Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Six Kinds of Power in Relationship

Blake Snyder in his two SAVE THE CAT! books on screenwriting

points out that to keep a story moving, to keep the character arcs changing throughout the 110 page screenplay (or for that matter, a 400 page novel) you need to start the main character off at the point in his/her life when he/she is forcibly confronted by 6 things that need fixing.

Starting at that point keeps the plot from dying or unraveling in your fingers, which some new writers misinterpret as writer's block. It's really not writer's block, but writer's skill deficit.

For truly sterling examples of this complex writing technique producing a truly simple but not simplified plot, see Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files novels.

OK, The Dresden Files novels are not strictly speaking "Romance" because there isn't a Couple whose relationship dynamics create the plot -- but to me, Dresden the written character is some kind of grandiose hunk! The TV Dresden was starting to grow on me, but it got cancelled. And on TV the troubles that beset Dresden had to be reduced to episode size and watered down for the TV viewer who doesn't know magick.

THE DRESDEN FILES - here's the first 3 in a boxed set:

There are so far I think 12 Dresden novels and more coming. Like C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner universe novels, this is a series to savour, but Foreigner is more Alien Romance than Dresden is (so far -- you never know about trends that will re-shape a long series).

But both Foreigner and Dresden sustain a focus very tightly on the main character and that character started out with at least 6 things that need fixing.

Here's another long series that grew out of things to fix piling up on the main characters -- and this one is HOT Romance with magic as a societal force to be reconned with (Vampires hot for Werewolves though it's forbidden!) This is the first 3 in the series -- and the next one to come out is dedicated to me and is set in an interstellar society, real Alien Romance growing out of an urban fantasy series! The working title is DEMON IN THE DARK.

This is Susan Sizemore's urban fantasy Prime series, and you really don't want to miss any of them.

And here's the latest in the series

And I'm reading an ARC of the next one already.

What these 3 disparate (long running) series have in common is the choice of the initial moment in the main characters' lives when their story STARTS.

Choosing the wrong place to start is one of the most widespread classic errors that beginning writers make. I see it in writing workshops all the time. 9 out of 10 submissions will give me no choice but to explain that this manuscript has NO CONFLICT and it has no conflict BECAUSE it starts in the wrong place in the character's life, a place where "the story" of that character has not yet begun.

So a character floats into your mind and starts demanding you tell his/her story. You gotta do it, but where do you start?

Generally speaking in real life, troubles come in strings, disasters come in sets of 3's strung out over 12-18 months. (everyone knows this pattern even if they are certain astrology is silly)

Ever heard of literary license? When telling a character's story, while the character is telling you how things happened one thing at a time over years, you must take "literary license" and COMPRESS the troubles into thematically inter-related bunches to create a series of long novels -- or even one, great, fat novel.

And Blake Snyder got it right. The magic number is 6. That's two different transits each happening 3 times.

That's why troubles come in 3's. The outer planets go over a point in a natal chart, go retrograde back over that point as the Earth rounds its orbit, then (retrograde is an optical illusion, you know) the transiting planet goes "direct" and crosses that natal point again. If all the energy doesn't blow through on first contact, it may trickle through in 3 parts, or 2 parts. That's why the pattern is hard to see. Sometimes one or two pieces are missing.

Since the most powerful and memorable and re-readable novels and screenplays are about plots driven by Relationships not just mere Characterization, we should look into the details of Relationships for plot-drivers.

One kind of transit that always generates serious trouble in people's lives is the exquisitely slow transits of Pluto. Pluto is about power (yes, I know they demoted it from planet status - but that doesn't matter. "Nevertheless, it moves!")

And as discussed at some length previously here, Neptune is the plot-driver for the Romance experience.

Also, in Kabbalah, 6 is all about Love. I talk about that in detail in my books on Tarot that have never been published yet, The Not So Minor Arcana: Wands and The Not So Minor Arcana: Cups.

