At 11pm and then 12

Malice in Manhattan

The waiter walks past me in a hurry so I click my heels under the table and sigh loudly. He notices and he stops in his tracks. It annoys me a little that he hasn’t yet noticed my almost empty drink. When I first walked in here he couldn’t keep his eyes off me.

“Another one, ma’am?” he asks and I nod, yes. I still have my second drink and I swirl it around in my glass as the waiter leans over and takes my first one. His sleeve pulls back a bit as he stretches over the table, and his Rolex watch glints at me. I notice it’s 11pm, and I don’t have to be anywhere until 12. But I don’t mind wasting my time in a bar like this. It’s fancy but I notice a few cracks in the paint, some dodgy craftsmanship on the woodwork on the bar. There’s a door slightly ajar behind the stage, and there’s a man with glasses going over paperwork. There’s a frown on his face and a pen behind his ear.

Apart from the little irregularities, I will admit that this bar has charm. The chairs are all red velvet. They match the piano player’s fedora. I’m surprised the piano fit through the wooden front door. Perhaps the piano has always been here? Maybe this place has always been a type of jazz bar. It’s situated down a side alley off a main street that’s lined with sleeping households. This is the only place open in this suburb, and the kind of place to bring people of all sorts in at 11pm.

There are a few well dressed men sitting at a round table, each on their 5th scotch or whisky. A man and a woman sit opposite each other at a small table with a bottle of wine between them. I’ve been watching them for a while, and I’ve deduced that it’s a first date as they don’t really look each other in the eyes, and the girl has a very nervous laugh.

There’s a few more men sitting around the tables and at the bar. I don’t believe tonight is this Bar’s busiest, so a blonde woman wearing a red dress, alone at 11pm, really stands out.

The waiter brings me over another glass.

“Thank you.” I say and smile.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” he says, leaning on my table.

“Yes actually there is,” I say leaning forward, “Could you tell me what the time is?”

The waiter stands up suddenly, “Oh, sure of course.” He pulls his left sleeve. “It’s 11.05.”

“Thank you.” I say, leaning back into my chair and taking a sip of my drink. The waiter walks back to the bar.

From the corner of my eye I notice someone staring at me. I subtly look to my side and see one man from the circle table hunched over his drink. He’s probably too drunk to realise how much he is staring at me, but hopefully sober enough to remember me, especially as I subtly lean down to scratch my knee. While doing this my dress pulls up and reveals the 6-inch revolver tucked neatly into my garter belt. I don’t look back at the man. I stare into the fireplace in front of me. The man doesn’t get up or move, but he will remember.

The waiter walks behind me again. I grab his left arm.

“Another drink, please?” I say, not breaking eye contact.

“Of course, ma’am,” he says with a cute smile. “I’ll bring it right over.”

My wig starts to itch and I think this will be my last drink. My plan was to arrive here at 11pm, and leave at 12. An hour would be enough time to make an impression on the staff and hopefully some locals. They would notice an out-of-towner anyway, but I added the get-up to cover myself. And have a little fun as well, of course.

Soon I’ll get up and leave, smile a thank you to the waiter and walk out into the cold night. It’ll be dark at the end of the street where a street lamp is broken, and the number 8 is faded into the front door. His window is open. I was told it would be, anyway. Climbing into his bedroom will be the easy part. Finding a place to carefully hide my heels so that they can still be discovered by the detectives will be a little more tricky. But my main aim is to be as swift as possible as I twist the silencer on my gun. From experience, I know silencers aren’t extremely quiet, but that’s the scene I’m aiming for. Someone next door will notice. Perhaps they will notice a blonde with a red dress walking briskly down the empty street, alone at 12pm.

It will be a quick, clean shot to the head, and a quick, clean exit out the rear door. A train to the next city with my outfit trashed in the bathroom bin. My money will be waiting for me back home. Quick. Clean. Easy.

After a few more drinks the time ticks over to 11:45. I gulp down my glass and get up to leave. Putting on my coat I lean down to write a fake number on a napkin for the waiter, just another red herring for the night. I look up to see if he notices me leaving. His eyes again aren’t on me but instead on the bar and around the floor. I quickly leave before the he realises I’ve stolen his watch.

 

Ashlee Poeppmann

 

The Ubiquitous Three Acts: A Marriage of Chaos and Construct

So in our previous two discussions (here and here) we have seen that form is an immensely complex and fluid concept, but at its core may simply be a multifaceted way of telling the same story over and over again.

A scan of popular and historical forms reveals certain trends in the way we construct narratives, not only within discrete societal frameworks and but across all cultures and eras. But is that the whole story of story?

Of course not.

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Deconstructionism

Following on from Frye’s and Campbell’s notions of literary structure based on cyclical mythic forms we see the inevitable counter-movement developing in the French philosophers of the 60s and 70s. Jacques Derrida is often attributed as the instigator of Deconstructionism, which started out as a philosophical and literary exercise and went on to influence many forms of art and social sciences.

