Saturday, February 02, 2013

Horns, Backs & Little Leaps

There's a story generation program that has had a tremendous influence on me as a writer.  It's called Dramatica Pro.  It doesn't give you story ideas.  It asks you a bunch of questions about the story you have in mind.  The answers lead to other questions, which often lead to discoveries about what you're trying to say in the story and gaps in the plot you might be blind to.  
The program has its own theory about story, some of which I've adopted as my own.  One part of the theory is every protagonist will face a choice in their resolve toward the problem they are facing.  They will either maintain their convictions and continue to strive toward their goal in the way they have been taught to do, or believe is right to do.  Dramatic Pro refers to this choice as "Remaining Steadfast."  An example is Daniel from the Karate Kid.  After he is injured in the tournament, his teacher, Mr. Miyagi tries to tell him that he's won already and it's no longer necessary to finish the tournament.  Daniel insists, though, telling Mr. Miyagi that if he doesn't finish, face the leader of the group that has tormented him since moving to Reseda, he'll never be whole.  Mr. Miyagi relents and treats Daniel so he can finish.  The rest, as they say, was a series of sequels of declining quality.  
Well, Karate Kid, Part 2 was good.  With Tamlyn Tomita playing the love interest.  Jeez, I still have fantasies about...
Anyway...  The other potential choice in Dramatica Pro's theory on the main character's resolution is to Change.  To go in a different direction.  To give up the past, the tried and true ways, and try something different.  The most famous example I can think of is Luke Skywalker hearing Obi-Wan Kenobi say, "Use the Force, Luke."  Give up trying to blow up the Deathstar using just your skills, like you did hitting those womp rats back home.  Use the mystical force that you only learned about a short time ago.  Luke decides to change and the rest, as they say, was a series of sequels which were pretty good, followed by a series of prequels that weren't.  
I put the choice of resolution this way: It's the choice between Keeping the Faith (Steadfast) or Making a Leap of Faith (Change).  
If I were a character in a story,  would be one that would Keep the Faith when it came to that crisis point.  Hang in there.  Keep digging.  Keep striving.  Better, more certain, to punch your way through the wall than find a way to leap over it or go around it.  Doing that will make you a bigger target, and you might come crashing down to earth in a way that you can't recover.  
Ironically...  Or maybe not so ironically, when you think about it, most of the characters I create in the stories I write are Leap-of-Faithers.  They decide on change.  They try the things they wouldn't dream of doing before.  I think I write characters like this because I am fascinated by the ability to make such a choice.  I wondered what it would take to bring someone to such a point that they could give up on what they thought was the "right" doing things.  
I think I have a better idea of that now from my personal life.  
Back in April, I was promoted to the position of Production Manager at work.  I didn't really have a choice in the matter.  My boss told me I had a weekend to consider the position.  Not to decide whether or not I wanted it, but to figure out how I was going to pass off my current assignments and take it over.  
I was also concerned over whether or not I could do the job.  I had been in a management position previously, and it had not ended well.  I thought that I might be setting myself up for another such failure if it took it.  On the other hand, though, I didn't think I had much choice in the matter, so I said yes, and moved into my new office.  
To my surprise, things went well.  Remarkably well, in fact.  My unit beat its production goal by the end of my first full month managing it.  It beat the production goal the next month, by even more.  And the month after that by a higher margin.  We've beaten the production every month since I've taken over.  I went back over the records a few months ago and discovered that the Production Department had not made the production goal in the fifteen months prior to my taking over.  
Things were going well.  
But as in any good, dramatic story, things didn't go smoothly forever.  I am unable to go into details, but it is safe to say that other concerns became paramount.  I felt that the tables had finally turned.  That the failure I had been afraid of back in April was finally staring me in the face.  
My response from the beginning was to work hard.  Now, facing the crisis, I decided to work harder.  I stayed longer hours, often skipping the gym and getting home just in time to go to bed.  I worked weekends, to catch up on the stuff that needed doing.  I watched what my people were doing to make sure we were getting out the work that needed to get done.  
I was pretty angry.  "Angry is the whetstone one uses to sharpen one's will."  I kept telling myself that.  It's my own saying.  You can quote me if you like.  I used my anger to wrest the situation into what I wanted, needed it to be.  I could see signs that things were changing.  Just not fast enough.  
Then fate stepped in.  Or the County of Los Angeles court system.  I had received a jury summons.  And at the peak of my efforts to "fix things" I was called in to serve on a jury.  The night before I went to court, I called in the supervisor and lead people of the unit and told them they had to take care of things until I got back.  I told them I hoped it would only be a day or so.  
A week later, after my fellow jurors and I levied our verdict, I was back in the office.  I was ready to do whatever was necessary to make things right.  
What I discovered, though, was that it wasn't necessary.  My guys had taken me at my word.  They had reorganized things.  The work was getting done.  We were hitting the daily number and beating it. 
Things came to a head when I went to someone's desk to check the work being done.  The supervisor came up to me and tried to take the work out of my hand.  "It's organized.  I've got a system.  It's working.  Trust me."  
I felt a surge of the anger I'd been carrying for the last couple of months.  Was he turning against me?  I was the boss!  Those words were on my lips.  I was the boss, and I was going to tell him what to do.  
Instead, I said, "All Right."  I let go of the work.  "I'll trust you."  I told him what I needed to see done and I walked away.  I walked out of the unit.  I walked through the other departments.  I wandered the halls of the office.  Part of me felt like I'd given up.  Like I'd quit.  Another part of me, a dizzy, lightheaded part, said that it was part of something else.  The strange, dislocated feeling I'd had while on jury duty was now the new normal.  
After my walk, I returned to my office.  I called the supervisor and lead people into my office.  "OK," I told them.  "You guys are running the show.  You've proven you can do it.  I'll take care of the things that need doing it to allow you guys to do your job.  I'm trusting you to take care of business."  
That was a month about a month ago.  We made the daily goal every day after that but one.  We lowered our base.  We dropped our late percentage.  And, by the end of the month, we set a record for the amount of work the unit has done in the history of the company.  By a big, huge, fat amount.  
Am I patting myself on the back?  Blowing my own horn?  Yeah, a little.  I am.  It's embarrassing because, well...  It's not something I'm used to doing.  I have a persona that I maintain at work.  The closest example I can think of is Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.  A presumption that I am better than anyone else in the room, so you might as well leave me alone and let me take care of things, because I'll do it better than you anyway.  
But part of that is a defense mechanism.  A smokescreen to keep people from looking too closely to see how true it is.  Part of the reason I work as hard as I do is to find the mistakes that I "Know" are there before someone else does.  
But sometimes, and I'm getting to my point here, so please bear with me, sometimes you have to admit to yourself that you ARE good at what you do.  Just like sometimes, even when it goes against the grain...  Or, BECAUSE it goes against the grain, you have to take a little leap of faith and try something new.  Like trusting someone to do the job you picked them to do.  
Do me a favor though...  If you read this, keep it to yourself.  I don't want anyone thinking I'm getting mushy.  You know what I mean? 