So if we look into the structure of power in relationships to find the 6 things to fix, we should find some plot-drivers that really have legs! And they will automatically be thematically related because they all manifest Pluto. Pluto "rules" or is associated with Scorpio, the natural 8th House, and thus is very much all about the more primal side of sexuality.

Keeping your 6 things to fix thematically related is yet another trick for avoiding writer's block. You will always know what comes next and why it's interesting because it's all about power.

Choosing those 6 things to fix in a thematic bundle is the secret to keeping the surprise twists coming and coming, and holding the interest of an audience, sometimes not just through one novel but way past a dozen novels in a series.

That secret of choosing plot-driver sets meshes perfectly with the way I explained using Scene Structure for pacing last week.


Plotting is an artform, not just a set of technical, mechanical tricks. The tricks are the brushes, pigments and canvass you use to bring your characters to life.

Art is a SELECTIVE recreation of reality. Verisimilitude is not the same thing as reality itself, but verisimilitude awakens a sense of being within a different reality. I covered that in the following post:


Linnea Sinclair has developed a knack for explaining how to develop characters and I highly recommend you read her blog entries on that subject. I'm sure they are as scattered as my own have been, so maybe she'll drop a list of them as a comment on this blog entry.

Linnea Sinclair showed you a lot about Worldbuilding in her post


I'm hoping the others on the blog who've discussed worldbuilding will drop the URLs of their posts into the comments on this post.

So this examination on Power as a plotting tool isn't so much about characters and their internal conflicts, but more about Relationships between or among characters and how internal conflicts buried deep in a character manifest (unexpectedly) in external Relationships, creating Blake's "6 Things That Need To Be Fixed" formula for the opening of a story.

In previous posts here, I've explored the ways that professional fiction writers can use Astrology and Tarot (not believe in it; use it) to enhance their artificial worldbuilding so that the result is believable even when not plausible.

My posts on Tarot based on Kabbalah, Astrology and Worldbuilding as well as other writing craft techniques will soon be edited, expanded and collected into volumes and made available as e-books and POD versions on paper.

The first set will be 5 volumes on Tarot with the envelope title The Not So Minor Arcana.

The Astrology and Worldbuilding sets will come later.

(see my Friendfeed box on the right column of this blog to find how to subscribe to me and be notified how to get these compilations, or just subscribe to this blog). But you can read much of it now by digging it out of this blog. Search on Tuesday - the day I post. Or you might start with these:




There are 5 parts of Astrology for Writers so far, plus numerous references to Astrology as it can be used to create verisimilitude where there actually is none (i.e. a fantasy world you just built).

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2007/12/10-pentacles-cake-comes-out-of-oven.html (follow the links in this post back. Swords and Pentacles have been covered in 20 posts).

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2008/08/source-of-expository-lump.html is a key post in my Worldbuilding and writing craft series.

So you see, we've been building up to this more difficult subject of Relationship as a plot driving mechanism, one component craft technique at a time. The underlying purpose of all this analysis is to find a way to boost Alien Romance's respectability in the general media.

Keep your eye on the objective and the boring work will just get done. It's like watching TV while knitting. Do you really need to look at your hands?

So now let's knit together 6 kinds of Power that can make for problems (or solutions) in a Relationship while keeping the plot twisting, but keep our minds on AR on TV.


1) Control of the Agenda
2) Veto Power
3) Who holds the "gun" (real or figurative)
4) The Magic Address Book; The Golden Rolodex
5) Potentially embarrassing (fatal?) secrets
6) Purse Strings


1) Control of the Agenda

This may be the most famous kind of power there is in a relationship between one character and a larger group of characters. But it operates within couples, too.

It can be very subtle. And the more subtle the power over the agenda is, the more devastating a chokehold it can be.

Many people aren't even aware there is an agenda in every encounter, nevermind that it can be controlled without their knowledge.

Take an example ripped from the headlines today.

