This post is about stories in films and books, and in life.
The stories we consume are very often structured in an artificial way, but we’ve become so used to the shape of stories in Hollywood films such as rom-coms and the superhero franchises that sometimes it’s possible to forget that life just isn’t like that at all. And then, if we are writers, we run the risk of creating stories that lazily and slavishly follow the conventions rather than attempting to describe life as we experience it.
A formulaic, predictable story might be fine, of course, if that’s what we want to enjoy or create. Recently, being laid up in bed with a leg injury followed by flu (it wasn’t the best Christmas break I can remember), I craved narratives that were simple, familiar and most importantly had happy endings. As someone with a doctorate in literature, I am not ashamed to confess that I reached for some comfort reading in the form of Katie Fforde’s romantic novels which are light as air (but very well-written). The predictability of the stories was precisely why I chose them.
There are countless textbooks and articles about the classic plot, whether as three- or five-act, or as Freytag’s pyramid. Mainstream Hollywood has adopted Joseph Campbell’s work on mythological structure in stories (“The Hero with a Thousand Faces”) via Christopher Vogler’s screenwriting guide “The Writer’s Journey”. Here you can find a blueprint for a story from “the call to adventure” right through to “return with the elixir”. Along the way is the meeting with a mentor, the gaining of allies and enemies, and the ordeal. If you watch an action movie with Vogler’s list to hand, you can virtually tick off the twelve stages of the hero’s journey one by one.
I am by no means belittling this approach to storytelling. The shape is deeply engrained from childhood fairy tales onwards and we are conditioned to enjoy it. I used it to help structure my first novel and there are plenty of times (without the excuse of being ill) when I crave that safe, familiar narrative with its upbeat, emphatic ending.
I recently saw the 80s film “Working Girl” again in which Melanie Griffiths as Tess McGill gets, not just Harrison Ford, but also the job of her dreams (and I tried not to be distracted by the way in which this “feminist” film appears to blame the character played by Sigourney Weaver for most of Tess’s problems in the workplace). “Working Girl”, like another guilty pleasure of mine, “While You Were Sleeping” with Sandra Bullock, is pure narrative reward from start to finish and I would not be without either of them. It made me feel a little better when I heard that Mark Kermode, the respected movie critic, confess to having seen “Splash” more than 100 times, for pleasure!
These popular films (and books) are sugary treats and harmless in moderation, they have value as entertainment and can occasionally make a good point or even bring about progressive social change. But Virginia Woolf’s question hovers in the air: “is life like this?” Most days and lifetimes are ordinary and shapeless. And when dramatic events do occur we rarely experience them as in the action movies with their defined beginning, middle, and end (otherwise known as the “linear” plot). Woolf made her name by searching for a more realistic style of writing than the “realism” of her day and in re-inventing fiction, gave us insights into human thought, perception and feeling that were not possible before. I would not necessarily read Woolf when in bed with the flu (although she wrote a wonderful essay about being ill) but I do read her for pleasure: the pleasure of a different kind of narrative reward.
By pure chance, I recently encountered a film which, like Woolf’s stories and novels, throws away the hero’s journey and the linear plot. And I enjoyed it! It’s a French film called (in English) “Céline and Julie Go Boating”, from 1974. Unlike the Hollywood formula, this film has no familiar structure but works on repetition and improvisation, and it feels like a dream with surrealistic doubles and unclear chronology. But it’s funny, and enjoyable, and it really did draw me in so that I wanted to know what would happen in the end while accepting that I might not be given a resolution or a happy ending (in fact there IS a happy ending: a little girl is saved from being murdered, albeit in a parallel reality).
I am no fan of avant-garde, pretentious films which deliberately frustrate the viewer and if a filmmaker forces me to stare at one shot for too long, repeatedly, I get uncomfortable and itchy (or I fall asleep, which is why I’ve never seen all of “2001 A Space Odyssey”). “Céline and Julie Go Boating” is not like this at all. In common with the best surrealist art and writing, there is an irrepressible liveliness to it and an engagement with the absurdities of life, plus a readiness to embrace emotion or even sentimentality. Events in the film were placed side by side in dream logic and without full explanation but watching it was absolutely gripping. One long sequence, set in a sort of magical other place, was replayed piece by piece in different ways. The repetition was far from boring, however, and became as addictive as the magic sweets that the characters themselves had to eat to get to this other reality!
When surrealist techniques of illogical juxtaposition, humour and affectionate nonsense all come together, the rewards of the conventional plot are mostly lost but something more rare and profound takes their place. A new way of seeing life is created that can expand our understanding and awareness of our own lives.
This is why I favour the unplanned, associative method of beginning a writing project with freewriting rather than using a planned, pre-defined structure. The mind understands the structure of a beginning, middle and end, but it doesn’t work like that on its own as you’ll have discovered if you’ve ever tried to meditate. Instead, thoughts and ideas come cascading haphazardly with no obvious connections. In the same way, our lives are not stories with heroic or happy endings, following quests with defined stages. Instead we live a series of repetitions (sleep, wake, dress, eat…).
Nothing in life is as predictable as a Hollywood movie and, while they can entertain and console, I think it is better to welcome in the chaos of reality, at least to some extent, as we sit down to watch, read or write the stories of our lives.