(For first part of post, SEE FIRST ROCK.) (For second part of post, SEE PREVIOUS ROCK)
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A NARRATIVE, PART III
11) But what if I want to write a tragedy?
Well then. Let’s look at Unforgiven, shall we? I’m not going to go into the whole damned movie, because this is already four thousand words long. But it serves as a good example of catharsis through the denial of character growth. It’s a tragedy, and it leaves that haunted, achy feeling behind that good tragedies do.
Because Will Muny never manages to do the thing he needs to do, and let go of the ill-advised revenge killing-for-hire that he’s embarked upon. Even when his best friend is dead, even when his protege has repudiated him, he’s dead set on his mission. He does what he wants, not what he needs, and the result is awful for everyone.
He never takes a heroic action. He fails protagonist. Tragedy ensues.
See also: Hamlet.
Sometimes this structure is easier to pick this out when it fails–and it can fail by being heavyhanded and painful. Copycat (1995) is a great example. How is it even possible for a movie starring Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver to be that bad?
And yet it is.
The salient bit here is the character flaws, which are agoraphobia (Weaver) and an unwillingness to shoot to kill (Hunter). Because it’s handled in such a heavyhanded fashion, we know from the end of the first reel that at some point in the movie Weaver’s character will be trapped by her fear, and that her heroic action will involve crossing an open space. We also know that Hunter’s character will get somebody killed by refusing to shoot somebody in the head, and that at the end of the movie she’ll have to do that.
On the other hand, take Die Hard (the original from 1988, please) which does almost all of these things well. I’m going to leave the process of deconstructing it as a machine to the reader, because normally at this point I’d make my class do it. But feel free to argue about it in comments.
And the Reginald Veljohnson character (Fondly known to all as Twinkie Cop, though the character’s name is Al) has exactly the same flaw and resolution as the Hunter character.
So why doesn’t it suck when Al shoots somebody in the third reel to save the day? Um. Well, the writing and characterization are much better, for two things. But those are different lectures too.
I think it comes down to rhetoric. A story is an argument, and Copycat is a really unconvincing one.
12) A three-act plot is a machine.
If you put the gears and magnets and linkages in the right place, and give it enough juice (in the form of a strong conflict), it will work every single time. It may not be great literature, but it’ll work.
More experimental forms can fail for no good reason except gravity. They’re an art; three-act structure, however, is a science.
This is why it’s used so often by scriptwriters and pulp hacks, who must produce a working story reliably under immense deadline pressure, or they don’t get paid. I don’t mean to denigrate the three-act plot by saying this. I rely on it extensively–under deadline pressure, or because there’s no thematic or narrative need to do anything fancy and exhausting, or simply because it’s elegant and invisible and I can use it to support all kinds of interesting narrative curlicues and whorls.
A three-act is sound engineering, in other words.
I’m a huge proponent of the idea that for any given narrative need, the simplest tool we can field that will do the job elegantly is the best one. Stunt writing is all well and good, and sometimes it’s incredibly useful–sometimes, a really flashy trick is the only trick that will get the job done*. Too often, an apprentice writer will reach for the biggest hammer, so to speak, even when she’s trying to drive a finishing tack. Or she won’t be able to find a hammer at all, and she’ll wind up driving the tack with the side of a pair of dikes.
I’ve done it. We’ve all done it.
And every time I pry the lid off a paint can with a wood chisel, I picture my grandfather the plumber-savant rolling over in his grave.
The good news is that as the writer matures, her tool box fills up with any number of specialized tools, and a lot of good handy general purpose ones.
There are no rules. There are only techniques that work or do not work in any given application.
Three-act structure is just such a robust, elegant, and infinitely flexible tool.
And now you know how every uninspired episode of a network TV show will end.
This counts as a Stupid Writer Trick–one of those great dirty underhanded tricks that writers can pull to make ourselves look smarter than we are.
You can use three-act structure to tell a nonlinear story. And when it’s done well, the result is like a huge kick in the reader’s brain, like a great glorious a-hah! moment. So much of writing is about hacking your readers’ neurology.
How do you do this?
You tell the story using three-act structure. But you tell it out of order, so that the discontinuity supports the story you want to tell. (If you try doing this with a story that doesn’t need it, it just looks pretentious. Be wary.)
**Other parts of the world had and continue to have their own stuff going on, narrative-structure-wise. To quote Kurt Vonnegut: “Here’s what I know about that: bupkiss.”***
*I refer the interested reader to Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, which uses a hugely flashy POV trick–a first-person omniscient unreliable narrator–without which the book could not work.
***The footnotes are asterisked out of order because they are asterisked in the order in which I wrote them. I am a somewhat nonlinear writer, as it happens.
****The Matter of Britain and Chaucer both tend toward either the One Damned Thing After Another plot that Aristotle so loathed and maligned, or the morality play/just so story. Beowulf, most curiously, consists of three independent and perfectly cromulent three-act structure stories, which is probably why we still read and enjoy it today. The Táin Bó Cúailnge is strikingly modern in structure, too.
*****In genre stories, the game is for the reader to figure out whodunnit (if it’s a mystery) or how the world works (if it’s science fiction or fantasy) or to evoke a specific emotional response in the reader (horror and romance and erotica and humor and thrillers). In satire, the game is social commentary. In travelogues, of which the planetary romance and quest fantasy are subsets, the game is to experience a place. In literary fiction, the game is for the reader to tease out theme and structure and character and experience the personal changes and failures to change of the characters******.
******Please note that none of these are exclusive of any other. It is perfectly possible, if challenging, to write an SFnal travelogue romance murder mystery spy thriller literary novel. That book is Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed, which I recommend.
*******Okay, you got me. It’s really a sawtooth wave. But this way looks prettier.
********Hero’s Journey, Kishōtenketsu, Nodal, Open, Modulated, stuff. Get Googling.
*********Unusually for modern television, not three; count the commercial breaks!
**********This is stated repeatedly in the film–count the number of times somebody says something to the effect of “I ain’t like you,” or “You and me, we’re alike.” The Gene Hackman character is even also named William, for crying out loud.*************
***********Ideally, anyway. In suboptimal cases, we can become profoundly irritated by them.
************However, B:tVS largely handles its character arcs through the epic model.
*************This can also be done with characters who serve as foils for each other. See John McClane and Twinkie Cop************** in Die Hard.
**************Everybody loves Twinkie Cop.