Congress is getting ready to thrust upon us a "Healthcare Reform" bill -- a huge bill, but none of them voting for it or against it will have read it because they couldn't understand it anyway.

The inner workings of Congress and the Senate are all about Agenda Control and everyone who browses the news understands how that works. It's seniority and majority party, getting Committee appointments, plus a lot of 18th Century customs that have lasted.

They never bring a bill to the floor unless they know how the vote will go. That means bills don't even get voted on unless the agenda is fully under control of the majority party.

That's pretty much how corporate executive committees work, too.

OK, we all understand that and can use it in stories.

But politicians love power and don't seem to know there is any other way to think. Some men seem to believe it's unmanly to think any other way, even in a Relationship.

When people say they don't want the government dictating their health insurance terms, or they don't want a government run single-payer system, Congress responds, "Oh. Yeah, I see your point. Well, don't worry. We'll GIVE YOU LOTS OF CHOICES so your health insurance will be your own choice."

As far as politicians are concerned that totally fixes the problem because it defuses your objection but they retain control of the agenda. Husbands on the road to divorce do this to their wives.

Congress did that with the Medicare Prescription insurance bill, and created a system where dozens of private companies "provide" prescription insurance as a proxy for the government, and "give you choices" none of which are adequate to anyone but the average person, and of course profitable to the offering company. But you must choose from the list presented to you, which is further limited by state laws. No matter which way you choose, the company wins. The agenda was set, but not by you.

Think about that power-play maneuver of retaining control of the agenda by limiting choices but forcing the other to choose from that menu and claiming that means freedom of choice.

Choosing among choices created by someone else is not the same thing as creating your own.

Think how that control of the menu of choices works in terms of a Romance relationship. Think how it might seem to non-humans.

What are the politicians doing? They know no other way to relate to voters except by exerting power over voters (so they can get elected).

How do they flimflam voters into thinking that the government is giving them FREEDOM OF CHOICE by giving them LOTS OF CHOICES?

It's like the dropdown menus in a program. THESE are the choices you get to choose from because that's all the choices the programmers could think to offer (or know how to offer or find profitable to offer).

GIVING the choices is "setting the agenda." This is what you have to choose from and if you want something else, or a little of this and a little of that, you can't have it.

The character who sets the choices before you is setting the agenda.

The character who chooses from that array of choices is the one without POWER in the transaction, no matter how large or varied the menu of choices.

The person who sets the agenda retains the power to LIMIT what you may choose from, and to force you to make a choice from that pre-set list where every item on it benefits them not you.

If you think about it, that's how the news media works (always has worked that way). "All the news that's fit to print" is still an agenda-enforcing chokehold because they choose what's fit and what's not. The internet is changing that business model faster than the media can adjust. The power centers in our cultures are shifting HARD.

So our taste in fiction has to shift, just as hard.

Think what non-human civilizations that had that power-center shift happen generations ago might be like. Then think of them arriving on earth to watch our comedy of errors.

Centralized Agenda Control is how business meetings are run at the corporate level - the one in charge sets the agenda, and anyone speaking outside that list of topics is out of order. Do that too often and presto - you're fired.

Local Town Council meetings are supposed to work that way but often frizzle out into shapeless shouting. Not good drama.

From a child's point of view, families are run from a centralized agenda (which is why we tend to run our families that way once we grow up -- don't know any other way).

"What's for dinner, Mom?" "Rice and Beans; or Beans and Rice, take your pick."

"Where are we going this year on vacation, Dad?" "The Jersey shore. Or there's that beach in Maryland you liked last year." "I don't want to go to a beach. I want to go to a Dude Ranch." "Not this year. Too expensive. And dangerous. There's a nice beach in Connecticut."

See? You can choose. You have freedom of choice, and you're BEING GIVEN A VOTE (given is the operative word). But you can't choose to stay home because you're a kid and can't stay alone. You can't have what you want because it's not on the menu. Choose a beach - any cheap beach. We're listening to you, but we're setting the agenda.

