I used to be an improviser. I started with Theatresports, then branched out into other forms of performance impro. If you have a good coach, you can learn a lot about storymaking through theatrical improvisation. (If not, you’ll just learn to gag, block, and cheat the audience out of wonderful experiences they don’t know they could have had – but meanwhile back at the point…)
I did have a good coach, in Keith Johnstone of Loose Moose Theatre Company, Calgary, Canada. One of the key story drivers Keith emphasised was status. Improvised scenes for performance tend to be short, so you need a reliable means of engaging the audience and making sure the story goes somewhere. A good way to do this is to play with characters’ status, and we used to play status games to develop these skills.
In one game, A starts with high status and B with low (eg. school principal and student, queen and butler, police officer and criminal, etc.) The events of the scene must cause the high status character to lose status, and the low status character to gain status – that is, by the end, the status positions are reversed.
In another exercise, two characters each try to get higher status than the other. For example, A shows off an expensive watch, B claims to have three just like it, A shakes her head pityingly and asks if B is still having trouble with those old delusions, B says not since she invented the world’s most successful anti-psychotic and became a billionnaire, and offers to take A out to dinner to tell her all about it, and so on. Or, the two characters can work to get lower status than the other. Experienced improvisers play a version where they try to maintain equal status – Keith points out that this is what we usually do with our friends.
In writing fiction, it’s quite useful to bear in mind the status relationships between characters. Improvisation scenes often suffer because two characters have the same status (two students, two road-workers, two friends at a nightclub) and although the improvisors are struggling to create a story, they won’t let anything happen that changes the status relationship. Inexplicable torpor or “flatness” in a piece of fiction is sometimes traceable to the same problem.
Status can be conceptualised in terms of power, social standing, respect accorded the character by others. A character whose job or social position might be seen as low status (eg. a swagman) can be high status in a given situation (when he is the only person who knows how to treat a snakebite), or he might just “play” high status and be accorded respect as a result. And, of course, vice versa – the British comedic tradition, for example, is full of put-upon lords and ineffectual politicians who think their position entitles them to a level of respect they don’t actually deserve or get. Humorous effects can be obtained when a character thinks of himself as high status when everyone else sees him as low (common in the commedia dell’Arte), and touching moments can result when a character who sees herself as low status is suddenly elevated to high (a stock technique in romantic comedy, the Cinderella story arc being a classic example).
I’m just beginning a new novella, where the whole story will turn on a change in the status relationship between my two main characters. I think this is very common, but I don’t often hear it discussed in the terms I learnt from Keith Johnstone. So if this idea of status, status hierarchies, status battles, and changes in status relationships, is useful to you in your writing, by all means go ahead and use it. (I was fascinated to discover just now, looking up Keith’s entry on Wikipedia, that his teaching on status seems to be considered his most influential contribution to theatrical storytelling. Pop over and have a look here).
An exercise: read through a piece you’ve written, and analyse what happens to the relative status of the main characters in it, particularly the protagonist. Does the status of the protagonist change – in her own eyes, in the eyes of the people in her world, and/or in the eyes of the reader, over the course of the story? How does that come about? Does another character start out higher status than the protagonist, and end lower, or vice versa? Does a battle for higher (or lower) status drive some (or all) of the action? What are the emotions, conflicts, tensions, which contribute to and arise from that battle? Would more careful attention to status and status relationships enhance the story at all?