Reservoir Blogs #9- New Models of Structure

Post-holiday, I went back to jogging around the reservoir this morning. It hurt, but that’s not the point. I was reflecting on two films I’ve seen in recent weeks which seem to be battling with narrative structure in very different ways.

The first, ‘Cold War’, has a long sweep of years to deal with, charting a love affair through post-war Europe. There are huge jumps in time, but what I found interesting in this film was the way it dealt with maintaining a coherent narrative with these sizeable elisions of time between scenes. Of course, having a film that jumps years in the lives of its major characters is nothing new, but most are constructed so that the scenes you are shown are the ones in which major plot points unfold, characters make key decisions etc. We are persuaded that what we have missed doesn’t matter that much. ‘Cold War’ is different. Many of the scenes we are offered show the characters dealing with a decision or event that has happened in the interim between scenes. We learn of it through the reflections of the characters and our own surmise as to the changed circumstance. It works brilliantly. It shouldn’t – according to everything I know about narrative structure – but somehow the major plot points in the movie happen off screen and I still came away with a vivid and satisfactory picture in my head of how the lives of the characters changed in those missing moments. I recommend it as a master class on how to use the viewer’s imagination to create the cause-effect linkages in the story in a rather brilliant and original way.

‘The Wife’, by contrast, I recommend as a master class in acting by Glenn Close. Structurally, it also features a sweep of years from the beginning of a love affair to its death, though its treatment of time is not linear as it is in ‘Cold War’. However, despite the great acting (Oscar potential for sure), I point to it as a cautionary tale of how embedded ideas of narrative structure and character arc sometimes get in the way of truth. This is a movie in which the characters are set up one way (rather well set up in the opening act) and the plot demands then contrive to make them behave at key points as if they have become completely different people. To try to explain without giving plot spoilers, Close’s character, the wife, is set up as a kingmaker, but is required to act like a usurped queen in order to give the movie its key plot point at the end of Act Two, and then to vacillate like Schroedinger’s cat throughout the third act. She still manages to have no agency in the event that decides the movie’s outcome. It’s all ‘deus-ex-machina’ stuff. The husband, Jonathan Pryce, playing the king, can’t decide if he is a wicked narcissist, or a weak creation of his wife’s ambition forever trying so hard to thank her for her support that she finally becomes weary and bored with him. Watching it, it seemed to me that Hollywood’s need to tie everything in a neat emotional bow, and nod gracefully to political correctness at the same time made a horrible mess out of a great set up. I was disappointed. It felt rather like watching a version of Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth doesn’t go mad with guilt but is instead swapped with Bridget Jones at the end of Act Two.

Disappointed, yes, but contrasting the way in which writers and directors tackled the structural problems is rather interesting. I wonder if ‘Cold War’, a Polish film, would ever have been green-lit in Hollywood. I doubt it, because it’s taking liberties with the classical narrative structure and demanding that the audience fill in the gaps that the film-maker has left. ‘The Wife’, it seems to me, is hamstrung by the need to inject a classical narrative structure’s dramatic ups and downs into a setup populated by characters who have decided who they are long ago and have no credible motivation to change.

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Reflections On My Weekend At The Fringe

Reflections on the Edinburgh Festival? Nine shows in a weekend. That’s pretty good going for anyone. Something like 40,000 steps covered according to the Fitbit. It’s a big city.

What were the shows like, you ask. Here’s my rundown for anyone who has the chance to go and catch something in the last week of the festival:-

Reginald D. Hunter – very funny, political in an intelligent way. Very insightful when contrasting British and Southern States US racism, but why the joke about drowning a crippled baby in the last five minutes? Hunter announces the joke, saying members of his audience at previous shows have walked out over it. He knows it’s offensive and he’s a smart guy, so he must have his reasons, but if it was making a point, I missed it. Left a bitter taste at the end of a set which surfed the edge of acceptability rather successfully, exposing political correctness to laugh out loud ridicule as it bowled along. Answers on a postcard about the last joke.

The Approach– a play about three Irish sisters meeting in successive pairings in a coffee-shop while their relationships crash and burn and friends commit suicide. Actually, this was hugely better than I’m making it sound, and superbly acted. In the end, I’m not sure the circular narrative structure worked, but the actors kept me hooked for most of the hour.

Casus: You & I — how do you describe this? Check out the link for a little preview, but in short, suppose two male acrobats – one tall; one short – decided to spend a rainy afternoon climbing over the furniture in their apartment, culminating in a precarious stacking of eight dining chairs and both of them doing hand stands on the top of the pile. Got the picture? These are the sort of people who have a trapeze hanging from the ceiling, and not because they’ve been watching ’Fifty Shades’. The energy and skill in this two-handed all-action performance is impressive. The show deserved its final standing ovation. If spending sixty minutes shaking your head, thinking, ‘Oh sh*t, this is going to end in tears,’ is for you, this is probably Edinburgh’s no. 1 show.

