Friday, 6 July 2007

Danger! (My Anti-Peril List)

One of the many jobs of the author is to imagine perilous situations for the protagonist, and then to imagine ingenious solutions.
I've long-since wondered if there is some form of peril/anti-peril chart that authors work from. Gosh, that would sure be a useful tool!

A lot of interesting observations have presented themselves as I've compiled this list. I'd like to address them first.

1) Vary the emotional topography.
I've found that some films (and I've mainly been analyzing films) work on the flawed premise that the audience will be hooked provided that there is continuous, or near-continuous, danger.
Not so. A flat topography is a turn off; the audience becomes desensitized, and the lack of contrast makes for a predictable and tedious experience.
2) Control and reversal.
Peril is, in part, derived from control and lack of it. Protag is out of control and antag is in control. One of the most powerful techniques for building tension is to swap control. Deathtrap demonstrates this brilliantly!
Looking at my list, it occurred to me that each peril could be applied to either protag or antag, and that some of the best twists I've seen have been the result of one single peril being turned about, often multiple times. When the hunter becomes the hunted, an irony is created.
3) Pressure and stakes (MAGNITUDE).
Let us not forget Robert McKee's advice: Character is revealed through choices made under pressure. We can observe, too, that the audience's fear of the peril (anticipation/expectation) is directly related to its perceived effect. We should also bear in mind Sunset Bickham's advice: Exaggerate your characters! In this way, our villains are very clearly villainous. Our reader needs to know that the danger exists, and that it will accomplish all manner of horrendous things unless it is thwarted or averted (or undone, as we'll see in a moment).
4) Pace and anticipation.
Again, so many films rush through the perils. We know darned well that there is immense power in creating anticipation; if we carefully build up a peril, we also build the opportunity for an intense and fulfilling pay-off.
5) Failure.
Sometimes the protag fails to remove or avert the peril. This is a great technique for adding colour to the emotional topography.
And there is always a set of reset buttons at our disposal should we need them.
Timing is important in the failure: suspense is generated if the protag gets very close to success before failing.
6) Combinations and permutations.
Some of the best perilous situations ever created have been forged from clever, well-ordered permutations and reversals. Furthermore, Robert McKee recommends that we build up the perils and the pressure, creating increasingly high stakes as the story builds to its climax.
7) Layers.
I think it might have been Peter Cox who revealed that he advises his fiction authors to layer the perils. In this way, when one peril is resolved, one or more remain; the novel never stops to set-up a new peril.

So here it is, my anti-peril list.
You can come up with your own perils. Anything goes. I have a few peril classifications that I'm working on, but I'm not overly confident.
However, there appear to be classic solutions to perils, and that's where my interest is focused at the moment.
Please note that I'm using the words protagonist, antagonist, and threat/peril as catch-alls; I hope that this list still finds a cosy home in the cockles of your heart.
(Btw, please feel free to suggest anti-perils that I have missed. I'll keep this list updated.)

---Solvejg's anti-peril list ---

1) REMOVE THREAT; AVERT THREAT. (Threat does not come to pass.)

*Foreshadowed artefact to the rescue.
---Protag carries key around; protag finds a door!
---Bond is about to meet his maker in the centrifugal chamber, when he suddenly recalls that he is wearing a dart-firing wristwatch. [Moonraker]

*Broken artefact is mended/returned.
---Barbarella crash-lands on a planet and her ship is damaged, leaving her stranded - until she has help getting it fixed. [Barbarella]
---On top of the Empire State building, Doctor Who drops his sonic screwdriver. And then Martha returns it. [Evolution of the Daleks]

*To the rescue (aid arrives).
---Pursued and cornered by the King's men, a tiny clan of Scotsmen seem doomed, until Wallace appears with hundreds of warriors. [Braveheart]

*Bribe, blackmail, befriend, persuade.
---With a laser beam millimetres from his crotch, Bond persuades Goldfinger to let him live. [Goldfinger]
---The German soldier is captured and set to digging his own grave. When he is approached by Miller and his men, he begs for clemency. His pleas would fail, but for Miller siding with him. [Saving Private Ryan]

*Antagonist changes mind; antagonist loses power or control.
---Superman drains enemies' powers. [Superman II]

*Destroy/defeat antagonist.
---Indiana shoots swordsmen. [Raiders of the Lost Ark]

*Nature intervenes.
---Sun rises to kill vampire. [Misc vampire flicks]
---Martian invaders' immune system cannot cope with Earth's bacteria. [War of the Worlds]

*New knowledge or power.
---Having tried to shoot it and electrocute it and burn it, Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) eventually discovers that the Blob doesn't like the cold (Achilles heel). [The Blob]
---Rose looks into the heart of the TARDIS and absorbs unlimited power. [Parting of the Ways]

*Deus ex machina (no foreshadowing).
---Brian plummets from the tower and lands in a passing spaceship. [Life of Brian]

*False alarm; not a threat after all; mistaken identity; harmless.
---The Grim is not bad after all! [Prisoner of Azkaban]
---The Ood approach the Doctor and Rose, chanting 'We must feed!' However, having fixed their translators, it transpires that they were offering food to the Doctor and Rose. [The Impossible Planet]

*Hide; escape; trick/deceive.
---Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) covers himself with mud to hide from the Predator's heat-vision. [Predator]
---Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) tunnels to freedom from Shawshank. [The Shawshank Redemption]

*Threat goes elsewhere.
---The werewolf goes for Hermione, and then Harry attracts its attention. [Prisoner of Azkaban]

*Sidestep; ignore.
---Harry tries to rescue Gabrielle from the merfolk, but they intervene pressing tridents to his neck. Harry is next seen swimming to the surface with Gabrielle. [Goblet of Fire]

*Two negatives cancel each other out or make a positive.
---Dinosaur one attacks, and dinosaur two attacks, and dinosaurs then forget about protag and battle each other instead. [Jurassic Park]

*One positive affects multiple negatives.
---The Doctor opens a portal to the void, and millions of Daleks and Cybermen are sucked to their doom. [Doomsday]
---Billions of Toclafane are erased when Captain Jack destroys the paradox machine. [The Last of the Time Lords]

2) UNDO. (Threat comes to pass and is then undone.)

*Back in time.
---Superman turns back time so that Lois never died. [Superman]

---Van Helsing turns into werewolf, and is then injected with antidote. [Van Helsing]

---Doctor Who cheats death.

*Never really happened: dream, illusion, prophecy, coma, etc.
---Death on Mars dream. [Total Recall]

---Superman mends the broken dam, train lines, etc. [Superman]

3) LIVE WITH IT. (Threat comes to pass.)

William Wallace's wife has her throat slit and dies. This feeds his anger and he leads his countrymen into battle against the English. [Braveheart]

Max Ernst's Oiseaux en péril.

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