Digging into relationships
If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.
Emotional bank accounts
Stephen Covey used the metaphor emotional bank account to explain how trust is earned and lost in a relationship. For humans and animals alike, some actions are deposits, others withdrawals. And in emotionally charged situations we are keenly aware of how the scorecard changes.
On a first date, job interview, the big talk about relationship woes, we watch each other carefully for signs:
- Does that raised eyebrow mean he doesn’t believe me?
- He started to say something then stopped himself. Does that mean something?
- Is her tone of voice different towards me?
Each sigh, glance or body movement might indicate a change. But what change? Our brains go click-click-click trying to figure it out.
Roles and goals are for figuring out what a character wants from the other person. The emotional bank account score card is for figuring out those little steps where trust is built and destroyed between two people. The characters may not realize what’s going on, but the writer should.
At the end of a scene, who is the winner? Who walks away feeling like they got what they want? How does that make them act?
Scoring? Are you serious?
“Hang on a second there,” some writers (and actors) protest when introduced to this tool. “Life isn’t a competition.”
They’re right, of course. Not all moments are about who wins and who loses. Not all moments in life do we pay attention to the nuances in how people are responding to us. But during the moments that matter we are. In a novel, play, screenplay and creative non-fiction, we are writing about moments where things matter, when things are changing. A change in any relationship is all about how the level of trust shifts and moves.
The story of a relationship happens in small increments, one withdrawal or deposit at a time. One plus one minus two.
How to play ball
In any conflict there are only three possible outcomes: win, lose, draw. For each character, throughout a scene I use a different colour pen for each character. A check mark is a win, an X a loss, draw is an equal symbol.
I review these ups and downs to see how I can adjust the manuscript for effect. To find the little moments that are more poignant, rather than the big, the obvious.
If a character wins, how do they celebrate? Do they get cocky? Does the other pout when they lose? Actions and reactions reveal character, so what you learn in one scene can be applied to all others.
Trust is gained through sharing how vulnerable, how human you are. At our most intimate, we feel free enough to laugh and joke. So, what makes your characters laugh together? What are the revelations they make along the way? (See, How to Fall in Love with Anyone).
Falling out of trust takes betrayals, big and small. What are the little nicks and cuts that take their toll on trust? Promises not kept, small lies that become gaping black holes.
Can you find a way to take a character to the emotional edge? To heighten their sense of loss or victory so the fireworks can fly?
In some cases, a character might not notice how the other person is feeling. Is it a willful ignorance or purposeful? The less they notice, the more trust is lost.
In other cases, revenge is the name of the game. To see the other squirm. Yikes!
The best source to turn to in exploring trust, is in their hopes and goals. Because it is in our dashed hopes and dreams where we find our resentments. I’m not talking about the big life hopes. The “I want to be a rock’n’roll star” variety. I’m talking about wanting the other to love and support us. About the kind look, the reassuring word. The moments that really matter.
One thing I really like about this tool is how it forces me to consider the emotional weight each character is carrying. I see it as a trajectory, an ever-moving form, rather than a static given. It allows me to really empathize with the straw piles growing on my characters’ backs.
Like screw drivers or hammers, roles, goals and emotional bank accounts are analysis tools you use when you need them, not all the time. Try them out on a climax scene to see what you discover. Pull them out for a scene that isn’t working to see if they can help you walk around the situation and see it from different perspectives.