Lucy Porter – the show plays to a well-established audience. In fact, Porter spends the first ten minutes telling us exactly why her particular middle-aged audience demographic is going to enjoy her show. Basically, the idea is ‘old age hurts and I’m here to make you laugh about it.’ Whether the laughter is raucous or sardonic depends, I guess, on how many of the symptoms you’ve yet encountered. It’s safe and delivers exactly what it says on the tin… like Ronson’s Wood-sealer.

Circolombia – this is anything but safe, check out the YouTube link. It’s a sellout Columbian circus playing to 700 people a night. It’s big; some of the rope twirling, body bending, somersaulting off seesaws and generally holding up things than no normal human being could hold up without their knees collapsing will have you cheering and gasping. It’s all done to a back beat of Latin music sung by two dancing balladeers. Another, bigger standing ovation for this one. Stunning! Probably the highlight of the weekend for me.

Elise– the story of Elise Cowen told by a small troupe of Bristol University alumni. Who was Elise Cowen? Think beat poets. Think Ginsberg. On one hand, another drugged up, batshit crazy artistic suicide with proto-feminist undertones, dripping self-inflicted First World angst — ‘Who cares?’ you might think.  On the other hand, some of the finest acting I’ve seen in a long time from the entire ensemble, and here in a small venue where you’re close enough up to see they really mean it. A gem that deserves a bigger audience and more attention. I stumbled into this one accidentally, having read nothing about it, as such I consider it my ‘Find of the Weekend’.

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True – a very committed play about the rape trial of a leading renaissance artist (Agostino Tasso) in good old Italy. Lots of people get very angry with each other, and while it faithfully records a rather disturbing trial involving figures from the art world, I’m not sure why that gives it the narrative punch to justify constructing a play around the events. In fact, having seen the play, I’m pretty convinced that it doesn’t. Plaudits once again for the acting, but of the four plays I saw in my Edinburgh weekend, this was the least successful.

Sindhu Vee – My favourite comedian of the weekend. Talks about her twenty year marriage and three kids for an hour. Unremarkable, except she’s a competitive, nicotine chewing Hindu and he’s Danish. Had all the edge that Lucy Porter did not, and avoided Reginald Hunter’s offensive transgressions. I laughed, a lot.

My Left/Right Foot – this is an interesting one, a musical that takes aim at stereotypical able-bodied attitudes to the disabled with a brand of humour borrowed straight from ‘The Book of Mormon’. In other words: let’s just show the ignorant culprits displaying their attitudes in the most offensive ways, sing about it with quirky lyrics and then laugh at them. Mostly the irony works, and I did enjoy the show, but when it strays onto anti-Semitic and gay jokes, its irony is less insightful and consequently appears uncomfortably less sincere.

All in all, after all those steps, expensive burgers, watery beers and paper-cup coffees on the run between shows, would I do it again. Tomorrow…. If I could.

‘West’ by Carys Davies

I don’t usually do reviews. I have to get really, really excited about something to bother reviewing it.

2pm on a sunny Bank Holiday Saturday I sat in the garden with Cary Davies’ novel. 4pm, I was released from her magical spell. Done too soon. Done too soon.

Did I say I was a fan? OK, I’m a fan. If you don’t know her previous work, go immediately to https://www.carysdavies.net/read/ and check it out.

To be slightly more objective about what I’m raving about here, Carys Davies is the author of two award-winning short story collections, which have shown her to be the supreme craftswoman in the form, a writer’s writer. Her prose is crisp, filled with imagery that always hints deliciously of a hidden world that lurks behind the confusing veil of the visible. Twist endings that redefine the real meaning of her stories in the last few paragraphs seem to be her speciality. Both ‘The Quiet’ and ‘Miracle at Hawkes Bay’ are destined to be classics. But she produces work slowly, her previous efforts little more than pamphlets and spread over half a dozen years. Her publishers probably wondered if she’d ever muster enough words to create a novel.

Enter ‘West’, a thin offering more like a novella, but containing the bold sweep of an epic. The rich Carys Davies prose is right there from the off. In true Clint Eastwood style, our pioneering hero leaves his ranch and daughter in search of monsters thousands of miles into the wilder west. He takes up with native Indians and scatters his wealth and wits along the trail, while his daughter waits and pines, increasingly endangered by her own flowering into womanhood. She no longer has a father to protect her. Is this what it’s really about? No, of course not. This is a Carys Davies novel! Cowboys chasing monsters would be far too simple. It’s about love and loss and what people will do in search of meaning. It’s better to travel in hope, thinking great thoughts, than sit home waiting for old age and death.

I love this book. It’s too short, but I guess I can read it more than once in a long afternoon.

