Monday, April 7, 2014

Games People Play

My husband and I never saw the series Lost so we've been watching it via Netflix this past few weeks. There's an episode in season 1 (Ep. 16 Outlaws) that made me think about "games" as a device in plot. Sometimes a good opportunity for plot development is to throw two characters into a situation where they're "stuck" and forced to engage each other out of desperation, boredom, or both. In movies--especially teen flicks or rom coms--this tends to be the game Truth or Dare. But there are other interesting possibilities.

First, here's the example from Lost that inspired this post. Relax--if you're planning to binge watch the show, no spoilers here. All you need to know is that the two characters in this scene--Kate and Sawyer--are stranded on an island after a plane crash, among with 40-odd other people. Sawyer has separated off from the group to hunt a wild boar that recently destroyed his tent and possessions. Kate follows him and offers her tracking skills in return for "carte blanche"--ie, 24/7 access to Sawyer's fiercely guarded stash of supplies. Both are "outsider" characters who don't play well with the others on the island. The game they play is "I Never"--a drinking game in which each player tells something they've never done. If the other player has never done that thing, they do nothing, but if they have, they take a drink. Watch how it plays out:

This scene works really well in a visual medium because as much as said in the pauses when the drinking takes place as in the dialogue. The scene progresses from adversarial sarcasm to playful banter to the final revelations in which the characters acknowledge a dark truth they share. The relationship between the two changes dramatically from the beginning to the end of the scene because the game compresses a lot of information and tension into a short space.

A more subtle example of this plot device is in a short story called "A Temporary Matter" (in the collection, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri). In a nutshell, it's about a husband (Shukumar) who has slowly been growing apart from his wife (Shoba) following the stillbirth of their only child. It just so happens that, in order to repair a broken power line, the electric company shuts off service to the couple's neighborhood every evening for one hour. That first evening in the dark, Shoba recalls how, when she was a girl in India, her grandmother made each member of the family tell a story, joke, or fact during power outages, to help the time go more quickly. The couple decides to tell each other one thing each night that they never told before.

In this situation, the game device works really well because it is the only way this couple has to communicate. Like the downed power line that forms the backdrop, all other attempts to share their grief have failed, and the game prompts an interaction that is able to cover the full range of emotions the couple has been avoiding. At first, Shukumar is terrified that the interaction will reveal the worst--an affair or other disrespect--and then, even more terrifying, the dread that he is all too familiar to his wife and that nothing may be revealed. This soon passes, however, and the couple begins to realize that the small disappointments and hurts they've visited on each other have been the most impactful. The revelations lead them to new intimacy and then, finally, to a place where they are able to grieve for their child together. It's not a happy ending, by any means, but again, the relationship between husband and wife is dramatically altered over the course of a very short space. Sorry not to excerpt the story here, but because Lahiri writes heavily in summary (vs scene), it's difficult to pick apart out of context.

I'll try to keep looking for more examples of this type of device--I find it an interesting one, and one that never fails to be exciting to the reader/viewer. If you come across any in your readings, let me know--I'd love to add to the collection.

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