Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 45.
So we’ve been sort of tinkering around with who has power in a scene, and I think this sneakily still fits under the theme umbrella of ‘All The Things We Cannot Say’, which isn’t our theme but certainly could be, if I were to give sections titles, which I don’t.
Yesterday we were monkeying around with big status imbalances between two characters – a master-servant relationship, basically. This often comes off as either comedy or melodrama. Most of our experiences in life involve status relationships that are much less clearly delineated. Obviously if you work in a school or you’re a pupil then there’s a hierarchy, a clear line between pupils and staff. And as a parent there’s usually a status differential, although I’d argue that has diminished generationally. My daughter says ‘oi’ to me an alarming amount and often I find myself being ridden around on like a horse or told to go stand over there or ordered to make a certain type of breakfast or told flatly ‘no’ which doesn’t make me feel like I’m the high status one.
And I’m very comfortable with that – the thing about being a dad or indeed being a three-year-old is you do a lot of roleplay, a lot of experimenting with different statuses. Sometimes you’re the rampaging monster, sometimes you’re the naughty child being scolded and told to stand in the corner.
That’s the thing about being close to someone. You get to play lots of games around raising and lowering each other’s status. You can be all like ‘all right dickhead’ or ‘darling! How radiant you look this afternoon’.
When it’s someone you don’t know quite as well, or when you’re dropping into rapport with someone you haven’t seen in a while, you often do this mutual back and forth of what I’m going to dub ‘shift-matching’, where you perform these little tit-for-tat raisings and lowerings of your own status or your friend’s status depending on the last thing they did.
So if they go: ‘Ugh I’ve been an absolute lazy toerag the past week.’
You might match their lowering of status by going: ‘Oh me too. Just sat around eating ice cream in bed and streaming box sets.’
If they raise your status by going: ‘Oh I love your jumper.’
You might respond: ‘Thank you. You’re looking very well yourself. Nice shoes.’
These statements always have a mutuality to them. They’re mirrors rather than replications. Like it would be very odd to counter by either repeating the sentiment or giving back the opposite, right? ‘Ugh I’ve been an absolute lazy toerag the past week.’
‘Yes, you have. Shame on you.’
‘Ugh I’ve been an absolute lazy toerag the past week.’
‘Really? I’ve been a productivity beast. I’m crushing it.’
One repeats the action of lowering the first speaker’s status. (which has the effect of raising the second speaker’s status) The other has the second speaker raise their own status instead of lowering it.
In both cases, the status gap widens uncomfortably. Remember at the end of yesterday I said most status gaps between people are quite small. If there’s too much of a sense of the hierarchy shifting we get uneasy – we may take steps to lower our own status, to raise everyone else’s, or, if we’re not careful, other people in the room will take subtle action to bring us down a peg.
Now of course, with very close friends you can toss most of these rules aside. A good friend can absolutely say something insulting to you – with the proviso that they’re joking – they can refuse to participate when you lower your own status and do the opposite to highlight the game you’re unconsciously playing. Also they can lift you up with lots of praise without making things uncomfortable or creating a status ‘debt’ where now you’re expected to reciprocate.
This freedom to play with status games is a great way for you to show to your readers – without explicitly saying – that two characters are best friends, or have known each other for a very long time. They can adopt lots of different rungs on the social ladder within a single conversation, almost parodying the idea of hierarchy itself, in the same way I can look back to my daughter in her car seat before we set off somewhere and say ‘where to boss?’ And she can point a finger forward and frown very seriously and yell ‘To the shops! Right! Now!’ Then maybe later on I’m chasing her around pretending to be a giant.
So for today’s exercise you’re going to write a scene with two characters who have known each other a very long time, and who are very comfortable in each other’s company. I’d like us to see them paused somewhere, in the middle of a journey. I don’t know where they’re going or where they’ve stopped, I don’t know what world this takes place in or what time, just that we’re seeing the two of them in a rare moment of downtime on their adventure.
And without your saying ‘these two had known each other for years’, without giving them dialogue where one says ‘wow, do you remember that time back in Reno?’, without dropping into a third-person limited or first-person narrator reflecting ‘how long had it been now? The old guy was still the same’ or whatever, without making any reference to the fact that these two are long-time buddies, I’d like you to convey through mannerisms and dialogue and especially through the way they play with status, that they have known each other for ages and get on well. Try to make them behave in such a way that no reader could doubt it. Without saying so.
That’s your challenge for today. If you’re stuck for names or a location don’t forget you’ve got your lists from the early days you can go and swipe some inspiration from. But as I keep saying, feel your way through, and let the scene reveal itself to you rather than trying to plan too hard.
Okay? You have got, in accordance with the traditions of our people, ten minutes. Ready? Go.
And that is it.
Well. That was a challenging exercise for sure, but also a very wholesome one. It’s nice writing about friendship. We underplay all the positive stuff when we talk about stories because it seems drama is all about tragedy and betrayals and loss, but writing about warm, delicious human stuff that makes readers feel glad and fills us with gratitude is absolutely valid and a much-undervalued part of story writing. Don’t neglect it. Your readers will draw such wonder from it.
Right. I shall tarry no longer. Ace work. See you tomorrow.