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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Lesson from Three Stories

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, 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. 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 celebrating 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 Disney’s 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? I don’t like it. 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 as she goes to find the Wizard of Oz so he can send her home. I'm still trying to figure out Dorothy’s 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 because 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 a trivial 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 an 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 love love love! But wait a moment. I detest boxing; I can't stand the violence, crowds, yelling, smoke, blood, 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 running with Rocky’s Boxer, Budkins, 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 heartbreaking 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, but he knows that he has indeed become a Somebody through hard work and determination because he was able to “go the distance” with Apollo Creed.

Rocky's character arc parallels the course of triumph that 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 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.


NOTE: this entry is reposted. A perceptive commenter remarked that all three of the stories I named (The Nutcracker, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz) were written in the 1800s or early 1900s, when fantasy types of stories were just beginning to emerge. She suggested that the story world in these stories was sufficiently entertaining for an audience not as sophisticated in terms of story type and development as we are today with mega-special effects and mind-twisting story worlds. Brilliant point, Gwen!

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