Anonymous Ann said...

What you did, Erick, is exhibit good management skills. The hardest part is to let go and let others work for you.

I have to take issue with the contrast you are making between the steadfast and change characters. Both approaches are useful, depending on the situation. You say you had no choice when you were offered the promotion - of course you did. You could have changed - jobs. It takes hard work to do something outside your comfort zone, whether your comfort zone is steadfast or change-oriented. Me, I'm change oriented and am currently fighting with myself to try and be steadfast. I think the hardest part is that the alternative always feels wrong. For you, change feels like taking the easy way out. For me, being steadfast is a whimpy choice. Maybe I'll get called for jury duty and my problems will resolve.

p.s. Thanks for the mention of Dramatica Pro. I'm going to check it out.

February 3, 2013 at 1:40 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

I'm not sure I get what you are taking issue with. I think that both approaches have their uses, too, and that the choice depends on the person making it.

You're right when you say I had a choice when the promotion was offered. My perception that there was no choice is dependent on other factors, such as getting a job that pays as well at my stage in my working life, etc. But like I said, my inclination is to remain steadfast, or keep the faith, in such situations.

Dramatica Pro is worth checking out. There are other concepts from it that inform my theory of story. I think I'll post more about it in coming weeks.

February 3, 2013 at 6:06 PM  

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