills. Here's one example:
In preparing to teach at The Center for Fiction, I revisited one of my favorite books: Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. The chapter on “Status” explores a character’s relationship to other characters, and to the setting. Most protagonists slide between high and low status as a story unfolds, and this grabs our interest. Harry Potter holds the lowest rank when he’s living with the nasty Dursley family and sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs, but when he returns to Hogwarts and excels at magic and quidditch, his status soars…until Professor Snape cuts him down to size with scornful insults.
Whenever we communicate, we’re raising or lowering our own status, or trying to influence the status of others. We praise, tease, threaten, cower—pick any active verb—and it has an effect. We initiate actions and react instinctively, often with a larger purpose in mind.
Playing with status—pushing your characters to actively engage with a sense of immediacy—draws readers in and keeps them turning the pages. Muriel Spark is a genius at this. Take this snippet from Memento Mori, depicting an elderly brother and sister. Godfrey has insisted on driving Lettie to his home to protect her, after she’s received some disturbing anonymous phone calls:
“Nonsense,” said Lettie. “I have no enemies.”
“Think,” said Godfrey. “Think hard.”
“The red lights,” said Lettie. “And don’t talk to me as if I were Charmian.”
“Lettie, if you please, I do not need to be told how to drive. I observed the lights.” He had braked hard, and Dame Lettie was jerked forward.
She gave a meaningful sigh which, when the green lights came on, made him drive all the faster.
“You know, Godfrey,” she said, “you are wonderful for your age.”
“So everyone says.” His driving pace became moderate; her sigh of relief was inaudible, her patting herself on the back invisible.
Lettie’s first line boosts her status as she dismisses her brother’s implied question. When Godfrey urges her to “think hard,” he lowers her status by implying that she’s dim-witted, like his wife, Charmian. Lettie lowers her brother’s status by criticizing his driving, and he retaliates by jerking the car, lowering her status physically.
When Lettie praises Godfrey for being “wonderful for his age,” his status rises. He rewards Lettie by driving slower. Lettie knows what she’s doing, flattering her brother to achieve the result she wants. And Muriel Spark knows what she’s doing, too. In this short passage, she gives us a rich impression of these two siblings and their dynamic relationship.
Analyzing a scene like this, on paper, looks dry. But getting on your feet to create compelling stories (with side coaching) is a thrilling and empowering way to explore points-of-view, character intentions, subtext, sensory awareness, and moving a scene along. It takes guts to get up in front of other writers to create spontaneous scenes. But in my experience, most writers are brave souls, willing to dive into unknown territory to pull out the gold.
Judy Sternlight is the founder of Judy Sternlight Literary Services and a co-founder of 5E, the independent editors’ collective. Prior to her adventures in publishing, she enjoyed a long career in theater and communications, which included performing improvisational theater in NYC with Some Assembly Required, touring to comedy clubs, theaters, colleges and resorts, and teaching numerous improv-based workshops. Judy was an editor at Random House, Ballantine, and The Modern Library. She has edited a number of acclaimed writers including Elliot Ackerman, Marie-Helene Bertino, Rita Mae Brown, Gwen Florio, Bret Anthony Johnston, Peter Matthiessen, and Daniel Menaker. She edited The Brown Reader: 50 Writers Remember College Hill (Simon and Schuster, 2014), featuring Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Meg Wolitzer, and many more.