A Story is Not Reducible to Its Controlling Idea

A Story is Not Reducible to Its Controlling Idea

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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.

For BONUS CONTENT related to The Happiness Plot, as well as special offers of FREE CONSULTING for writers, sign up below for The Comic Muse Email Newsletter. It’s free!

Ready to uncover the plot? 

The Game is Afoot!

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

16.

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.”    

Robert McKee and the Controlling Idea

Robert McKee and the Controlling Idea

 

Robert_McKee

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.

For BONUS CONTENT related to The Happiness Plot, as well as special offers of FREE CONSULTING for writers, sign up below for The Comic Muse Email Newsletter. It’s free!

Ready to uncover the plot? 

The Game is Afoot!

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

Robert McKee and the Controlling Idea

15.

The argument of the story is its plot. But just how does a plot argue?

McKee is quite good on this point. Storytelling, he tells us, is the creative demonstration of truth, the conversion of idea into action. But how does the “demonstration” work? “A story’s event structure,” explains McKee, “is the means by which you [the writer] first express, then prove your idea…without explanation.”

So it’s the “event structure,” the plot, that does the arguing. But somehow it does so without a lot of explaining on the part of the author. Master storytellers, says McKee, never explain. As David Mamet once put the same thought, the whole trick is never to write exposition (i.e., explanation of the events).

Now, setting aside the fact that some pretty good storytellers are also some pretty fulsome explainers (e.g. Dickens, Henry James, and, in a much quirkier way, Muriel Spark), we need to know what it is about the plot of a story that, all by itself, without the author holding its hand, is capable of arguing for the truth.

Let’s begin with McKee’s concept of the Controlling Idea. McKee prefers the term Controlling Idea to that of “theme” because “like theme, it names a story’s root or central idea, but it also implies function: The Controlling Idea shapes the writer’s creative choices.”

A Controlling Idea, McKee explains, can be reduced to the following equation:

VALUE + CAUSE

The Controlling Idea “identifies the positive or negative charge of the story’s critical value at the last act’s climax, and it identifies the chief reason that this value has changed to its final state. The sentence composed from these two elements, Value plus Cause, expresses the core meaning of the story.”

In her posthumous collection, Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor remarks about her famous short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” that the free act, the moment of grace, that makes the story work is “the Grandmother’s recognition that the serial killer known as the Misfit is one of her own children.” Here we have a Controlling Idea, or part of one. At the story’s climax a positive value or charge comes into being: the Grandmother experiences a moment of grace in recognizing the brutal killer confronting her as one of her own babies. What brings this positive value into being? What is its cause? Ironically, it is the very brutality and theological confusion of the Misfit. O’Connor was fascinated by the way in which violence and the grotesque distortion of human dignity can often be the means by which the spiritually complacent are returned to reality and prepared to accept their moment of grace.

*The image above of Robert McKee is reproduced courtesy of Aleksandr Andreiko via Wikimedia Commons under the following license.

My Review of Ian McEwan’s The Children Act

My Review of Ian McEwan’s The Children Act

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I’m taking a break from THE HAPPINESS PLOT in order to link to my review, which appeared this past weekend on The Catholic Thing, of Ian McEwan’s new novel, The Children Act.

In James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” Gabriel and Gretta Conroy are in a marriage grown cold. One night after a Christmas party Gabriel seeks to rekindle some of their passion. But Gretta is distracted by a song she had heard at the party, The Lass of Aughrim. When Gabriel presses her for her reasons for being so distracted by this song, Gretta admits that it was a song that used to be sung by a young man, Michael Furey, whom she was “great with” as a girl. Gabriel angrily asks Gretta if she is still in love with this Michael Furey. “He is dead,” Gretta explains. “He died when he was only seventeen. Isn’t it a terrible thing to die so young as that?” Gabriel, humiliated “by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks,” asks how Michael Furey died.

Gretta answers: “I think he died for me.”

The specter of Joyce’s Michael Furey came to me as I read Ian McEwan’s captivating, elegantly written, and disturbing new novel, The Children Act.

To continue reading the review just follow this link

*The image of London above is reproduced courtesy of Mewiki at Wikimedia Commons under the following license.

