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Monday, December 15, 2008

A Lesson from Three Stories

There are three stories that are considered classics and yet have always irritated me. Watching one of them this weekend (guess which?), I think I understand why, and there's a lesson in them for improving one's writing. Here they are:

1. Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker. Yes, I know this is a ballet and one goes for the dancing not the story, but I can't help being a curmudgeon. (BTW I love the dancing...) Very quickly, at a Christmas party Clara is given a nutcracker that her brother promptly breaks. After midnight Clara dreams she sees the mouse king and Nutcracker fighting -- through her heroic slipper-throwing she dispatches the mouse king and breaks the spell on her beloved Nutcracker, who is really a handsome prince (of course). The prince takes her to the Kingdom of the Sweets where he and Clara hold court over all the dancing subjects in the kingdom who celebrate the prince's return and Clara's bravery. The end.

2. Alice in Wonderland (Disney's movie, 1951). Yes, I know Lewis Carroll wrote this novel as a veiled political commentary of Britain in 1865, but the movie makes no sense. I hated it even as a kid. Alice is bored, then sees a white rabbit with a watch and the nonsense begins. I basically learned from this movie not to eat or drink strange things lying around: Alice shrinks or grows tall, talks to disappearing cats, attends bizarre tea parties, rumbles with the Queen of Hearts ("Off with her head!") and basically has a confusing time of it before waking and realizing it was all a dream. The end.

3. The Wizard of Oz (Fleming's 1939 movie). Yes, I know this extravaganza broke a lot of ground, including the use of Technicolor and Judy Garland's song *Over the Rainbow*, had a fabulous set and cast of many, won many awards, and is considered a classic, but what can I say? Dorothy on her way home from rescuing her dog is caught up in a tornado and dropped in the land of Oz. She's chased by the Wicked Witch of the West (love Margaret Hamilton), wears ruby slippers, and wanders through the country picking up assorted companions to find the Wizard of Oz so he can send her home. I'm still trying to figure out her line at the end that goes something like, "I learned that when I go looking for my heart's desire, I don't have to go farther than my own backyard, because if it isn't there, I never lost it in the first place." Huh?? The end.

Does anyone see what the common problem in these stories might be? Anyone? Anyone?

I think the reason these stories don't work well as stories is that they don't have a point. In all three, the main character goes on a journey, but comes back exactly the same as before. Well, Dorothy in Oz DOES have a character arc, but it's an obvious one: She basically learns that it's good to be home. This is like saying that the grass is green. Do I CARE about what happens to Clara, Alice, or Dorothy? Not really.

So, in light of this, how might one make a story gripping? How might one cause the reader or viewer to identify with the protagonist?

Answer: There must be a common element within the protagonist with which your reader or viewer identifies. By this I'm not talking about statistical data (white male, 30s, lives in Chicago, day trader), but rather, what the protagonist desires in the story, the point through which the character arc traverses.

Let's do another example: Rocky, a classic film that I just love love love! But wait a moment. I detest boxing; I can't stand the violence, crowds, yelling, smoke, etc. etc. I'm not an Italian man. I don't live in Philadelphia. I don't go to bars, or have friends who trash their houses with a baseball bat when they're angry. I don't punch raw meat. I DO love dogs, so I could see myself with the Boxer, Budkins (I think), that Adrienne gives Rocky at one point, but that's about it. Oh, and the music is great.

But surely this isn't enough to keep me watching. What I love about this movie is Rocky's determination to make something of himself: he doesn't want to be "just another bum from the neighborhood." Gee, I can definitely identify with this! I know that this is a hard thing to accomplish. I watch Rocky's hearbreaking struggle: he's pushed down at every turn, but somehow through a lucky break and some very hard work, he's able to claw himself up to prominence. He doesn't even win the final fight; just that even so he has indeed become a Somebody through hard work and determination.

Rocky's character arc parallels the arc I wish for my own life. He fights; I fight. He's knocked down; I'm knocked down. He makes progress; well, maybe I can make progress too! There's some hope!

The reader or viewer must deeply care about your protagonist. To do this, there must be a deep abiding drive in your protagonist that your reader or viewer can identify with, and root for, and hope to see victorious. If your hero can do it, the reader or viewer thinks, then maybe so can I.


Travis said...

