It’s the time of the month for some discussion on craft. Today, writing teacher Sydney Smith and I discuss the balance of power in a novel.
Transfer refers to the shifts in power between a protagonist and their antagonist, as each strives to get what they want. These shifts reveal themselves most clearly through dialogue, although they can happen in other ways, too.
We so expect to see transfer take place in narrative, that it stands out when it doesn’t happen. For example, when the protagonist tries to get something from their antagonist―a vital piece of information, for example―and they are defeated again and again. No transfer has taken place. Each player remains in exactly the same position in terms of power.
Imagine James Bond is up against Schickelgruber, a man who has programmed a lethal virus that could freeze all online activity. He threatens to unleash this virus unless the world governments submit to his rule. James is sent out to defeat Schickelgruber. But each time the pair clash, Schickelgruber wins. Not only does he always win, but James has no effect whatsoever on Schickelgruber’s defences. Schickelgruber does not have to strengthen his security measures. He doesn’t have to shift the virus to a safer place. His plans don’t have to be altered one iota. That’s because there’s been no transfer.
I watched Far from the Madding Crowd last week. Bathsheba Everdene rejected the marriage proposal of Gabriel Oak. At that time, he was an up-and-coming young farmer with a hundred acres of land and two hundred sheep. Bathsheba was a poor young woman with nothing but her intelligence and her education. But a reversal of fortune takes place. Gabriel loses his land and Bathsheba inherits a substantial property. He goes to work for her. When he tells her a few home truths, her vanity is offended and she fires him. But no sooner has he walked off with all his worldly possessions in a knapsack on his back, than her sheep sicken from eating too much clover. The only man who can save her flock is Gabriel, the master shepherd. She sends a minion to summon Gabriel back. The minion returns, saying Gabriel wants her to go and ask him herself. Bathsheba refuses in a huff. She isn’t stepping down from her pedestal for him!
‘He thought you’d say that,’ says the minion. ‘He said to tell you, beggars can’t be choosers.’
In the next scene, we see Bathsheba riding to Gabriel to ask him to help her.
That is transfer. And by the way, it worked so well that the audience erupted with laughter. Transfer works best when it wins a response of some kind from the reader/viewer.
This is a such good topic, Sydney, partly because I’ve never thought about it before, and partly because power is always interesting. Often writers do things instinctively, but don’t understand why. It’s helpful to analyse the reasons behind what we do. So, let me think this through.
The hero should never have the power in the beginning, at least not for long. In fact stories always start with a major change in the hero’s life, so there’s an early power shift right there. The hero might decide to make a radical change. In my novel Turtle Reef, Zoe (hero) moves to take a job at the Reef Centre, putting her way outside her comfort zone. Or perhaps something outside the hero’s control catapults them into change.
More and more they lose their power to the antagonist. The shifting power dynamic between hero and antagonist gives the story its dramatic tension. If the contest is too one-sided, it will be boring. It needs push and pull, feint and parry, advance and retreat.
How will I apply this to my current work-in-progress? I’ll put my Kim (my hero) through the wringer, that’s how. Put her in situations where she’s not in control. Rip the power from her, and give it to the antagonist. Make her fight to reclaim it. She’ll make mistakes, misjudge people, pursue dead ends. Snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Struggle against her character flaw. Never realising that her antagonist is mirroring her in a kind of Machiavellian tango! I can’t wait to get writing …
Well, yes. But Snideley (our working name for the villain of the piece) can’t have it all his own way. Transfer goes both ways. If Kim has no effect on Snideley, if Snideley doesn’t have to shift and adjust his tactics with Kim, that also means a lack of transfer.
I’ve read entire manuscripts where there is no transfer whatsoever. The protagonist ends up in the same place they started from. They have not been altered by the influence of other characters. They have not had to change their tactics in order to keep on going after what they want. And yet they must, and so must the antagonist. Without these transfers in power, the story will lack zest. It’ll resemble a lump of granite.
If you look at the story arc for a major player in a novel, you will see a shift in power. The hero will usually go from weakness to strength. The antagonist will go from a strong power position (Goliath) to a weaker one (defeat). All that is brought about by transfer.
I have often found that when the writer hasn’t grasped the importance of conflict in narrative, they will often prevent transfer from happening. The villain will be impossibly strong, the protagonist passive. A passive character can’t bring about transfer.
That makes sense. If Snideley is too weak, Kim won’t have to struggle and grow. If he’s too strong and always winning? Well, Kim might give up, and sink into despair. I can’t have that. My hero and antagonist need the chance to turn the tables on each other.