Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Collateral Repairs

You've heard of collateral damage. Now let's consider collateral repairs.

The phrase "collateral repair" has been used in other ways, but I want to propose a writer's jargon application of the term which dovetails with Blake Snyder's explanation of screenplay structure.

Collateral repairing would be some sort of healing, fixing, anti-damage side-effect that an action might have as an unexpected consequence or side-effect, not the goal of the action.

When you are focused on goal-directed behavior (like a hero in a story solving a problem), you move through the world on automatic pilot, doing everything else without thinking, by habit, by knee-jerk reflex.

That means that most of what you do when acting in a goal directed fashion reveals your essential character, who you really are rather than who you want the world to think you are.

Your actions reveal who you actually are because they aren't deliberate, well thought out, not intended to have specific long term consequences in your life or any one's.

Your actions in pursuit of a goal with long term consequences may head you into trouble, into a learning and growing experience, a "story." But your negligent, habitual actions show (without telling) what lessons of life you think you've already mastered.

Writers can use this widespread human trait in sketching a character in conjunction with the Window Character Linnea Sinclair told us about in her post at
where she reported on Writer's Boot Camp with Todd Stone.

The cleanest example of Collateral Repairs that I can think of is a scene in a Superman movie where Clark Kent is going to work at the Daily Planet, walks down the street amid a series of slapstick comedy mishaps and deals with them using his powers subtly while pretending to be the clueless clutzy reporter.

Now, true, in that scene, Clark knows he's helping people, and deliberately hiding his powers. He knows he's on Earth to help people. But his "goal" is to get to work, to remain in character as Clark. All his actions as he walks down the street are just aside from his progress toward his goal, and in some cases endanger achieving that goal. The people he helps are not part of the main plot.

So we see the Hero beneath the outward seeming. Clark Kent can't just waltz by humans, ignoring what's happening to them, and he can't just ignore the results of his own casual actions. My point is that Clark sees a problem that isn't his own and that isn't on his agenda today, and he reaches out to help. He doesn't ponder, deliberate, calculate, or negotiate a reward - he just DOES what comes naturally to him. And thus we get to know the real Clark Kent, maybe better than he knows himself.

Blake Snyder (http://www.blakesnyder.com ) calls the technique of characterizing by collateral repairs SAVE THE CAT! You can find links and explanations on Snyder's website.

The opening pages of a script set up the characters and the problem, the overall situation. Snyder calls that "laying pipe" -- laying the channel through which the reader will be drawn into the story.

The most essential element in sucking a reader into a story is the characters.

So Blake says the character you want sympathy for has to "save the cat" -- do an act which may be irrelevant (or even counter-productive) to the plot, but that displays the inner nature of the character. The particular trait displayed has to be relevant to the climax of the story and has some thematic link to the B story.

Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden character is a solid case in point.

I was sent a review copy of a RoC trade paperback which Amazon is promoting titled MEAN STREETS. It's an anthology of 4 novellas about currently famous action characters.

The lead story, "The Warrior" is by one of my favorite authors, Jim Butcher, and extends the story of his TV Series/ Novel private eye character Harry Dresden, Wizard.

In 2007, I reviewed Butcher's Dresden novels in my book review column, and did one column where I interviewed Butcher in person.

Butcher's Harry Dresden novels are long, complex, multi-threaded plots where Harry Dresden has three or more life-threatening cases or affairs in progress at once, and usually emerges beaten, bedraggled, bloody and alive. Harry doesn't exult over his vanquished enemies.

So it must have been a real writing challenge for Butcher to produce a novella sized Dresden story with one plot thread and one single point to make. After the discipline of working with the Harry Dresden TV series (on Sci Fi channel but now on DVD (I have the DVDs and have really enjoyed them)

Butcher probably had a better idea of how to write a complete Dresden story at novella length. "The Warrior" succeeds marvelously at this length and is very like a TV episode. I recommend you read that novella before reading my analysis. There are some spoilers in this discussion because the COLLATERAL REPAIRS part comes at the end of this Dresden story.

See my blog post on spoilers -- it is my stance that no really good story can be spoiled by knowing in advance what happens or what some other reader thought happened.


"The Warrior" is almost entirely and purely a characterization exercise. It's all about Dresden's sense of proportion and his personal values. No two readers will interpret it alike. And it's an instant classic that can't be spoiled. But if you like, page down to END SPOILER and continue reading.

