Friday, September 09, 2005

Today's and Yesterdays Lessons: Story Design and Narratology

Missed a chance to blog yesterday, so catching up on two days' worth here. Once again, the two books are somewhat dovetailing with each other. I love it when that happens.

Yesterday I was in the city (Auckland) after attending the Marketing Association's Brainy Breakfast. So school was in Albert Park, and despite being evangelised to once, I was pretty much able to enjoy the quiet and the different environment... and learn about Story Design from the book Story.

Story design starts with a strong protagonist - the character you identify with. It's more important that your protagonist be someone people can relate to, rather than like. Think of Macbeth: a ruthless killer. Yet because he soliloquizes to us, the audience, we know what he's thinking, how guilty he's feeling, and we think yes, that's just like me!

Story happens when your protagonist wants something - it may be adventure, treasure, immortality, or even, as in The Patriot, a quiet, peaceful life with freedom - and can't get it.

Story doesn't happen unless the protagonist can't get what they want ... and when life surprises them like this, they take action to try and move closer to what they want, being blocked all the time.

In terms of the desire, its value is determined by how much your protagonist is going to risk. Take The Patriot again for example... Mel Gibson's character just wants a quiet life, but also freedom. Is he willing to risk his life for that freedom? Not at first; he doesn't want to get involved. But when the nasty-piece-of-work British makes neutrality impossible, you'd better watch out. He's willing to risk anything now.

Essentially story is this. The chapter had a lot more to say about character, but that was the essential point on how to structure a character. McKee also had this to say: "Fine writing emphasises REACTIONS."

Why? Because when we watch or read a story, we all of us think, "What would I do?" And that's really what a writer has to do in order to make the story authentic: "What would I do if I were this character?"

Today's lesson, from The Writing Experiment, was mostly on a bench at the Halibut Reserve in Mt. Albert, and when it started raining, the Avondale Library (yes, a long walk, and I didn't smell too good!).

The chapter on Narratology was the best I've come across so far in The Writing Experiment, I suppose because I'm biased towards realist narrative fiction at the moment, rather than the many other genres and forms out there.

Narratology is an analytical system for understanding narrative structure. It breaks down narrative into its constitutive parts. So while story is the "what" of narrative, discourse - the "how" of narrative - is what narratology is concerned with.

Basically (and the chapter is anything but basic, so I may be oversimplifying here), there's:
  • What type of narrator: first person, second person, or third person? First and third are most common, but sometimes second person "you" can be used. It often makes the piece more intimate or sometimes, more intimidating.
  • Sometimes the narrator types are messed up: you'll have first, second and third person in the same piece, referring to the same person. Designed to mess with your head, in order to understand a frame of mind, or identity crisis, or just confuse you :)
  • There was a bit of talk about how much power the narrator has over a story. As the storyteller, you control everything the reader knows about the subject (if it's fiction). You can make absolute use of this and manipulate the reader, or be really democratic and present the story from multiple points of view.
  • Narrative foreshadowing is really very simple ... the addition of phrases like " Sophie would discover later" lets the reader know to look out for something later. A bit like the cliffhanger endings they used to have on Dr. Who.
  • Absent narrator - yes, you can tell a story with no narrator, by the use of non-literary elements, like "found texts" discussed last time.
  • Focalisation or Point of View is different from the type of narrator. First person is usually likely to give the narrator's point of view, but third person can experiment with presenting several character's points of view. At school we called it the "Eye of God" approach.
  • Similar to what Story said about building character, you build Point of View not from a preconceived idea, but from sensing feeling and thinking about an event from the character's point of view.
The last segment of the chapter talked about narrative restructuring. Not many stories start at the beginning and work their way through exclusively chronologically to the end. You've got to work out how to fit the story together, and basically you're free to try whatever you want.

For example, Martin Amis' novel Time's Arrow or the Nature of the Offence goes backwards in time as a disembodied soul examines the life it has lived. Then there's that movie Guy Pearce was in about memory... name, anyone?

The chapter closed by saying "all narratives lie at a point along the continuum between open and closed". A closed ending is the ending Story recommends, one where all the loose ends are tied up, the mystery is solved, etc. An open ending is like it sounds - the loose ends remain trailing, and it's up to the reader to figure it out.

Some good stuff. My head is reeling, and I haven't even done the practical exercises yet.

No class on Monday and Tuesday; I'm speaking at a conference. So, see you on Wednesday!


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