Well, that explains why I've never really enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, except I use it as an analogy of how disastrous my office is managed. (Except in my office, the wizard has forgotten he's supposed to hide behind the curtain) I've often commented about how random and frustrating the story line is for The Nutcracker, but my wife simply replies, "It's ballet, not literature." Like you, I hate Alice in Wonderland.

Now I understand why I didn't appreciate those movies. I'm always in awe of you folk who have the ability to analyze stories and make sense of them. What you said makes perfect sense, why didn't I ever see it? Great work, as usual, Amy.

Lydia said...

Great post, Amy. Very astute. I disliked those pointless dream stories too. The aimlessness of the protagonists always made the stories seem wearisome and never-ending.

Anonymous said...

Ohhhh, great post, Amy. Really brings it to light.

I'm with you, Travis. It's amazing how two people can watch a movie and come away with completely different things, HUH?


Thanks for the post, Amy.

gzusfreek said...

Um, hello! I thought I was the only one on earth that did not enjoy Alice and the Wizard! Whew. . .I feel so much more normal! (well, what is normal again?)
(Amy -Will you disect Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I can't stand that one either! Probably not connected with the others. . .)
I went with my aunt to see Rocky when I was 10 or 11. (it was the '70's and I had my comb in my back pocket, you know, to feather my hair. And I was so cool they made me pay the "over 12 years old price" - my aunt still rides me for that)
ANYWAY, I too love the stories like Rocky. . .In my fave: Lord of the Rings - Frodo says: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf says: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.
This echoes in my soul. I remember when I was going through something so horrible I identified with Frodo - his weaknesses and strengths and challenges - all I could think of was this quote.
As usual, I loved this post, Amy. I am grateful and want you to know you have made an impact on me and my writing!

Amy Deardon said...

Everyone, I'm overwhelmed with such kind comments -- I'm just glad my observations are helpful.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- I remember reading this as a kid and being totally repelled by it -- very depressing and gross and stupid (never let it be said that I don't have an opinion...)

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is genius level writing IMHO -- interesting that he and CS Lewis were such good friends, since Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia are also genius level IMHO with so many layers of allegory. Frodo the ringbearer is easy for people to identify with: humble, inconsequential and easily overlooked, yet he carries an unimaginably heavy burden. Samwise is an unsung hero also. Tolkien was a strong Christian, and his faith shines through his words and characters. Thanks for the inspiring reminder of Gandalf's words! They are so true.

Have a good evening, everyone :-)

Amy Deardon said...

PS -- I love your story of the comb!

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Great examples, Amy. I think you make an excellent point about the passivity of the protagonists in each story.
I do think it's worth noting that while some of the film versions you cite are twentieth-century, all three of these stories are Victorian (Alice, 1865, Nutcracker, 1892, WIzard 1900). They are products of the pre-film era, and *all* are fantasies. Before film, people had fewer opportunities to incarnate the creatures and settings of their imaginations. Ballet was one of the venues for it. Fiction was another. These stories seem very familiar to us now, and thus the novelty and wonder of the "passing into a different world" theme has dulled. More stories now exist (like the Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter) that make the older stories look tame and meandering. Without those early works of children's fiction, however, we wouldn't have some of the more recent novels that are more to the taste of today's audience.

From the strengths of these earlier works, we can learn how to improve other aspects of our writing from the strengths of these works, such as imagination, allegory, satire, and unforgettable characters. I would argue that the Harry Potter series, for example, suffers from a lack of truly original, powerful, symbolic characters. J.K Rowling wrote a good story, but the characters won't survive as icons for a hundred years like those of Alice or The Wizard of Oz. We can refer to the Cowardly Lion or the Cheshire Cat in a way that we will never refer to Dumbledore, who is really just a copy of Gandalf, when you get right down to it.

Amy Deardon said...

Rosslyn, brilliant observation! Thank you :-)

Billy Coffey said...

Here I thought I was the only person who hated The Wizard of Oz but thought Rocky was the pinnacle of movie making. But you're right, of course: the power of a story lies in the transformation of the characters in it.

Well done, Amy. Your insights amaze me.

Gwen Stewart said...

Amy, excellent post. I thought I had something of value to add, but I'm so tired it turned out repetitive and pointless. Heh. So just let me say: awesome. Great information.

Amy Deardon said...

Gwen, I always love your comments -- I doubt it was useless!

Kristen Painter said...

I always thought Alice In Wonderland seemed to encourage the use of drugs. Charlie and The Chocolate Factory I love tho - the original, not the Johnny Depp version.