Thursday, September 30, 2010

What my mother never said

I went to the "Made in Dagenham" Q&A with writer William Ivory on Wednesday and I had written a blog on it. But I just deleted it because of what my mother never said: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all".

It's not that he's a bad person or a bad writer (clearly not that) or that the interview was uninteresting, it's just I don't think he had anything to say worth repeating.

Damn. Just had to justify myself, didn't I, and see what happened?

Anyway I've been thinking about the science and technology of story. When I say technology I don't mean computers or software, or typewriters, or pens, or paper, or bits of stick with clay tablets.

Technology means techniques that can be applied to achieve a result. Anybody can be taught a technology of how to do something. Like the technology of plastering a wall. Doesn't mean they'll be a great wall plasterer but it means they could achieve a result that's not appalling (assuming they've practised the techniques as well).

Lack of technology is a bad thing when you're trying to achieve something, though occasionally you have to work it out for yourself. And sometimes there's bad technology which, if you try using it, will just end you up in trouble - and then you'll think "I can't do it" when the truth is: you don't know how, in fact worse, you think you know and you don't.

But let's do the science bit first.

I think you can divide "Story science" into two types, I have no idea what to call them but I know how to describe them, they are the Biology and the Physics of Story.

Originally (and still to a large extent) Biology is about classification. People looked at living things and began to classify them: Birds (feathers and fly), fish (live underwater) and so on.

Then there's Physics, about looking at things, suggesting rules to describe a situation, testing those rules to see if they work and if they work 100% of the time you've got a Law.

What's the Biology of Story? Campbell's Monomyth is an example of classification. So are Polti's 36 Dramatic Situations. Vogler's work is based on the Monomyth so that's classification too.

But, and I think this is important, sometimes you find something which does not fit the current classification. Does that mean it's not a living thing? Well, some people will say "yes, that is exactly what it means", like the man who, coming face to face with a giraffe, exclaimed "there ain't no such animal". Or the so-called doctor who proclaimed "I would rather err with Galen than accept Harvey's truth." - Galen stated blood moved like tides in the body, Harvey proved blood was pumped by the heart. Proof is not enough for some people.

The Monomyth is a classification. It does not mean that all stories have to contain those elements. They may but it cannot be stated as Truth.

What about the Physics of Story? Aristotle's Poetics, is the only one I can think of. Physics is different to Biology, Physics always applies. (I've probably pulled this metaphor a bit further than it should go, it's going to break any moment.)

Aristotle analysed plays that entertained and plays that failed to entertain (even though they were the same format and on the same subject) and came up with a set of principles which can be used to analyse any story to determine the degree to which it will succeed or fail.

(You have to understand that I write these blogs off the top of my head mostly - once they've had a chance to ferment a bit. This is not wine that's been laid down for years, more like a Beaujolais Nouveau.).

Then there's Story Technology - it's engineering. Engineering is about application of techniques (using tools) to produce the desired result - like a bridge. The bridge may not be perfect but as long as it does what it's supposed to do, then it's a good bridge.

Story technology is that. It's a form of engineering which may not produce a perfect story but as long as it does what it's supposed to do, then you've got a good story. (A bridge may be so well made that it's used as an example - so could a story, of course.)

So do we have story tools? Well, you can create a story that fits the Monomyth classification but that doesn't guarantee success. This happens all the time. Or you can apply Aristotle's principles and you will end up with something dramatic.

Of course a person's ability to apply these is dependent on their understanding and talent. So there's no guarantee it would be a great story. But it would work.

There are what you might call "lesser" tools, these are purely mechanical and designed to help you think through the story (index cards, for example). You can hammer a nail by hand, but it's easier and quicker to use a nail gun.

There are little bits of technology that can be used in specific areas, like dialogue: "Keep cutting out words until it stops meaning what it's supposed to mean - even if that means cutting the whole speech" (a little gem from Russell T Davies).

There are lots of tools to help you write well, whether and how you use them is up to you.

What about McKee? He comes under classification and "lesser" tools, that's not intended as an insult, it's just where he fits in this analysis.

What's on the turntable? "Time has told me" by Nick Drake from "Five Leaves Left"

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