Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 44.
Yesterday we touched on a few ideas from the world of theatre to do with offers and accepting offers, and today I want to round up the larger work we’ve been doing on dialogue, which itself grew out of our work on voice, which came out of freewriting, which is itself a form of improv – you see how this all flows together, right?
Today you’re going to work on really understanding status. I think – and brace yourself, because I’m about to make a bold statement – I truly believe that if you can crack status and offers you’ve basically won dialogue. If you just nail those two to the wall then at worst your dialogue will always be pretty good. They’re so important to the bounce and dance of human speech.
And you know them – we know them already, intimately, that’s why we respond to them as readers or viewers, but it’s an informal, instinctive knowing and we have to take a little while making our knowledge explicit. Working out how to articulate the norms of how human beings chat with each other, and why. And that feels a bit awkward at first, it’s like learning to hold your pen in a new way, but eventually, with repetition, it sinks in and becomes second nature again, only now we can act on it, we can direct it.
So status is about the power dynamic between two or more characters. I’ve kept most of our discussions over the past week or so to two character scenes just because it’s simplest, but these principles scale. Now when I say power dynamic, there might not be a literal difference in how much power either has, but rather we’re talking about how assertive or shy either character acts – how the embody and express power.
When I do performance workshops I often get people to do this very embarrassing but also fun – as so many embarrassing things are – exercise where they walk around the room in circles introducing themselves to one another, and I’ll call out numbers from 1 to 10 and they have to act out that status, 1 being the most shy, awkward, self-effacing mousy bashful little wisp you can imagine, 10 being the loudest, brashest most confident power-move charisma supernova ever. And all points in-between.
Now even if you tried it now you can probably think of all the mannerisms you associate with low status. Not making eye contact, lowering your head, making yourself small, flinching, quiet voice. Umming and ahhing. Maybe frowning. Touching your face. Hiding behind your hand. Apologising. For high status: big open posture, high volume, chin up, eye contact, initiating greetings rather than responding, big, clear statements, maybe using people’s names: ‘HELLO ANDREW.’. Maybe initiating contact, going for handshakes, backslaps, bear hugs. And those are just mannerisms, right – they don’t really touch on the content of what’s said.
So we do this and people shuffle round the room when I say 1 all hiding from each other, then I work up through the numbers, 2, 3, 4, and slowly they straighten up, they move faster and more purposefully, they smile, they get louder, their gestures get broader, they pass through the range of what we think of as ‘normal’ – although that exact band is often set differently for different cultures, genders, age groups, classes – until they’re all just doing Brian Blessed impressions, because Brian Blessed is literally the most high status human being to have ever lived.
It’s a pretty stock drama warm-up but what’s interesting to me is once the game is ‘over’ and in case you can’t hear I put over in scarequotes as if I don’t actually think it’s over, and people stop playing the statuses I’ve been yelling at them, they all drop back to their default numbers. They’re still choosing a number somewhere on that scale. Or a little range that they feel comfortable sitting in. And suddenly everyone’s very conscious of the choices they and their peers are making. The status games they’re all playing. And what, perhaps, they stand to gain and lose from all that.
You can probably think of lots of scenarios where there’s a high status and a low status person. A master and his valet. A headmaster addressing a pupil in his office. A junior sales assistant receiving a visit from the CEO of the company. A Private visited by a General. A suspect under interrogation from a detective inspector. A kidnapper addressing their captive. A homeless person begging a passerby for change.
As you may have anticipated, for today’s exercise, I’d like you to pick a relationship with a power dynamic like that. Could be a theatre director and a young actor at an audition. A business person pitching to powerful, busy investors. Doesn’t even have to be set in the real world. A dragon addressing a villager stranded on the edge of a cliff. The leader of a vast galactic empire transmitting to the radio operator on a tiny mining colony planet.
What you’re going to do, is write this scene, this interaction between the two characters, except: halfway through, I’m going to ring the bell, and the traditional power dynamic between the two characters will abruptly reverse. Suddenly the captive becomes high status and the kidnapper low status. The pupil suddenly begins acting and speaking in that high status way and the headmaster or headmistress is deferential, shy, nervous.
One thing I was told by the sociolinguist James W Pennebaker when he came on the podcast was that when he did statistical analysis on emails sent by high status people and low status people – high status people use personal pronouns like ’I’, ‘me’, ‘my’ much less than low status people. They’re much more likely to talk in terms of ‘you’.
Remember that some signs of status work differently to how you might naively expect. Like, often it’s the lower status person who has to take responsibility for what space they take up, so they have to be much more aware of their environment than the high status person, moving to accommodate their superior. I always think of Al Capone eating kippers in bed while he receives someone, or someone coming to see the boss while he or she is getting a massage. To receive someone while sitting or even lying down is a big show of status. Of course some of these things are culturally bound, and what’s considered a high status move in one milieu might be a sign of deference in another.
Now you’re probably going to want to come up with a reason, in-scene, why that switch takes place. You don’t need to plan it, it can just happen after the bell rings. You might like to borrow from yesterday’s technique of overaccepting offers that the other person didn’t know they gave.
So you might have the boss character going:
‘Now Greening. It is essential that – are you taking this down?’
‘Yes, Mr Sharp.’
‘Read it back to me.’
‘It is essential that…’
‘Speak up man. When the customer enters you immediately impress upon them that this is an establishment of quality and order. Tupperware is to the east. Bin liners are due south-we… are you listening to me Greening?’
‘Yes sir. Bin liners south east sir.’
‘Honestly I’d be better off employing my own mother.’
And then the bell goes. You reverse their statuses. Now the boss is going to be low status and Greening, his employee, is going to be high status. There may be a few transitional exchanges as they rise and fall but you want to quickly switch.
So maybe Greening accepts the offer of Mr Sharp’s mother and says: ‘I thought you said your mother was dead.’
‘Um, uh, I… did I?’
‘You know very well you did, you said that was why the staff didn’t receive their bonuses this year. You said you’d spent it all on grief counselling.’
‘Well, I… I think I may have miscommunicated some aspects of-’
‘Miscommunicated? Do you take me for a damn fool, man?’
And so on. Again, you don’t need to plan what the reveal might be in advance. Just be aware that some time after the bell you’re going to want to look for a chance to make the switch.
Right. So a scene involving two characters with a clear power dynamic between them. One high status and one low status. When I ring the bell halfway through, switch. Are you ready? Go.
And that’s it. Well done. How was that for you? A tricky task today, especially given the extreme time constraints, so if you got anything down at all, you did well.
It’s fun playing with extreme ends of the status scale but in life the dynamics we find ourselves in are often much more subtle. And some of the most interesting drama arises when you have two people very close in status, with only a small gap distinguishing them. So tomorrow I thought we’d return to this subject for one more round of status games, just to look at the finer modulations, and how you can play with moves that raise and lower a character’s status within a scene. I’ll see you then.