Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Lucas

Is storytelling obsolete?

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The tricky thing about defending plot is that you occasionally get it from both sides. On the literary end, you have critics like John Lucas of the Guardian, who is clearly suspicious of most plotted fiction, or James Wood of the New Yorker, who is famously fed up with the conventions of literary realism. Meanwhile, on the other end, you have those who want to get rid of story altogether, but for radically different reasons. And I suspect that the likes of Lucas and Wood might ease up on their invective if they realized that plot was, in fact, literature’s last stand against an even more insidious opponent, embodied, at least this week, by Andy Hendrickson, Chief Technology Officer of Disney Studios, who was quoted in Variety as saying: “People say ‘It’s all about the story.’ When you’re making tentpole films, bullshit.”

To state the obvious, I’d rather be defending story against the likes of Lucas and Wood, who at least claim to be aspiring to something more, than Hendrickson, who is pushing toward something much less. On a superficial level, though, he seems to have a point—at least when it comes to the movies that consistently generate large audiences. Citing a chart of the top 12 movies of all time, including Disney’s own Alice in Wonderland, Hendrickson notes that visual effects are what tend to drive box office—”and Johnny Depp didn’t hurt,” he concludes. Which is true enough. Most of these movies are triumphs of visuals over narrative, based on existing brands or properties, to the point where story seems almost incidental. Even a movie like The Dark Knight, which cares deeply about plot and narrative complexity, feels like little more than an aberration.

But this only tells half the story. For one thing, the list that Hendrickson provides isn’t adjusted for inflation, and the list of the real highest-grossing movies of all time yields a much different picture. There are some clunkers here, too (nobody, I trust, went to see The Ten Commandments because of the script), but for the most part, these are movies driven by story and spectacle: Gone With the Wind. E.T. Star Wars. The Sound of Music. Even Avatar, which had a few problems in the screenplay department, was an ambitious attempt to create a fully realized original story that would fuel the dreamlife of millions. And these are the most lucrative movies ever made. To be content with a disposable tentpole picture that barely makes back its production and marketing costs strikes me as a lack of ambition. And it should strike Disney shareholders the same way.

Moreover, even the movies that Hendrickson cites are more driven by story than he acknowledges. Alice in Wonderland was a book before it became a terrible movie, after all, and it’s safe to say that box office was driven as much by goodwill toward Lewis Carroll’s creations as toward Johnny Depp. The same is true for Spider-Man, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and most other major franchises, all of which were built on the work of solitary geniuses. In short, someone still needs to do the work of story. Aside from exceptions like Pixar or Inception, the primary creative work may not be done in Hollywood itself, but in novels, comics, and other media where true artists continue to gravitate, and where the movies will eventually turn. Hendrickson may hate to admit it, but he still depends on storytellers, even if they’ve fled his own department. Life, as a certain famous franchise reminds us, always finds a way. And story does as well.

Written by nevalalee

August 18, 2011 at 9:48 am

In defense of plot

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Earlier this week, critic John Lucas of the Guardian wrote an article alarmingly headlined “Has plot driven out other kinds of story?” He points to what he calls the resurgence of plot in literary fiction—giving Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Love Story [sic] as an example, although he gets the title wrong—and wonders if contemporary fiction, influenced by film, has privileged plot above all other elements. (This seems manifestly untrue, at least on the literary side, but we’ll ignore that for now.) He wonders if Kafka would be published today, conveniently overlooking the fact that most of Kafka’s work wasn’t published at all until after his death. He makes the common but unsubstantiated claim that plotless or unresolved fiction is truer to life than its plotted equivalent, and gently slaps the wrist of novels in which, heaven forbid, “every scene advances the action.” In his conclusion, not surprisingly, he hedges a bit:

Plot, as one of many literary strategies, is fantastic: employed carefully it can lend extraordinary emotional resonance to a text. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is not the only pleasure to be derived from great literature.

Lucas’s article isn’t a bad one, but I disagree with almost everything it says. Take the assertion in the second sentence quoted above. I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, has ever claimed that plot is the only pleasure to be derived from great literature. If anything, the opposite is true: people tend to underrate the importance of plot in our greatest writers. There’s a common assumption that Shakespeare, for instance, didn’t care about plot, or wasn’t especially good at it, because he took most of his stories from conventional sources. The fact is, though, he was great at plot, and clearly relished it. The sources of Hamlet or Lear contain only the barest outlines of the story, which Shakespeare ingeniously enriches with incident, character, and structure. His plays have the busiest plots in all of literature, and they’re far more intricate than merely commercial considerations would dictate, which implies that he enjoyed plot for its own sake.

I’ve talked about the merits of plot in a previous post, so I won’t repeat all of my points here. To me, though, plot is a joy, both in my own writing and in the work of others. Plot is both a heightening of reality and a reflection of it: life is full of plots and stories, and the construction of a plot that feels true to life and satisfying as art is one of the most extended challenges a writer can face. Removing the plot, with its necessary pattern of constraints, leaves the author free to indulge all of his worst impulses, a freedom that few writers have the discipline to survive. Indeed, I’d argue that the greatest thing about plot is its impersonality, even its coldness. In On Directing Film, David Mamet reminds us that a story is moving to the extent that the writer can leave things out, especially what is deeply felt and meaningful. And in the honest construction of a logical, surprising, inevitable plot, there’s very little room for affectation or self-indulgence.

In the end, plot isn’t the enemy; bad plots are—just as we need to guard against bad style, characterization, and theme. No element of fiction is inherently more worthwhile than any other, and attempts to privilege one above all others generally lead to what John Gardner calls frigidity, an elevation of one’s own personality over the demands of the story. Conversely, when all the elements work together, the effect can be overwhelming. A novel like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which the Guardian‘s sister paper recently named the best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel of the past twenty-five years, is as beautifully plotted as they come, a work in which the structure of the story is inseparable from its deeper themes. For most of us, then, plot is the necessary matrix in which a novel can grow in ways that are true to the fictional dream, not to our own preoccupations. Plot, at its best, is a cure for vanity.

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