Theories of storytelling • 22 October 2011 • The SnowBlog
Theories of storytelling
All this talk about the trade side of publishing - maybe it's time to think about the authors and readers out there. I'm going to ramble on for quite a long while exploring some of the 'rules' of storytelling. Assuming that there are rules - which is something else I want to think about.
About ten years ago, when I was first interested in how to construct a story for a novel, I read a few books on the subject and none of the advice they contained seemed like it was addressing what I was stuck on. Then I switched to books on screenwriting and found a deluge of advice: rules and guidelines and sure-fire processes you had to follow. Many of the advice-givers acted like the planning of movies was closer to engineering than art. According to the handbook writers, movies have acts even if the viewer isn't aware of them. In order to make the story compelling and satisfying, the plot would want to pivot through a major change of direction where act one meets act two and then again where act two gives way to act three.
I can imagine some of you may be wriggling in your seats at the thought that any of this could apply to novel-writing. Writing a novel, like raising a child, is something you're supposed to be allowed to do in whatever weird way you want to. And of course that's true. But I'm someone who likes to read thrillers and a thriller is a novel with a specific job to do, so it's not unreasonable to think that it might have to tick certain boxes and conform to certain expectations. That's the thing about genre: write something that defies too many of the conventions and you may find you haven't written a genre novel at all. So if some novels do have rules - or at least expectations that need to be met - it might be helpful to drag them into the light. So let's just say that I'm open to the idea that a novel can learn something from a movie and I'm interested by the idea that a paperback thriller might be constructed using some of the same high-performance parts Hollywood bolts together for its own thrill rides.
Screenwriting terminology has it that movies break down into acts and acts break down into scenes. And I think much of the time a scene (or sequence of connected scenes) would map to a chapter in book-speak. So how do you write a scene? Well, much emphasis seems to be placed upon conflict. Drama - which is a nebulous substance held to be the lifeblood of a scene - seems to come from tension and jeopardy and conflict. Imperil a character or have her clash with others. Scenes where everyone sits around agreeing are dull - and presumably they are only there for the purposes of 'exposition'.
'Exposition' is another cornerstone of screenwriting and is talked of in the same terms pet owners talk of administering worming pills. If possible mash it up into their food so that they don't know they're eating it but you need to get it into them somehow. You can't avoid exposition entirely because 'exposition' is about giving the viewer/reader the information they need in order to understand the story. When the audience don't know what's going on, you may have skimped on the exposition. When they start yawning at each line of dialogue, you may have overdone the exposition. But clearly the viewer needs enough background to understand something of why the characters are doing the things they're doing and enough context to understand what the stakes are. There's even talk of what you might call 'forward exposition' - and which the books call 'foreshadowing' - which give the viewer veiled hints of where the story might be going. My impression is that when screenwriters talk of 'foreshadowing' they're talking about something akin to the way novelists talk about symbolism and themes: that's to say it's about the hidden resonances of the narrative. But I'm actually more interested in something a bit more overt and practical than foreshadowing. I think about 'forward exposition' a lot because I often feel viewers need to understand what kind of story they're in and roughly what shape it will have if they're to really get absorbed in it. Subverting the conventions is great and all, but a lot of the time knowing that you're watching a whodunnit is a big help when it comes to paying attention to what's important and tuning out things the writer didn't intend you to notice. We'll come back to that question of how you might prime viewers on the overall shape of the story they're in. First, let's think about writing a scene.
We've been told we need dramatic conflict, and if we think about where we might get some from the answer leads to the third big ingredient of movie storytelling: characterisation. If the characters are distinct and well-established then if you put any two of them together they're bound to disagree on something. They need not bicker, but they can subtly clash over approach or values or viewpoints. Of course many screenwriters seem to think that if a little conflict is good then more is better. They're the guys who write dramas where everyone is constantly furious with everyone else. Because drama = conflict = shouting. I think of this as the 'Eastenders' school of writing (for all I know, Eastenders has a gossamer subtlety that makes Austen seem like Brainiacs, but whenever I catch a snippet of it, it's always people shouting at each other.)
Presumably now that we've got characterisation, from which we can get some conflict, and we've snuck in some exposition, we've got a scene. But we need to link those scenes together to tell a story, which takes us back to acts - and that brings up the question of arcs. Act one will bring us the 'precipitating event': the letter from an old friend, the phone call at 2am, the flirtatious meeting with a stranger. That event drags the protagonist into the story we're about to tell. Act two will see them walk this new path until they reach a crisis at the end of act two. The end of act two is signaled in a number of ways. Descriptions like 'darkest before the dawn' or the 'dark night of the soul' often crop up. That pivotal point may follow from a moment of apparent defeat. One screenwriting system talks about the 'whiff of death'. At the end of act two someone or something usually dies: the hero's mentor or guardian, usually, though the death can be more metaphorical. It's a signal that things cannot go on as they are. They require a change and that change is what propels us into act three and the resolution of the story.
That change should not simply be a shift in tactics; it should also be an emotional shift. The handbook-writers are very clear on the fact that good stories change the characters within them. They're different people at the end of the movie than at its start. Certainly the hero must change and often those around him are transformed too. And smart screenwriters do their best to link the internal voyage of the character to the external one. In fact it's a well-established movie trope that until the character changes inside their head they can't overcome whatever problem is bedeviling them externally. If you want a corny example, think of the (ridiculous) father-complex that Tom Cruise's character has in Top Gun. Until the hero can get over some mental hurdle or accept some emotional truth they can't kick the bad guy's ass. In a superhero story that internal change is often accepting that they really are a superhero (similarly for 'the chosen one' in fantasy stories). Though we've seen that so many times that watching 90 mins of someone refusing to accept they can fight crime or control dragons is getting pretty boring.
It is often this linking of internal and external changes - and making the external hinge on the internal - that gives thrillers emotional resonance. It's often more powerful still if, along with a change in character, the main protagonist recognises that they've changed. In other words, they've acquired some self-knowledge. Frequently that can feel like the most important aspect of the story: all is in ruins, small fires still burn in the background, the hero sits with his head in his hands aware that he's starting from scratch, having lost everything, but at least now he knows who he is and that changes everything.
To flog my dead horse of choice, what I dislike most about typical episodes of the BBC sci-fiasco, Torchwood, is that it takes seriously the requirement to lard every scene with conflict and jeopardy (or 'constant vicious bickering' which is their version of conflict) and it does its best at characterisation, but there's rarely any emotional journey for the characters. Or rather those journeys are not treated seriously: a character reaches a breaking point and then... forgets about it in time for next week when they go off the rails again. They're just puppets because they have no convincing emotional life and they don't change or come to understand themselves.
So there we go. That's the bare bones of what screenwriters say about telling a story. Now you may choose to disagree with any of those ideas or you may feel that a good story can be told without recourse to any of them, and that's your prerogative. But I'm quite conservative in my tastes, preferring traditionally structured thrillers - or rom-coms or heist movies or what-have-you - in other words genres that require some adherence to the accepted forms within which there's plenty of scope for freshness and invention. So I'm much more interested in the question: is it possible to follow all those suggestions of structure and content and still produce a dud. Well, of course the answer is 'yes' and the quickest route there is simply sloppiness or a lack of originality. But assuming someone with good ideas has worked hard to produce a story which hasn't broken any of the 'rules' mentioned here, why might it still fall flat. And that's the question I want to consider in the next post when I talk about the BBC Three supernatural drama, The Fades.