The benefits of betrayal

Got into a discussion with Janet about the merits of betrayal and deception to create more conflict in a script. My playwriting professors Marley, Turgeon, and McCleod, I believe, would advise to look to the root to determine the motivation of those characters involved to see if the motivation is honest. Without conflict there is no action, but conflict for conflict’s sake is an Eric von Lustbader-written Jason Bourne novel. (Not that I’m opposed to that.)

Ms. Marley is fond of saying there is no motivation other than money or love. To extrapolate, find which way a character’s ego is led – love of money or love of power. Either way, it comes down to self-interest.

The absolute best piece of staging advice I can remember (three of my four years as an undergraduate were often under the table. Not a boast, but an atonement. I was an immature little dork, and wasted many hours of my time and, regrettably others, in my self-serving wake) was this: you can’t stage a negative. On stage, an actor is stranded for motivation if the goal is to cause another actor to “not” do something. The actor, and therefore the character, needs to influence an action that leads away from the undesired towards a desired result. Stated simply, an actor is screwed if the character doesn’t want another character to walk out the door. There is no way to play that. The character needs to find distractions, alternatives, or detours to encourage the friend not to “not leave” but to stay. What’s the motivation? The character wants the friend to be safe, no matter the cost. Why?  Who cares – that’s the actor’s job to figure out. The character, ultimately, is worried about how the friend leaving could affect her; she wants to remain happy, sad, whatever; self interest/love. It’s the difference between an exceptional and an excruciating Waiting for Godot. It’s semantics, but it has worked for me.

The same thing, I opine, is true for characters in the book, but with a certain element of trepidation. Am I searching for betrayal for the sake of show, or is it a plausible plot path? Is it better to have a character that serves a purpose, but only for convenience?

I’m at a point in the book, 3/4 of the way towards completion, and things are moving, albeit slowly. If I continue the course I’m on, in which I force the character to behave, things are pretty tidy. If I let the character do the unexpected, to betray the group, it would really, really screw things up. At what point does the character exert his or her own will?

Let’s look at one of my favorite movies, The Matrix, and compare Cypher and Epoch. Cypher is a character on the periphery who betrays the others, while Epoch is…Epoch, he, um…ooh, now I remember: he drives a car and dies. Epoch is the stylized equivalent of a Red Shirt on a Star Trek Away Team.

One path (sans betrayal) would be easy and, admittedly a little dull. The other (avec betrayal) would be challenging and unpredictable. From writing this post, it seems pretty clear which direction I’m leaning. If you have a bouquet helium filled balloons, the one you’ll notice most will more likely be the deflated one, eh? Time to find some gas.

43 days remaining (1023:54:04).


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