That's how people in our society use power and the process can generate a problem your main character must solve.

OK, so suppose we're writing Romeo and Juliet.

Juliet votes for the Connecticut beach and meets Romeo there. The entire plot and conflict of Romeo and Juliet stemmed from the fact that the parents set the agenda (but of course the parents didn't see it that way; they had their agenda set for them by society and the legitimacy of feuding as a way of life). For Romeo and Juliet, the resolution was that the kids didn't allow the parents to set their agenda.

So the position of Agenda Setter is the single most powerful position in any relationship, and that power is the most far-reaching and difficult to counter when it is exercised with subtlety. "Give the less powerful many, many MANY choices" and they'll never notice they have no freedom to choose.

So problem #1 for your main character can be either what choices to offer others, or whether to let someone else populate the menu of choices. How does your main character break out of that power-grip and assert his/her own agenda? Is your main character even aware he/she has been manipulated into a position of powerlessness? Or is holding only part of the power enough? What changes in your character's world to make it not-enough?

2) Veto Power

This is obvious. It's the power to say "NO" and make it stick.

But again, in our culture, it's socially and politically incorrect for certain people to use this power in certain ways. Thus the person with power can end up in a complex spiderweb trap with no way to exercise their power.

For an example, just read up on the lastest UN Security Council resolutions. That "Veto Power" was given to the 5 permanent members as a way of keeping them from exercising it. Say no to what others consider reasonable and you're dirt.

So one of the 6 problems your main character might have is a Veto Power they can't use. Or if they do use it anyway, the trouble generates the plot.

Take Romeo and Juliet again -- their veto power was suicide.

That's kind of like the DOOMSDAY MACHINE in Star Trek (actually, it's an old military concept). A weapon so powerful it could destroy both sides. You can't use it, and threats with it seem vapid. Well, Romeo and Juliet is a play Aliens might consider when threatening humans with a pre-set agenda of choices.

3) Who holds the "gun"

"The Gun" is a weapon somewhat short of Veto Power or a Doomsday Device, but hardly a precision tool in most hands. (Lone Ranger and Have Gun Will Travel fangirl here!)

The gun is a tool for doing damage of some sort. But it isn't enough to simply have a gun -- WHO holds that gun is the most important part of the threat to the power structure of a dynamic Relationship. The character of the gun-holder is the focus in this problem to be solved.

Take for example, an unarmed man in a sports suit and an armed man in an Armani suit. They are fleeing through a forest chased by a S.W.A.T team (maybe aliens who caught them spying on their beached UFO?).

The Armani Suit tries to use veto power on the Sports Suit who is busy setting the agenda for tricking the aliens into making a choice from a menu of one item.

Armani waves the gun with authority saying, "The man who holds the gun gets his way." Sports Suit snatches the gun right out of Armani's hands levels it at Armani and notes that, "The man who holds the gun gets his way, right?"

It isn't who has the weapon that matters to the plot. It's who controls it. Who knows how to use it.

People who are masters with weaponry don't have to carry weapons. Anyone who wishes to contend for control of the agenda will bring plenty of weapons for everyone. Let them sweat under the weight. They'll get tired and it'll be easier to vanquish them.

So Problem 3 might be that the character who understands a particular weapon (doesn't have to be a gun -- could be a whole space ship with no overt weapons, or a sword, or a length of electrical cord, or a magical chant) does not currently possess that weapon.

Or the complication might be that the person who does possess the weapon doesn't understand the weapon. A character with no shooting-range experience is more deadly when waving a gun than a trained Marine. The Marine will hit what she aims at, and that fact can be very comforting when things get dicey.

4) The Golden Rolodex

Well, Rolodex makes software these days, but the cliche reference is to the cardfile or listing of the ones who will respond to a message as expected and wanted. "I need a speedboat by this afternoon." "Ah, well, I know a man ..."