Reservoir Blogs #8 – Models of Narrative Structure

So, the waters of Northamptonshire finally receded far enough to allow my weekend jogs around the reservoir to recommence and, with them, comes the opportunity to review some fundamental thoughts about story structure.

It took a while, but yes, I still think I’m right: all models about structure (Hero’s Journey, Three Act Structure, Four Act Structure, Propp’s Analysis of folk tales etc.) can be condensed into a time line and four plot points:

  • Stories start with some exposition and an ‘Inciting Incident’ – a glimpse at something new/odd/threatening/ challenging. Let’s call that ‘II’.
  • It takes a while for the hero (male or female) to accept that they have to tackle the problem/ accept the challenge. That’s the bit from ‘II’ to Plot Point 1 (‘PP1’). At PP1, the hero grasps the mettle and gets on with it.

Note: If you take the Exposition and the Incident together, you’ve got what some people call the ‘premise’, though the way some people define ‘premise’, it might include PP1 as well.

  • From ‘PP1’ to Plot Point 2 (‘PP2’), it seems like the hero is succeeding. But then the real bad guy(s) turns up and it ends in a crisis at PP2:- the hero gets beaten, humiliated and left in a heap.
  • From ‘PP2’ to Plot Point (‘PP3’), it emerges that the hero didn’t really understand what they were fighting/facing; they rethink. By ‘PP3’, they are ready to change their life/approach/belief system. The ‘essence of the story’ centres on this emotional change.
  • From ‘PP3’ to Plot Point 4 (‘PP4’), the hero is doing what is necessary to prepare to test their new found belief/life attitude/resolve etc.
  • At ‘PP4’, they are validated/proved correct (or occasionally proved wrong). The test they face is a thinly disguised rerun of the ‘PP2’ debacle, except that the enhanced hero produces a different result. The rest of the story is a rounding off/celebration of victory (or occasionally, the mourning of defeat)

BUT WHAT IT’S REALLY ABOUT

If the above simplification is right, i.e. this is how all story models are structured, the next question is ‘why?’. The best answer I can come up with is that what we’re creating is something like a ‘Thought Experiment about Character’.

This is how I think about it. We are putting the hero character in a particular situation because we’re interested in what happens. We like to validate our values and beliefs in ‘extremis’, but we wouldn’t really like the things that happen to heroes to happen to us, however heroic they seem by the end. Fictional heroes are useful (and safe) substitutes. We can check what makes him/her succeed and fail in our chosen test, thus validating a ‘truth’ in our minds and we don’t have to leave our armchair, fly through space, or tackle alligators to do it.

I’m a scientist at heart, so I can tell you how this experimental stuff works. I learned scientific method from an early age. You do an experiment under fixed conditions, you change one thing, you do the experiment again and you observe the difference in the result. “Ah-ha,” you say in your post-experimental write-up, “I can now come to a conclusion, because the difference in the result is clearly down to the one single, controlled change I made in the conditions.”

In narrative, we first test an ‘unchanged’ or ‘unperfected’ character. Failure occurs. We force a single change in the character and test again to see whether the change now helps him/her to succeed. Bingo! We know what really matters in that situation. It’s that one thing that turned our hero from a loser to a winner.

It becomes my ‘inciting incident and four plot point’ structure like this:

1) I explain the nature of the experimental set up (Premise= Inciting Incident and PP#1)

2) I show you that the results are negative with the character in his unchanged state (PP#2)

3) I change one component part of the character (behaviour, beliefs, value system) (PP#3)

4) Now in the changed condition, I repeat the experiment, achieving a different result. Hence showing the effect of changing the character (PP#4)

There are, of course, many possible types of Thought Experiment involving character, but let me suggest a couple to fully illustrate the theory:

• A Belief is Justified (i.e. a belief held by the main character, or formed by them in the course of the narrative, is tested and validated). This one’s common in those good vs evil narratives. The hero has to commit himself/herself to moral goodness before succeeding. Think of Luke Skywalker. He has to believe in the right side of the force before he can defeat the evil empire.

• Desire and Need are Matched (i.e. a desire expressed by the main character, or modified in the course of the narrative, will satisfy the character’s real need.) This one’s common in Rom-Coms. The hero starts off pursuing one thing (the apparent love of their life) and ends up realising it’s someone or something else (more worthy) they really love. Think ‘When Harry Me Sally’, or maybe even ‘Pretty Woman’.

A Bit Of Success To Report

I’m delighted to report that my short story,  ‘The Walker’, has won this year’s ‘Words With Jam’ Short Story Competition.  Yes, it’s true and just to prove it, you can read the story on the ‘Words With Jam’ site (http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/search/label/Competitions).

The story is an odd one, I must admit, written in the second person (thank you, Junot Diaz and Tama Janowitz for that inspiration).  I think it’s probably like Marmite – you’ll love it or you’ll hate it, but take a look and see what you think.