Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Plot number five: Comedy

Okay, so after brief hiatus caused by PhD stuff and daylight-dodging teenagers, here is plot number five: Comedy, courtesy of Christopher Booker (who I have just discovered is a global warming sceptic as well as a former editor of Private Eye, so clearly this is a man with a sense of humour).

Comedy doesn't have to be funny, as anyone who has a. seen 'Twelfth Night' or b. listened to Radio Four's weekday comedy slot will tell you. Comedy is a genre of story, and the basic requirement here are that things turn out well. The Ancient Greeks kicked the whole thing off, and at the heart of the story was an 'agon' or conflict between two characters or groups. One side is dominated by a restrictive belief or obsession. The other represents the life force, truth and freedom. The happy ending comes about when the 'dark' character is forced to see things differently and reconciliation/celebration follow. Good, in other words,triumphs over Evil. Nice thought.

Aristotle called this 'anagnorisis' or recognition, the moment when something not understood before comes clear. This discovery is still central to comedy: eg Bridget Jones discovers that Mark Darcy is really pretty sexy and the awful jumper he was wearing at the Alconbury's Christmas party was an unwanted present.

There are various sub-genres of comedy: romantic comedy being the most obvious. A classic plot is one in which the lovers are kept apart because they are unaware of each other's identity, or even of their own identity. Lost parents or the discovery that one of the characters is a prince or princess can be part of the mix. Shakespeare reinvigorated the form, complicating and enriching the original classical template. But he followed the same pattern: from darkness to light, from disorder to order; from discord to reconciliation.

Love is a frequent theme of comedy, but the 21st century version of the form attempts to 'play it for laughs' even if this goal is sometimes missed. A classic 'type' in this genre is someone who thinks they have the world under control whose life plunges into chaos. Romance and order after chaos/union after separation still dominate eg in ' Four Weddings and a Funeral' in which Charles is united with his True Love when his unfortunate bride (Duckface) is waiting at the altar. The classic of the form in old school Hollywood terms is 'Some Like it Hot' which is full of confusion, cross-dressing and romantic mishaps.

There are huge variations within this form. The key elements are a. we see a group of people in enclosed world with some problems/disconnections; b. it all gets a lot worse; c. light is shed on the matter, truth is revealed, a happy feeling ensues.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The plot thickens...

Just an aside from my Christopher Booker-based musings on plotting. The image of a plot thickening, like soup, is very useful. The best plots aren't great Heath Robinson constructions put together with mechanical ingenuity, which crank up the action with creaking, wheezing effort.

The best plots seem to arise naturally, inevitably. This applies to all kinds of writing, even thrillers. I read 'The Talented Mr Ripley' recently, and while it's a work of shimmering brilliance in almost every way, it doesn't depend on death defying plot twists or mind-blowing tricks in the final act. It just sustains the tension remorselessly via the medium of Ripley's weird and warped character, and the reader's collusion with him. (There is no way we want him to be caught, even though we know everything he's done - nothing is held back.)

A great plot is not a machine. It is an organic, vegetable thing, growing inside and outside the story, the characters and the the theme. I find it useful - as I approach my fourth novel - to think about these things under separate headings, but in fact the writing process retains its messiness no matter how much time you spend trying to analyse it and tidy it all up.

Next up - the comic plot, which comes in various forms, not all of them funny.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Plot no 4: Voyage and Return

At first sight this looks a bit like Quest with a return ticket. But the Voyage and Return protagonist isn't looking for anything specific. They are on a journey of exploration, going to a new world which is strange, unfamiliar, abnormal. At first this is astonishing and exciting, but eventually they realise they are trapped in this place, far from home, and they yearn for its familiarity and safety.

Two classics of the Voyage and Return form are Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Both have examples of the 'portal' which is common to many of these stories - the route to the other world. Rabbit hole, mirror, wardrobe - they mark the end of this world and the beginning of the next. In The Wizard of Oz, the tornado is the portal, blowing Dorothy's house over the rainbow. Once the portal has done its work 'we're not in Kansas any more'. Anything can happen - reality as we know it has been left behind.

There are ancient versions of this plot, and it was also used by Defoe and Swift in Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels. Travellers' tales were widely used in popular chapbooks before the novel came into being - the wonder of another world has a deep, atavistic hold on our imagination. As does the idea of home, a place you appreciate so much more when it is far away.

But the stories don't have to be fantastical - the protagonist can enter another world in social or geographical terms, as Paul Pennyfeather does in Decline and Fall, or Harry Lime does in The Third Man.

The hero or heroine of such tales can be dreamy and unfocused or naive and open to experience. They can be generic - an adventurer, up for anything. But they do need to begin with a set of assumptions that shape their world, and in the course of the story these assumptions do have to be challenged or undermined in some way.  A brilliant example of the form is another Greene novel, Travels with my Aunt, in which the narrator returns home in a way which is unexpected but satisfying. (I won't say how in case you haven't read it yet, and it's a brilliant story, clever, vivid and a real page-turner.)

At some point the new world becomes more dangerous and sinister that it is exotic and exciting. A crisis of some kind will take place, and the narrator will be in peril.  Mr McGregor might be chasing Peter Rabbit to put him in a pie; the Red Queen might be threatening Alice with decapitation.  Essentially, at this point they change, they expand their knowledge and awareness. Innocence is lost. The Voyage and Return plot is a plot of self discovery and 'coming of age'.

Christopher Booker (our plot guru) sums up the stages like this: 1. Anticipation Stage and 'fall' into the other world; 2. Initial fascination or 'dream' stage; 3. Frustration stage; 4. Nightmare stage and 5. Thrilling Escape and Return. Top tip - if you take one of the novels I've mentioned, you could break the action down under these headings. Or try it with another novel which seems to fit this story genre.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Plot no.3 - The Quest

The Quest story is well known and immediaetely recognizable. As Christopher Booker points out 'some of the most celebrated stories in the world are quests'. These include Homer's Odyssey; Virgil's Aeneid; Dante's Divine Comedy and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. More recent quest stories are The Lord of the Rings, Richard Adams' Watership Down and Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The key here is that it doesn't matter what the characters are searching for, as long as they are searching for something, and it doesn't matter where they go. Vital components include the hero (or heroine); a 'call to adventure', some companions who help and support the hero, but with whom their will be conflict and a perilous journey. On arrival, or near arrival, the hero/heroine will meet some final frustration or impediment. There will be a last test, or tests, and then the final goal will be achieved.

And you can go towards the light and frothy - as in Around the World in 80 days - or dark. As in Conrad's Heart of Darkness or its cinematic alter ego Apocalypse Now.

Sounds so incredibly easy I think I will start penning my Quest novel right now.