----------BEGIN SPOILER-----------------

The story opens as Dresden makes a mistake. He's been sent photos that seem to be a threat against Michael, the retired wielder of a Holy Sword. Currently, Dresden has custody of two of these Holy Swords, but not the authority to wield them. Dresden wants to protect his unarmed friend, Michael, and takes Michael's old sword to him, showing him the pictures someone sent him. A stalker is after Michael's family and friends.

Michael refuses the Sword.

Dresden moves through the city investigating who the stalker might be, trying to Private Eye the problem away, and as he does so, he does a few little things he barely notices doing -- he's just moving through the city concentrating on the real threat, the stalker.

Michael's daughter is kidnapped by the stalker and the ransom is both Swords.

Now these Swords are an Honor, a Holy Calling, each belonging to an Archangel (the real kind) and a fabulous amount of magical power is inside each Sword. They are unique. They are special. And they have the power to protect the innocent, maybe save the world. They must not fall into the "wrong" hands. Dresden is their guardian. He takes that seriously.

Dresden doesn't even think about it for two seconds. He'll give the kidnapper the swords to get the girl back. He has no ego-investment in being in possession of both of these Swords, but he respects and believes in their power.

At the exchange, a fight breaks out. Dresden and Michael win, but Dresden has to remind Michael not to hit the kidnapper too hard.

The last scene is where the meaning of this story, and its commentary on Dresden's character, come clear. Dresden has once again conquered a serious enemy tackling the enemy head-on, though this time a mere mortal human being who isn't even a Wizard. He's sitting in the balcony of a cathedral waiting for Michael and others to finish patching up the kidnapper when the Archangel Gabriel appears sitting next to him.

Dresden barely blinks at that. He lives in a world where such beings are natural. The Archangel Gabriel talks idiomatic English and points out to Dresden that even though he does not wield one of the Swords, he is nevertheless a Warrior fighting successfully for the Light. Then Gabriel enumerates the results of Dresden's easy, unthinking peripheral actions along the way through the story.

What Dresden thought he was doing, what he thought the problem was (stalker; kidnapper after the Swords) was not the most important thing Dresden did that day. The side-effects, the collateral repairs in the world that Dresden made by his apparently trivial knee-jerk responses to situations actually did far more to bring goodness into the world than his titanic conflicts with the magical Forces of Evil.

-------------END SPOILER---------------

Dresden, no matter how he thinks of himself, is The Warrior.

And you and I learn a lesson from Dresden. Everything we do, but most especially the things we do without thinking about them, -- the negligent, the peripheral, the habitual, -- all those little deeds are the ones that count in Collateral Repair of the world.

I read "The Warrior" after I found a message on the EPIC List from Morgan Mandel who had posted a blog about 8 reasons to comment on blogs. And in Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! and Harry Dresden's Sword problem, I found a reason Morgan doesn't have on her list (though her list seems to be growing).


Her reasons to post comments on blogs pivot around the benefits that might accrue to the commenter.

Commenting on blogs for such reasons as she mentions would be the kind of "Goal Directed Behavior" you'd find in a Hero undergoing a story where he/she was about to learn something the hard way.

But commenting on blogs is usually (at least for me) a peripheral activity, a by-the-way done as a reflexive response on a subject I know something about -- sort of like Clark Kent blundering down the street or Harry Dresden acting from his heart, just because he can. And I think it's that way for a lot of people (political diatribes excepted).

Blogs are not central to most people's life goals, yet we who read blogs get something out of it, something intangible but worth the time. When a certain sort of person reads a blog entry and gets something out of it that's worth the reading time, he/she will drop a comment on that blog just to thank the blogger. Or a comment on a comment.

After reading Angel Gabriel's explanation to Dresden, I suspect that commenting on a blog comes into the category of being The Warrior.

Maybe only one person other than the blogger will read the comment, but the effect that comment might have on that one person could be enormously out of proportion to the effort it takes to write the comment. Your comment might save or redirect a life.

Often the comment becomes longer because in thinking how to say thank you, the commenter will put some effort into verbalizing a response that shows they read the blog entry and understood it. As a result, the commenter also gains a deeper understanding of himself and the issue -- as well as providing a "Scotty, you earned your pay for the month!" to the blogger.

I do think the main reason to comment on blogs (or to blog) is that somebody you've never met might read your comment, benefit from it without even knowing who you are. Thus you have a chance to repair the world in the most powerful way.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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