The person who always "knows a man who" is the one with great power in every relationship. The go-to guy/gal.

I had a cousin with the family golden rolodex. When she sent invitations to a party, the whole family turned out from 3 states around. When somebody else threw a party, hardly anyone came. When I needed to throw a graduation party for one of my kids in New York, I called her in New Jersey. The whole family turned out from 3 states around - and California too.

It's a cliche, but it works. If you need some outlandishly unique operation to go down just the way you want it, you need to know someone who knows everyone and can select who to ask.

Thanksgiving Dinner makes a great plot-event for solving one of the 6 problems.

The character in a Relationship who knows all the email addresses, phone numbers, and URLs is the most powerful person in the relationship, even more powerful than the agenda setter in certain circumstances.

Take for example, the classic situation of the suddenly widowed woman who doesn't even know how to notify her husband's relatives that he has died. The husband paid all the bills. She doesn't know the phone company's phone number, or how to pay the water bill, or where that information is filed, or how much they owe on the house.

The person who knows which people know each other, who knows all their skill sets and their family situations, their political leanings, and personal hobby horses - that person has POWER in every relationship.

Corporations discovered this by scientific research and changed the Personnel Department into the Human Resources department.

I recall when they first started sending questionnairs to employees demanding the employees confess all their hobbies and incidental interests and skills because the employees' skills were the wealth of the corporation. No shit, they really did that and it upset people. Today people comply without thinking about the invasion of privacy -- the power they are giving up for no money. (Well, maybe it'll pay off if the company out of the goodness of their hearts decides to offer a RIF'd worker another position in a different profession.)

So the general reader knows that not being on the good side of "the man who" could be a major one of the 6 problems your main character must solve, especially if he's slipped outside the set Agenda and gotten himself fired.

5) Potentially embarrassing (fatal? Awkward?) secrets

This can be leverage. See the TV show Leverage which is a sort of remake of Mission: Impossible. Knowledge is power. The TV show (USA NETWORK - CHARACTERS WELCOME)
also uses psychology and knowledge as power.

As with Romeo and Juliet, the solution to being blackmailed is to refuse to let another character set the agenda. Just out the info yourself.

Ah, but the price!

One of the 6 problems that have to be solved might have to do with who knows what about which.

Trust issues come in here. Can this character who caught you sleeping with your boss's wife be trusted to keep her mouth shut?

Perhaps in Romance, the Sexual Blackmail potential of secrets is the hottest way to focus attention on the interface between Power and Sex, and distinguish both from actual Romance.

Laughter, embarrassment, and physical danger all have something in common, which is why sex or a giggling-fit often come right after a big physical fight.

PAIN is the element in common. Laughter happens right at the edge of subtle emotional pain. Embarrassment is likewise right at the edge of a kind of potentially fatal emotional pain (something that can change your life and your basic character if rammed through to the logical finish). Embarrassment taken to dramatic conclusion is social-rejection, shunning, and that can be fatal. Ostracism is worse than jail because you can starve or freeze and nobody cares.

For a character who has a hot secret, in their past the potential consequences IF IT WERE KNOWN can make a really good Problem #5 to be fixed.

What is the resolution of, say, the problem where someone falls in love and does not confess before the wedding day that he's in the witness protection program and every characteristic that made his Bride fall in love with him (taste in art, love of music, clothing, even profession) was made up for him. His real self just isn't like that at all.

Does your character say "I Do" before or after confessing? Does someone swoop in with the information? Does the Bride shrug it off saying, "I knew that from the first day we met," because she's a telepath from outer space spying on Earth?

In fact, THE SECRET as a problem works best of all when two characters in a telepathic bonding discover secrets about the other. Each one figured they must know everything about the other because of the telepathic bonding. What a shock.

6) Purse Strings

Well, the financial control in a couple relationship has been used to enslave women since forever. Ho-hum. Cliche.

