Notes on Narrative

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the impending “death” of conventional (read: three act, mainstream, centrist) narrative, and I have come to this conclusion: It is not dying. It is not in any danger of dying. Is it, in fact, stronger than ever? Probably not. But it is vigorous. It is flexible and adaptive, and it continues to thrive in the 21st century.

At DIY days in Philadelphia, I listened to one speaker who likened conventional three act structure to the male orgasm ( a conceit I’ve heard before), and another who discussed all the ways that viewers can interact with a film after it’s over. But in the end that just seemed to be about gaming. If you’re into it, fine, but if you’re not—well the film is still there, and what about it? How does all that gaming affect the creative process of the filmmaker, the artist? Does one take the gamers’ results and work them into the next film, into some new product—a film, a text, a performance, a creation? Or do the games, the “interactivity” merely spin on and on, generating, perhaps, a new “community” of gamers with overlapping interests, and perhaps some fan fiction, some fan-something coming into existence, but existing none the less parallel to the original creator? The speaker who likened story structure to male orgasm wanted to replace it with a “sacred circle” into which we can all step and create some sort of new, democratic?, narrative structure.

This summer I have seen three films which demonstrate both the flexibility and the durability of conventional narrative: The Hangover, Orphan, and The Hurt Locker—radically different films, but each with a strong narrative spine. In The Hangover, the narrative predictability is delayed, thus making the pay off all the more enjoyable once our initial expectations are finally, finally met—but not until the very end of the film. Partly, conventions are toyed with simply by the non-chronological telling of the story,butmore by the what-happened that is the story’s center—and the delay in answering that question as long as is possible ina theatrical film. In fact, if you leave the theatre before the credits are over, you still won’t know the (hilarious) answer to that question.It’s fun because it does what we expect, and exactly what we want it to—and yet, not on our expected time. The film plays with us, and allows us to have fun with it, too. As for Orphan, here we encounter a prime—one might say “classical” in all the senses of that word—example of a narrative which is utterly linear. A regularold, Hollywood film. And yet, again, completely satisfying in the manner in which it meets expectations while still offering plenty of surprises and rich content (I am aware that many viewers have objected to the theme of this film. I, for one, found it a hoot.) In the opening scene, our heroine, Kate, has a nightmare about the unborn child she lost. In scene two, Kate talks to her husband about her anxiety. In scene three she talks to her therapist about their upcoming plans to adopt, and about her recovery from alcoholism. And so on—Kate is, I believe, in every scene of the film, and one by one the scenes construct her story, her backstory (tons of backstory for poor Kate), and the closing in of the walls around herby the evil orphan and her numbskull husband, until the final, inevitable, multiple twists and extremely violentconclusion.Totally satisfying.

Then there is The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant exploration ofthe external and internal lives of EOD technicians in Iraq. The film opens with atitle, a quote from Chris Hedges, about the drug of war and its dangers. And off we go—into the world of our EODs, during the last 38 days of their deployment in Baghdad.The life is monotonous, yet terrifying almost beyond imagining. Over and over, they venture into bomb searches, find them or don’t find them, and successfully dismantle them or don’t dismantle them. In the first sequence of the film,Thompson, who we think is the “leader,” is killed off, then replaced by James, the wild man who cannot get enough of this work.Why this opening sequence? Because it demonstrates, walking us through,step by step, what a bomb dismantling is supposed to look like, establishing the template which James then repeatedly violates, setting into place the conflict between his character and his comrades Sanborn and Wills.But mostly this conflict simmers below the surface, never motivating the “plot,” and only a couple of times boiling over into any sort of explicit action in the film. For most of the film, the plot is dictated simply by the daily lives and duties of the characters. And then….very late, far beyond the moment for the “first plot point”, something happens which deeply effects the internal life of the hotdogger James, and at that point, we come in close to him and follow his emotional arc for the remainder of the film. In other words, up until this point we seem to have almost escaped the constraints of three act structure, with a story about our three guys and some other guys too,and then—surprise!—the narrative structure that has been hiding in plain sight all along suddenly shapes the film and brings it, again, to a satisfying, provocative, incredibly moving ending.

At DIY days, one of the major beefs about conventional narrative seemed to be that it’s so 20th, or 19th, or 18th century. This is a complaint which I frequently hear from my students, too, teaching screenwriting at Temple University.Everyone just seems to be waiting for it to die of its own accord, to go the way of the typewriter or the phone booth. But in class, something happens every semester which provides its own, blessed, teaching moment: inevitably, one student writes a script which is unabashedly conventional and hews close to perfectly crafted three acts. And inevitably, that is the script that, in our workshopping sessions, the whole class enjoys the most and always agrees is the best.Then it is up to me to point out the conventionality of the script in question, and then—my favorite rite of passage for students—silence falls in the classroom and their collective mouths fall open as they realize—yes!—conventional three act structure is still aroundbecause it still works. It satisfies us. It elucidates some aspect of life—no matter how small, or trivial, or unrealistic. The tightness of the form gives us a sense of control over our lives, our world, our stories—and that is not a bad thing, it is a good thing which offers the possibility of meaning in a world where meaning is often hard to come by.

Gaming is great, if you’re into it. And so is fan fiction, and so is product development, and so are all the sprouting alternative ways of interacting with existing stories and creating new stories. But they are not the next wave in narrative, and they are not the phenomenon that will replace conventional narrative. They are parallel, and that is just fine. Narrative is here to stay for a long, long time.

As a postscript, I want to mention the venue where I see more possibility for evolving narrative forms, and that is the newly fascinating world of series television. It didn’tstart just with The Sopranos,(Strangers with Candy is a great, early example of this narrative subversion), but since then complex long-term narratives have burst forth all over the cable universe, from The Wire through Mad Men and my personal favorite, Breaking Bad.With the release of Petyon Place on DVD just this week, perhaps it is aripe time to consider the possibilities of the television form for expanding conventional film narrative. But that is for another post.

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