Friday, July 11, 2008

What is your story about?

A conversation between me and Ned, in e-mail. Yes, we are geeks who talk about this kind of stuff all the time. Ned's comments quoted.



I guess the thing is that Horror is usually a form of Mystery. Just the solution is a terrible one. Just never realized the link.
Is all genre fiction with a plot mystery? (he said provocatively!)

I actually said a while ago that any fiction with a plot (and some non-fiction with a plot) is a mystery in some sense of the word. The author is proposing a problem or conflict which the character must resolve, and our mystery is how the main character's going to do it. "Mystery" is actually a weird genre in that regard because in the really good ones, the question is not so much how (excepting locked-room mysteries) but "why." In standard fiction you know the "why" up front.

There is a funny bit in the Thursday Next books where all the members of the Literary police are talking about what every book really is about, what are the basic plots and what do they boil down to etc. etc etc and one guy, sort of grumbles. "Self discovery. It's all really the journey of self discovery." And maybe it is.

In our screenwriting class, the teacher discussed how in many movies, someone actually asks the main character the basic question he's trying to solve over the course of the movie, and 80% of the time it boils down to "Who do you think you are?" We watched "The Verdict" twice, and there's a great bit in the beginning when Paul Newman as the at-the-bottom-of-the-barrel lawyer goes to a funeral and gives his card to the grieving widow. Her brother throws him out and yells, "Who do you think you are?" It's a wonderful scene, and it fits so smoothly into the action that you don't really notice until you've watched it a couple times that that is the central question of the movie, for him: who IS he?

So yes, I would agree that most good stories are about self-discovery, and that in the process of the main character discovering him or herself, they teach us something about ourselves too.

1 comment:

Erin said...

Ramond Chandler wrote that the key to great literature was a theme of redemption, for as many characters as possible. I read that as part of a Writer's Craft class in my last year of high school, and I've been trying to put it into practice ever since. It's never failed me yet - it leads to compelling characters whose inner demons are worked out on the broader canvas of their setting and the larger plot, and it brings them to life as nothing else does.

In British "method" theatre, actors get into the heads of characters by asking about their secret. What is the thing that drives this person, that no one outside of the story is going to know unless the actor manages to show it? I've used that concept, too, because it helps me to show the character instead of telling about them.