Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Who's Your 5th Business?

Beneath the skin of every story there is complicated machinery at work. Villainous machinations, misunderstandings, motivations, desires, dreams, and needs are the cogs and gears that turn the mechanism. All these parts and pieces are what fit together, fire your characters' synapses, and keep things moving forward.

Scene 1, Act One: The Gun Goes Off
While there are no universal rules for writing, there is language we can use to talk about these nuts and bolts. Our protagonist, for example, is our lead character. The antagonist is the opposition to our lead. We can talk about character development where the cast members change (or don't), we can talk about plot arcs, personal arcs, plot twists, prologues, and epilogues.

There is a term not all of us know, though. In fact, I just came across it the other day listening to Stephen King's Revival. However, the idea of the 5th Business is now locked in my brain as a term for certain pieces of machinery I hadn't codified before, so I thought I'd share it.

The 5th Business

As Language Hat tells us, this term comes from the novel 5th Business by Robertson Davies. The title is explained by a quote on the dedication page that reads:

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as the Fifth Business.

What does all that mean?

Well, in the book this quote precedes, starts with a mis-aimed snowball. The action was precipitated by a character who had none of the traditional roles listed in the main cast, but whose actions meant they weren't part of the background scenery. In short, the character who threw that snowball became an agent of change. The snowball hit a pregnant woman, making her give birth early. It saddled the boy who dodged the throw with a sense of lifelong guilt. It affected other members of the cast in a profound way, acting as the nudge that pushed them onto certain tracks of development.

And now, my action complete, I'm off to someone else's story!
That is the role of the 5th Business; acting as an agent to bring about the Recognition, or the unraveling of the play. While this was an invention of the author (who attributed the quote to a Danish author in order to satisfy his publishers at the time), it is one that has a use when discussing the role of certain integral parts of your story's clockwork.

So whether your 5th Business is part of an inciting incident, or their actions are what set the stage for the upcoming events, ask yourself who they are. Not only that, but ask if they understand the events they're setting in motion, and whether they understand they are agents of your story. Because a lot of the time, the 5th Business really has no intention of meddling in someone else's affairs... but that doesn't stop their actions from crystallizing someone else's path.

Or even several someones.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing. Hopefully some folks out there find this interesting, and if you'd like to see more work from me, go and check out my Vocal archive. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, or becoming a regular, monthly patron over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Either way, there's a lot of free stuff in it for you!

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