Today, and continuing throughout November, I am presenting a series of posts I’m calling The Happiness Plot, which will make up a very brief introduction to storytelling structure. A perfect way to stay in the groove for NaNoWriMo2014.
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Ready to uncover the plot?
To find the beginning of The Happiness Plot, click here or “The Happiness Plot” category listing to the right.
Now, we continue with The Happiness Plot…
A Story is Not Reducible to Its Controlling Idea
Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Interstellar, would have for its Controlling Idea something such as: “Earth’s inhabitants are saved (positive value) when the hero, I.e., Matthew McConaughey’s character Cooper, risks his life to enter the black hole in order to gather data on the “singularity” (cause).
In Jane Austen’s Emma, Emma finds marriage and felicity with Mr. Knightly (positive value) when she humbly recognizes and corrects her prodigious habit of self-deception (cause).
In Sophocles’ Antigone, death and destruction fall upon Creon’s house (negative value) after Creon unwisely sentences Antigone to death for according her dead brother, Polynices, the appropriate burial rites (cause).
The point of any story can thus be encapsulated in the Value + Cause of a Controlling Idea. But we must be careful. We mustn’t allow the Controlling Idea to turn into anything but a rough summary of the story’s theme, enough to give direction to the writer’s efforts but not a substitute for the story itself. It is well to keep in mind Flannery O’Connor’s wise words: “People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick out the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.”
A story, in other words, embodies the theme or Controlling Idea of a story to such an extent that to separate Controlling Idea from story, to reduce a story to its Controlling Idea, is to undermine the audience’s experience of the truth of the story. The examples of Controlling Ideas given above are not supposed to compel any audience apart from their embodiment in narrative. As noted earlier, a story is not a mere vehicle for a philosophy. The Controlling Idea or philosophy exists in the story like the impress of a signet ring in wax.
“You tell a story,” says O’Connor, “because a statement would be inadequate.”