Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Day 5 - Hostage Stories

I lost track of today's progress.  Probably a little short of the 1000 words I meant to do, but I did get some good work done, and discovered a new scene.

In the meantime, I mentioned yesterday that my dream stories often have themes and tropes that resonate with me.  Things that resonate -- things that strike a chord in your psyche -- are very often what we mean when we talk about "archetypes" and "tropes."  They are patterns that take on a deeper, almost unconscious meaning, beyond what we think about it intellectually.

Yesterday's dream story hit a particular trope, or archetype, that I call the "Hostage Story." (Actually, it's an "Occupation Story" sub-type that I'll talk about below.)

If you take the basic Hostage Story down to it's basic elements, you might find that a whole lot of stories really fit this pattern -- a lot of stories you'd never think of as a story about hostages or hostage taking.  But first let me mention a related trope:

Kidnapping As Plot Device

One thing I never noticed, until I started self-publishing, is that I apparently use kidnappings in my books a lot.  Some site did word-clouds of author's keywords and blurbs, and on mine, KIDNAPPING!! stood out loud and clear.

I never thought of any of my stories as kidnapping dramas.  That's not what they are about.  It's just that in any of my stories that feature adventure, somebody's inevitably gonna get kidnapped (or taken prisoner).

One of the reasons for this is because two of my other major resonant fixations are: Escapes and Rescues.

Bad guys really only have two important things they can do to a person in an adventure story.  They can kill people or they can capture them.  If they kill somebody, the hero can't save him.  All he can do is get revenge.  But if the bad guy captures somebody:  Escape!  Rescue! And revenge, too!

That's why it's a common trope in hard-boiled or spy stories, for the hero, the heroine, and the puppy to be taken prisoner.  ("I expect you to die, Mr. Bond," says Goldfinger.)

But this kind of kidnapping element is really more of a plot twist than a story type.  That's not a Hostage Story.  Hostage Stories are thematically and psychologically different from adventure stories that just happen to have captures and rescues and escapes. (Though there is certainly an overlap.)

The Hostage Story

To me, the hostage story is more about drama.  And by "drama" I don't mean serious or not comedy: I am referring to stage drama, it's actor-to-actor stuff.  It's very often an ensemble story.

It's about forcing characters together and limiting their options and turning up the heat.  At its root, it's a kind of pot-boiler.  And this pressure cooker element is not just a device, it's the central element of the story.

Now, we're all familiar with the classic hostage story.  Criminals or terrorists take someone hostage to use as a bargaining chip. And that turns up the heat not only between the hostage and the hostage taker, but with the outside people being negotiated with.

With a lot of great hostage stories, the hostages themselves are really just an audience, and it's the hostage taker vs. the cops. (The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Inside Job.)  Or it might be mainly between the hostages and the hostage taker. (Classic plays like Wait Until Dark.  Or Bogart's first real star turn: The Petrified Forest, or his last, The Desperate Hours.)  Or it might combine both. (Robert Crais' book, Hostage.)

However, from a theme and literary theory point of view, a Hostage Story really isn't limited to the classic "criminals take innocent people hostage" situation.  There are a lot of related situations which hit the same psychological and thematic points.

Non-Hostage Hostage Stories

Jury stories are about a bunch of people locked in a room who have to work together to get themselves free, and also to do the right thing. There are a lot of similarities to a hostage story.

Road stories and Buddy Stories are often variants of hostage stories too:

Sometimes you have one person as the prisoner of another.  An FBI agent and a fugitive crook (as with the wonderful comedy Flashback), or a runaway bride and the rugged mercenary hired to bring her home (a whole sub-genre of romances these days, and a common madcap comedy theme in Hollywood movies).

Sometimes you have two fugitives chained together, who must cooperate to escape.  That's a kind of hostage story too.  Especially those stories where one of them is a racist white guy and the other is an angry black man.  Or they're ex-husband and wife.  They don't want to be there, they don't want to be together.  They are forced into that situation by something outside themselves, and they have to put their differences aside to escape.

Or one of my favorites comedy tropes: the guest who will not leave.  Stories like The Man Who Came to Dinner. are definitely a kind of "hostage" story, as a family struggles to deal with this autocratic invader in their home.

And that brings me to a particular sub-category of hostage story I call The Occupation Story. 

The Occupation Story

The occupation story runs the gamut, from being a literal hostage story (like The Petrified Forest and The Desperate Hours) to barely fitting at all (stories about an event -- such as a wedding -- that disrupts a person's routine to the point that it's like being taken hostage).

Occupation stories are about invasions.  It might be an army occupying a town or whole country.  It might be about outlaws occupying a home or place of business.  (Or that comedy about a terrible guest who will not leave.)

The thing that makes this different from a classic hostage situation is that the point isn't about holding a hostage as a bargaining chip.  It's about holding a territory.  The "hostages" themselves might not even be the target of the occupier's attention.  The occupier may have some other goal, and the hostages are just people to be controlled in the meantime.  (For this reason, I think a lot of prison stories fall into this category -- while the guards may, as individuals, have something against the prisoners, the overt reason they are there is to get a paycheck.)

I like this kind of story because it leaves both sides of the drama more leeway to be human.  Like the prisoners shackled together, the story is really about them dealing with each other.  They might work together, they might outwit each other.  And they have to stuggle both with prejudices against each other and with Stockholm Syndrome -- because they have to work together to survive, are they really friends and allies?  Maybe they should hold on to their prejudices.

That's one of the reasons why The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is on my Top Ten movies list.  It's about characters struggling for survival, but also for integrity, learning when to trust and when not to.

In some ways, the Occupation Story is about politics and human society.  Who is in control?  Is it fair, is it just?  Is there an opportunity to change it?  Is it better to accept the status quo, or to violently overturn it?  Or is it possible to negotiate?

And that is where this kind of story can drift outside of the hostage story trope entirely.  Becuase it is related to the story of oppressive societies and regimes.  Where is that line that makes it not a hostage story any more?

I think that line comes from two related things:

1.) A hostage story is not about the status quo, it's about when a line gets crossed.  So a struggle against an established oppressive regime is not a hostage story, but the story of the secret police invading your house could be.

2.) A hostage story is about a power struggle of individuals.  The big power structure may be out there, putting pressure on everyone, but the key element of a hostage story is that it steps outside of that and becomes personal.

So, in my opinion, even though it involves imprisonment and the struggle against a totalitarian state, Star Wars is not a hostage story.  However, the opening scene -- of Princess Leia being taken prisoner -- could be: if that were the whole story, and the central conflict were between Vader and Leia, and his forces vs. the ship's crew.

And that takes us back to the concept of drama.  In a stage play, a story is limited in scope -- it is limited to the stage.  That is, in and of itself, and kind of pressure cooker.  The character, and the actors, can't escape each other.  There is no retreating back into your team.  There's no letting someone else handle it.  The screws on the pot have been tightened down, and the characters must deal with each other.

This is why I like every variety of pot-boiler (no just the hostage variants).  I like any trope that holds the characters to something they don't want to be held to.  I don't mind if it's benign and even silly. But I respond to that pressure.

See you in the funny papers.

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