Oh? But what about the woman who has financial control. Today, in the USA, according to a number of polls I've seen, it's usually the woman who handles the finances. That's one reason so many ads are aimed at women. Women make the purchasing decisions.

And then there's the widow(er) who doesn't even know where all the spouse's bank accounts are but thought she did. Think about variations on Madoff's wife's position. Not the reality. The potential drama in the position depending on how the cash flowed through that family.

If you really need to understand a situation, "follow the money" is the most productive way to spend your investigative dollar.

Any number of Columbo episodes, and even Murder She Wrote, were based on following the money, finding the purse strings, and thus finding the seat of power in the dynamic relationships being exposed because of a murder.

One great example of a murder mystery series that's a sizzling romance is Faye Kellerman's Decker and Lazarus series:

Oh, yeah, don't forget there's plenty of variations on this purse-strings problem to explore with the same-sex couple with scattered assets and limited legal rights in certain states. Your main character could have the problem of getting actual hands on his/her rightful inheritance from a deceased spouse and become a suspect because of those efforts.

Then there's the college kid waiting for his parents to send money. Suppose they're fighting over how much support he should get. Suppose the parents get a divorce, and don't inform him until after the decree?

Or take international politics. There's the Fantasy TV show KINGS, for example, where the war between neighboring countries is promulgated by the guy funding the King, and when the King wants to make peace, the funds go into war-mongering and palace intrigue and skulldugery where the profits are. You think the King was fooled? Watch that show. Love, Romance, Infidelity, Intrigue, the stuff of human relationships.

I think some of these short summer-replacement series are actually concocted with the idea of making the profit from selling the DVD's. Follow the money.

The power of control of the wealth works wonderfully well on the interstellar scene because it's something we all have intimate knowledge of and can believe as a motive even for aliens. It's primal enough that we can infer that even aliens would have "resource control" as a goal.

Purse Strings don't just control coined money. The "Purse Strings" power-mongering is about any sort of concrete resource control. Oil interests don't seem too enthusiastic about solar panel deployment for power generation, do they? Remember the TV show Dallas? Suppose you wrote an episode of that today, in the "alternative energy" revolution?

Consider the Wild West stories of the cattlemen vs. the sheep runners.

Water rights are still a huge bone of contention in the West USA (Colorado lakes are down to I think it's about a third of where they should be at this time of year; Colorado feeds Arizona and California water, and hasn't enough left for itself.)

A recent FORBES article pinpoints some of the calculation fallacies behind the concept of the locavore (eating local produce). This is an article fraught with story ideas because of all the things there are to "fix" that you can choose from, and the equivocal facts. The article contends that it's more "green" for England to import lamb from New Zealand than to raise sheep locally.


Business Week online is also a fertile source of Six Things To Fix for your main character.


And those are two of the most obvious places for writers to watch for plot driving things to fix involving purse strings and power.

These magazines are all about power and the power-structure that we are so embedded in that we are as oblivious to it as we are to the air (unless there's a storm wind or a bad smell).

The reader/viewer's obliviousness is the writer's most powerful tool for inserting the surprising twist that is nevertheless obvious in retrospect.

So there are 6 areas of Power in Relationship fraught with dramatic potential. And that's derived from only half of Pluto's possible effects and we barely touched on what Neptune can do to perceptions.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Great blog Jacqueline.

    1) Control of the Agenda

    The opposite of this ie Loss of Control of the Agenda is in a way disenfranchisement.

    The latter, in my mind, is at the root of lots of wars, arguments, resentment on a national, tribal and personal level.

    Take away this ability to make real choice and you sow the seeds for conflict for generations.

    In fact,one of the greatest drivers of conflict in history.

  2. Now, here's one I *think* I've gotten a handle on, probably because I've struggled with it so much in the past. It's still hard for me to do but at least I know what I need to do now! Once it's done, then everything else about the story seems to fall into place and if it doesn't it's easier to figure out what's wrong if I've started the story in the right place to begin with.