Exclusive Content for Subscribers

Exclusive Content for Subscribers

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Last night my wife and I went to see Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. Our discussion afterwards about the problems in Interstellar‘s plot inspired me to create an exclusive podcast for subscribers to The Comic Muse Email Newsletter.

In the podcast, I use Interstellar to zip you through the basics of storytelling structure. Just 15 minutes and you’ll have completed your mission to a new storytelling galaxy.

Don’t get left on the ground! Enjoy the podcast by signing up right here for The Comic Muse Email Newsletter. It’s FREE!

I'm Ready for the Turning Point

Also, please keep in mind that throughout November I am presenting a series of posts at danielmcinerny.com which will itself comprise a very brief introduction to storytelling structure, a series I’m calling THE HAPPINESS PLOT. It’s perfect for fiction writers of all kinds as well as writers of narrative non-fiction, not to mention those doing work in brand storytelling.

I hope you’ll stop by and that you’ll sign up for The Comic Muse Email Newsletter and enjoy the exclusive content.

Storytelling as the Creative Demonstration of Truth

Storytelling as the Creative Demonstration of Truth

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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.

For BONUS CONTENT related to The Happiness Plot, as well as special offers of FREE CONSULTING for writers, sign up below for The Comic Muse Email Newsletter. It’s free!

Ready to uncover the plot? 

The Game is Afoot!

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

 

Story as the Creative Demonstration of Truth

14.

I’ve been talking about stories as “promoting” either “thick” or “thin” conceptions of justice or love or whatever. This is an assumption well worth challenging. Do stories tell us truths about life? Is there any relation between stories and philosophy?

C.S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, appears to say “no.” In speaking about the differences between tragedy, comedy, and farce he writes: “None of the three kinds [of drama] is making a statement about life in general. They are all constructions: things made out of the stuff of real life; additions to life rather than comments on it.”

Lewis qualifies his point. Any story “will be impregnated with all the wisdom, knowledge, and experience the author has; and even more by something which I can only vaguely describe as the flavor or “feel” that actual life has for him.” However, to regard the story “as primarily a vehicle for that philosophy” is for Lewis an “outrage” to the thing the author has made for us.

What Lewis is keen on stressing here, rightly, is that stories, novels, plays–narrative art in general–should not be taken as mere vehicles for the dissemination of an author’s philosophy. A play, for example, is not just a delivery system for abstract comments about life—more diverting than reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, to be sure, but essentially no different from Kant in being a philosophical proclamation. No story can simply be reduced to a statement of whatever wisdom the author may possess. “Don’t be indecisive” (I jest) is not a substitute for Hamlet.

A play, in other words, is not a philosophical statement plus some literary qualities that we may dispense with if we choose.

And yet, Lewis fails to do justice to the way in which stories do tell us truths. Robert McKee, in his wonderful book Story, formulates this idea quite nicely: “Storytelling is the creative demonstration of truth. A story is the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action.”

A story is not a work of philosophy, but there is at least a perceived wisdom embodied in the decisions the author has his characters make. The “argument” of the story is its plot, which in its climax aspires to conclude something about the way life ought to be lived. But this truth, if it is one, will only be convincing to an audience who attends to the literary qualities of the piece.

* The image above is reproduced courtesy of James MacMillan at Wikimedia Commons under the following license.

So a story is not a mere vehicle for a philosophy, but a philosophy is embedded in every story like the seal of a signet ring is embedded in wax.

 

Mysteries, Thrillers, and Justice

Mysteries, Thrillers, and Justice

 

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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.

For BONUS CONTENT related to The Happiness Plot, as well as special offers of FREE CONSULTING for writers, sign up below for The Comic Muse Email Newsletter. It’s free!

Ready to uncover the plot? 

The Game is Afoot!

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

Mysteries, Thrillers, and Justice

13.

The conventions of the detective story and the thriller demand that, in the former, a criminal be found and brought to justice, and, in the latter, that someone being pursued by some force of evil ultimately find rescue. The justice that is promoted in such stories can, like the idea of “romance” in romance novels, be either thick or thin. Many a classic or “cozy” mystery, for example, focuses on the analytic prowess of the detective as he or she pursues a villain whose villainy is “thin” in the sense of being straightforwardly comprehensible. There’s nothing terribly complicated in the idea of a murderer who plants a knife in the back of Lord Boring in order to claim an inheritance. Everyone (more or less) agrees that murder is wrong.

