Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Plot Lines

In pre-blogging days, when I could say things down the pub and sound clever, I used to say that once the Odyssey was written there were no new stories left to write. On the interweb you can't be so glib and breezy, because someone will ask you to explain or defend what you say. Which is as it should be.

Over at A Wayfarer’s Notes, a couple of weeks ago, I briefly intervened in a discussion of the blogger’s reaction to a reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh. An assertion I made was questioned and I intended to expand on my comment. The thread quickly transcended any minor point that I might have been able to make and became a mini-epic in its own right, with bloody fights, alliances made and broken and remade, peripheral skirmishes brought into the main action, and the final resolution, manifesting the triumph of the greatness of the human spirit, and, very unusually for a blog thread, the original point of the post was clarified, illuminated and understood. (And right at the end, just a tiny hint that there might be sequel in the offing...)

I do, however,  think that most, or all, stories, their plotlines that is, follow an essential, basic pattern:

People, context (where, relations, etc), unacceptable (because bad, unexplained) situation => acceptable (because good, desired, satisfying, coherent) situation through medium of central character

These can be exemplified by a few of the commonest types:

Personal achievement- boy wins girl, defeats baddie, etc

Public achievement- defeating enemy nation, monster etc

Mystery- resolution thereof

Founding legend, identity legend, justifying legend

Bildunsroman- growing and learning, reaching knowledge/maturity

I’m not trying to oversimplify, just to reduce the concept of story to a few basic elements which always seem to be present and to help us recognise that something is a story and not a different kind of text. Or perhaps it just means that I think it’s only a story if it has an ending.

There are, of course, an unlimited number of ways the basic story can be written, which is good news for those of us who go on scribbling.


Vincent said...

I am of course determined to refute you, even if in the process I reveal that I have nothing better to do, or am ready to sacrifice everything on my agenda to make my point. Perhaps that is one of the plotlines which fits into your "essential, basic pattern" which I find too compressed and gnomic for full comprehension.

Anyhow, I shall not cheat and lie in my pursuit. The first story that occurred to me for the purposes of testing your hypothesis was the short story "Museums and Women" which I had written about in my post "Reading, and other extreme sports".

In this, John Updike tells a string of anecdotes in which he compares women to museums or vice versa. The first woman is his mother. The others include the one he married, one he would like to have a relationship with, one he did have a passionate relationship with, and then the same one again years later, where she tells him more emphatically than he would have wished that it was all over, finished, please go away.

In each case, you see the parallel between a museum and a woman.

I repeat, this is the very first story I thought of. And it doesn't seem to fit any of your categories, even the essential basic one.

So it isn't a story? Then what is it?

CIngram said...

My immediate response was the word 'vignettes.' My instinct about what is and what is not a story is so strong that it reached for another word automatically to refer to something which doesn't fit the category. Updike's work(I speak from the vaguest of memories), is a series of descriptions, not narratives, from which the reader is expected to construct his own story. This is a perfectly good technique, (carried to extremes by Hemingway? with his 'For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.')

While finishing the post this morning I was reminded by chance that I didn't like John Le Carré when I read him years ago. The critic's remarks made sense to me. Of course, I thought. If you don't know what happened to anyone, or why they did anything, and if the last line of the book reveals, or suggests that the character on whose loyalty everything else depends was in fact a spy, then in what sense do you have a coherent narrative? That's my memory of Le carré. What are you supposed to do, go back and read the whole thing again in the light of this new information?

A lot of literature is not narrative, or is too complex in structure to be described using a simple series of categories. Much poetry, for example. Much of the work of Borges, for another. It isn't intended to have the structure I set out, and there is no reason it should have. But in that sense such works are not stories, they are... conceptual puzzles... collages... thought kaleidoscopes...

I could have fun making up terms, but the answer could well be that my idea of what a story is is too narrow.

I've never liked Updike either. I'm beginning to understand why.

Vincent said...

Vignettes is a good word, yes. I think a lot of short stories fall into that category.

This discussion is most interesting. I think we have opposite tastes in literature, and probably in film too. Now that you've got me thinking I realize I am less interested in narrative. This accounts for part of my indignation at the treatment of the Gilgamesh text, as shown in a documentary Luciana lnked to when commenting on my recent post. To me it was a text that reveals a lost wisdom. To take the story and make it into a comic book, for example, was to trample over the message and leave nothing worth having.

My favourite novelists are Dostoievsky, Conrad, John Cowper Powys, Martin Amis. What they have in common is something above the narrative: an attitude, a meditation, a style. The point of their stories, for the reader, is to enter into the characters, and see the world through their eyes. The point of their stories, for the author, is to explore his own psyche, and how it copes with the world he lives in.

CIngram said...

After writing the word vignettes, I wondered if it would be too taken as too dismissive a term. I'm glad you've taken it in the spirit in which it was intended. Many works are descriptions of images, sometimes inviting us to construct our own narrative, sometimes not, rather than narratives in themselves. That is clearly something I had overlooked, and the reason is, i think, that the writers, and writings, that most attract me are narratives.

I haven't seen the video that Luciana linked to, but I think I understand why you rejected it so strongly: the telling of the tale was reduced to a, possibly facile, narration of a story, and what gripped you about Gilgamesh was the telling and not the tale.

I have many favourite novelists, but Thomas Hardy, Emily Brontë. George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling and O Henry are names that come immediately to my mind.