Thursday, August 9, 2012

Good Thoughts / The Necessity of Because

A dear friend of mine is having a serious crisis right now, and I'm worrying my face off about it. Please do me a favor and close your eyes and think good thoughts for my friend, even for a split second, if that's the time you have to spare. This person really, really deserves good thoughts and good things and has had far too much of the opposite.

It feels weird of me to say that and then go and have a normal post below, but I wrote the bulk of this post before any excrement hit any spinning blades, so here you are.

I got another one of those amazingly good pieces of feedback the other day. This time, my miracle reader reminded me that only the wrong kind of stories occur with "ant writing", i.e.: this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. No, stories are supposed to have events that result from one another. Things that happen should lead to other things happening, which interact with other things to create new things happening. With the things and the happening. "Because" is the key connector.

I knew this in an instinctual way, but no one had ever pointed out to me before that it's lazy writing to build a story any other way. I thought it over and realized that many times in the past, I had done this all wrong. Mostly because I was following my desire for the piece to come out exactly like I imagined it. I imagine a girl in a box, and that's where she is for the 2,500 words of the story, explaining her situation. There's no because, there just is.

And it dawned on me rather quickly where this came from. Two major sources that informed my storytelling in exactly the wrong way.

One was John Ford. Ford was a director of mostly Western films during much of the 20th century. Name a famous Western made before about 1965, and the odds are that Ford directed it. Ford's first talkie Western and one of his best-known films was Stagecoach, from the magic year of 1939. Stagecoach is good. It sets forth archetypes on which Westerns would depend for decades to come, but still makes them feel rather fresh and complex. Hooker w/ heart o' gold, quiet & reluctant hero, John Wayne, etc.

The climax of the film involves a chase, specifically a chase of the titular stagecoach by a gang of Apaches. Lovely long tracking shots as everyone rides hell-bent for leather. Years ago, I read on the IMDB that someone had asked Ford why the Apaches didn't just shoot the horses that were pulling the stagecoach. That would have stopped the coach for sure. Apparently, Ford answered, "Because that would have been the end of the movie."

But wait! The cavalry always rides in to help!
Hey, Injuns, let's just sit and wait for them, and then we can all go home!

From this I learned that you can cheat on obvious plot holes if you make the story compelling enough. (Well, obvious to some people. I never would have thought about shooting the horses, but now, of course, every Western I see I'm yelling at the Indians to do the same thing. They never do.) I learned that the creators of fiction sometimes see those plot holes and just don't care,* because they're telling the story that they want to tell, and the movie isn't over until they've said exactly what they want to say.

The second source was The Simpsons, the episode "Lisa's Sax":
Homer: And that, my children, is the story of Bart's first day of school.
Bart: Very nice.
Homer: Yeah.
Lisa: Yeah. Except you were supposed to be telling the story of how I got my saxophone!
Lisa: Mom, can you tell me the story of how I got my saxophone without having it turn into a story about Bart?
Marge: Sure, honey. Bart had just completed his first day of school, and Bart...
Lisa: Moooom!
Bart: Hey, she's just giving the public what it wants. Bart by the barrelful!
Marge: Sorry, Lisa, it's just how the story goes.
It's just how the story goes became a mantra I repeated to myself as I built stories. She decides to put the found pieces of a mannequin together because that's how the story goes. He decides he wants to bring her back to her homeland because that's how the story goes. He breaks his ankle and stays behind because that's how the story goes.

Wow, was this ever shoddy storytelling. "It's just how the story goes" works when you're telling stories about your life, or when you're a Simpsons writer with an A plot and a B plot you have to connect, or when you know you've got to have an exciting chase sequence at the end to make the audience happy. It does not work when you're a rookie constructing a novel or a short story that has to be good enough for people to want to read it.

There's no because in either of these examples. It is what it is because it is what it is, and while I think that can work pretty well with visual narrative art since the consumer is distracted by all else about the medium, it's not how you write books. There has to be a because. The Indians have to have a damn good reason why they're not shooting the horses.

So, lesson learnt, Miracle Reader. No more listening to John Ford (by all accounts, he was a jerk, anyway), no more listening to Marge. Plots have to have purposes. It all has to connect and make sense. It doesn't in real life, as we all know, but in fiction there has to be a because.

*I couldn't find a place to put this above, but I can't miss the opportunity to say it: a rare exception to this attitude is the Coen brothers. I've yet to find a single plot hole in any of their movies. Their screenwriting is shockingly perfect, and they're no less amazing for creating stories both outlandish and insanely neatly tied up. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Also this: the Indians didn't shoot the horses because they wanted the horses.