Yet there are also mystery writers who through their mazy plots strive to promote “thicker” conceptions of justice. Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels, for example, as well as David Hare’s Worricker series on PBS’s Masterpiece Contemporary, endeavor to promote a sense of justice that Mankell and Hare see as out of step with the reigning world order. Mankell and Hare are “left-wing” in their political sympathies. A writer such as Evelyn Waugh, however, in his Sword of Honor trilogy about World War II, attacks modernity from a very different perspective, i.e., a religious and Catholic one. But what is interesting is that Waugh shares with Mankell and Hare a desire to critique the modern world in the name of a justice that in some sense is undervalued. Writers of this stripe don’t just want to underscore the evil of, say, murder; they want to shine a white hot light on the bloated underbelly of society itself.

The point here is not that, to be excellent, a story must  trade on a “thicker” conception of the human good. Rather, it’s to say that in his attempt to distinguish character wants from the character’s natural needs, the writer must decide at what level of specificity he wants to address those natural needs. Does he want to promote an aspect of the human good on which everyone agrees (“Murder is wrong”), or does he want to promote a thicker aspect of that good that is more controversial (“Western Civilization becomes more chaotic and brutal the more it distances itself from its Christian roots”).

* The image above is reproduced courtesy of the BBC.

Romance Through Thick and Thin

Romance Through Thick and Thin

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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.

For BONUS CONTENT related to The Happiness Plot, as well as special offers of FREE CONSULTING for writers, sign up below for The Comic Muse Email Newsletter. It’s free!

Ready to uncover the plot? 

The Game is Afoot!

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

Romance Through Thick and Thin

12.

What does Elizabeth Bennet want?

Love.

Wrong answer.

Or, at least, a badly incomplete answer.

The superficial romance novelist, smitten by what Austen biographer Claire Tomalin calls the “dream denouement” of Pride and Prejudice, sits down at the laptop and bangs out 90,000 words of Girl Meets Boy, Girl Loses Boy, Girl Gets Boy Back Again. The focus is erotic, if not, these days, downright pornographic. Such a book will always find an audience, and that is because romantic love is one of the deepest of our heart’s desires. Romantic love, countless novels, movies, and pop songs testify, is practically synonymous with human happiness.

Yet none of this is why Pride and Prejudice is a great novel.

Jane Austen did not simply write a love story. She wrote a story of both Elizabeth Bennet’s and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s moral transformations which made possible their marital union. From the beginning Elizabeth wants romantic love, but what she has to learn is not only that a husband truly worth loving must also be a virtuous man, but also, and more importantly, that we can become blinded by “first impressions” (Austen’s original title for the novel) and proudly prejudge the virtuous or vicious qualities of others. And by “virtue” Austen meant something much more than “cute” or “nice” or “funny” or even “decent.” She meant qualities of character founded upon habits of mind and passion formed by a particular vision, an Aristotelian vision as scholars have pointed out, of the truth of the human person.

Austen’s has what we might call “thick” conceptions of what love and moral goodness are. Your average romance writer, by contrast, is content with the “thin” gruel of eroticism.   

Storytelling At the Height of Our Heart’s Desire

Storytelling At the Height of Our Heart’s Desire

 

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Storytelling At the Height of Our Heart’s Desire

11.

Stories of impersonal or “physical” conflict can rivet our attention because they show the object of our most basic natural impulse, life, in dire jeopardy. Walter Mitty has to contend with the enormous, albeit comical, physical challenges of trekking across the world in order to find Sean O’Connell.

But Walter Mitty is not just about impersonal conflict. It is doubtful that there are many stories of a hero or heroine’s battle with impersonal forces which solely concern this level of conflict. Walter Mitty’s central conflict is not with the ardors of the Himalayas, but with his desire for love and a sense of his own genuine greatness. His real conflicts are personal and inter-personal.

In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone wants to return safely to earth. But she also needs to rediscover the purpose of her life, lost after the death of her little girl. Part of what makes Gravity so successful as a story is that Stone’s efforts to reach the primary goal, staying alive, break open her deeper need for meaning. Her desire to remain alive is obviously a natural one, but her desire for meaning is discovered to be a deeper desire of her nature.

The higher storytelling reaches into the inclinations of our shared human nature–I’m consciously switching my metaphor here from “depth” to “height”— the more that story’s capacity to resonate with us.

The thrill of watching our hero survive a car chase is one level of entertainment. That of watching our hero ascend into the highest reaches of his heart’s desire, as Dante does in the Divine Comedy, is quite another.     

The Long-Lost Secret of the Incas

The Long-Lost Secret of the Incas

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10.

The Long-Lost Secret of the Incas

So let’s get back to your opus. Every writer is looking for the secret sauce of great storytelling. But the secret is that there is no secret sauce. There is no recipe or set of rules for “how to write a story.” There are, however, principles of storytelling. The difference between a rule and a principle is simple: a rule has only one application. Forget the sugar in the cake recipe and you can skip dessert. But a principle is a general proposition or guideline that can be applied in an unlimited variety of ways.

The principles of storytelling can be expressed in question form. In Bambi v. Godzilla, David Mamet avers that anyone who wants to write drama must learn to apply three questions to all difficulties, three magic questions that are the long-lost secret of the Incas:

Who wants what from whom?

What happens if they don’t get it?

Why now?

Answer those questions well and you’re on your way to writing a compelling story. For example:

Septimus Harding, the elderly warden of Anthony Trollope’s eponymous prelude to the Barchester Chronicles, wants to maintain his position as warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse for old men, when the benefice he receives for this post comes under the scrutiny of the zealous John Bold. If he fails to withstand Bold’s scrutiny, Mr. Harding will have to give up his house and find other means of livelihood. Complicating matters is that John Bold is engaged to Harding’s beloved daughter Eleanor. The pressure on Mr. Harding builds when Bold’s crusade is taken up by the The Jupiter, which publishes editorials criticizing Harding’s stewardship of the funds.

What does Mr. Harding want and from whom? Harding wants Bold to lay off and for his life to return to peace.

What happens if Mr. Harding doesn’t get it? If he doesn’t get it his comfortable existence will be upset.

Why now? The social pressure from The Jupiter and elsewhere makes Mr. Harding’s decision to resist or capitulate a pressing one.

Or: in the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a very loose adaptation of James Thurber’s short story, Walter needs to find photojournalist Sean O’Connell’s missing Negative #25. If he doesn’t find the missing negative he won’t be able to honor O’Connell’s wish of having that image serve as the cover of Life magazine’s final issue.

What is the principle on which these questions are intended to help the writer keep focused?

Simply that a story is the adventure of a character’s pursuit of a goal, the attainment of which is in jeopardy due to forces of conflict personal, inter-personal, or impersonal (i.e., the weather).

So simple. Yet so hard to keep into focus.

Throwing Nature Out With a Pitchfork

Throwing Nature Out With a Pitchfork

Baschet,_André_Marcel_-_Ödipus_verurteilt_Polyneikes_-_1883

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.

For BONUS CONTENT related to The Happiness Plot, as well as special offers of FREE CONSULTING for writers, sign up below for The Comic Muse Email Newsletter. It’s free!

Ready to uncover the plot? 

The Game is Afoot!

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

Throwing Nature Out With a Pitchfork

9.

Does this mean that neither we nor a fictional character can ever refuse to live according to natural impulse or inclination? Not at all.

Natural inclination does not obviate human decision. Let William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson stand in for all the fictional characters bent on self-destruction. The young bachelor-scholars in Love’s Labor’s Lost comically struggle with their promise to seclude themselves from the world and their romantic impulses. J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort is one of myriad fictional tyrants who seek to obliterate the just order of society out of thirst for power. And sometimes, a character can willfully blind himself to the truth. At a pivotal moment of self-analysis in Pride and Prejudice, it is said of Elizabeth Bennet: “Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.” Finally Elizabeth is obliged to confess: “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

Indeed, in one sense all stories are about a character’s struggles with the demands of pressing desire and the demands of human nature. All stories therefore are about a movement by a character from appearance to reality.

This does not mean the character is always pleased to make such a movement. As with Oedipus and Elizabeth Bennet, often circumstances force the reality of nature back upon the desire of a protagonist. Horace said: “You can throw nature out with a pitchfork, but it always comes back.”