Derrida delivered a lecture at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 entitled Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences which is often cited as spreading post-structuralist thinking outside of France. He elaborated on those central ideas in his seminal work Of Grammatology in 1967.

Thus Post-Structuralism evolved out of deconstructionist thinking to become the umbrella term for it and other associated theories. Michel Foucault is often referred to as a central post-structuralist, though he himself denied the classification.

Unsurprisingly, deconstructionism evolved into metaphysics and existential philosophies, which themselves emphasise the great unknowability of life, and therefore art.

In a nutshell:

  • People are too infinitely variable to subscribe to any central notion of how a text is received or how the central message is conveyed.
  • The interpretation of a text is influenced by far more than simply the content and form of the text.
  • The message and meaning of a text can be undermined by or run counter-intuitive to the author’s intended ideas shaped by content, form and structure.
  • Pursuing meaning in a text ultimately exposes its contradictions and internal oppositions.
  • Texts and stories are irreducibly complex and unstable.
  • By definition, no text’s meaning can ever be completely known.
  • Fundamentally, humans are too unstable to ever be studied or understood in a complete way, and as it is never possible to escape the structures we find ourselves in, it is therefore not possible to examine them from an external perspective.

In summary, Derrida’s theories propose that the labyrinth can never be fully known because humans are infinitely variable, and as long as we are inside the labyrinth itself we will never be able to critically examine it from an external perspective.

On the surface it may seem that deconstructionism contradicts structuralist thinking, but in reality these two schools of thought form two opposite perspectives from which to view textual meaning and human interpretation. Indeed it quickly becomes clear that both concepts bring to the table essential ways of examining art. So we come to see that while the labyrinth is thoroughly known, it is also thoroughly unknowable.

The three-act journey

Post-structuralism, while immensely fun, does not help us much in our thoughts about form and narrative structure. And through the 80s and 90s, when movie blockbusters became a central part of social culture and the telling of global stories spread far beyond literary texts, we see the emergence of a trend in story-telling based on the twin successes of cultural popularity and audience understanding: the good ol’ three-act structure.

Most people are familiar with the notion of beginning, middle and end. There is a set-up, a development and a conclusion. This notion is basic, if not universal. Why? Well, it seems at its most fundamental to parallel life itself, and that’s a philosophical question for another day. It is so inescapable that you will find even the most non-linear and abstract of narratives will inevitably follow this three-act formation in some way.

This is where applications of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth become incredibly useful in defining structure. Essentially, the three-act structure is approximately twenty-five percent set-up (Act 1), fifty percent development (Act 2) and a final twenty-five percent of climax and resolution. Of course these ratios can be stretched and modified, but this division forms a stable basis for a well-structured story. The second act is then often broken into two halves, the first establishing the decline of the hero’s former state and the second accelerating the transformation by increasing risk and upping conflict, building into the inevitable climax. The resultant four quarters are broken up by three turning points, which often work as a palindrome in terms of character agency, with the second turning point (the mid-point) serving as a reversal of the first turning point decision, and so on.

When compared with the cyclical graphs of the monomyth, it becomes very clear how the two are intrinsically similar. And this basic idea has been elaborated upon by some of the greatest modernthinkers about story structure and narrative design, from professors such as Michael Hauge, to writers like Blake Snyder, to entire theories of work such as Dramatica, and so on and so forth.

Now of course such a broad-stroke approach brings forth a barrage of anti-conformist dialogue about how three-act structures are a construct of society and an over-simplification of truly ‘good’ writing, or further evidence of the film industry dumbing-down what once was a great art form. These arguments may be partially true, but there is little point in being reactionary simply for the sake of it, especially when both sides of the argument may in fact be equally correct.

Interestingly, the three-act concept can itself be interpreted through both the lens of structuralism and deconstructionism. The hero’s journey can be applied to almost any narrative, no matter how abstract or anti-heroic the story may appear at first. Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men: while these characters may at first seem to be the antithesis of self-sacrifice and maturity, even they subscribe, somewhat convexly, to the hero’s journey in a world-specific interpretation of initiation and renewal. Denial of call and movement away from ‘heroism’ can be interpreted themselves as acts of transformation, even salvation of an idea or concept, however hideous and antiheroic that idea may be.

Similarly even narratives that at first seem to thwart the three-act structure because of overly complex or meta subject matter, non-linear chronology or pastiche style exposition can still be defined in a three-act manner, right from Hamlet to Catch-22 to Pulp Fiction. Even other act delineations, such as the two-act, four-act, five-, six- and seven-act formulations can all be interpreted as a play on the basic three-act trajectory.

This all leads us to consider the old chicken and egg conundrum. Do we see three-acts because we want to or because they really are the basis of all well-told stories? Is it simply a futile exercise in applying structure to a vast chaos of widely different interpretations, or is it actually the foundation of the way we perceive, live and retell our stories?

Again, these questions are both fun and important to consider, and again it all comes down to how we can apply these theories to make our stories better, both for critics and audiences alike.

For my part, the three-act structure applied post-composition has been incredibly valuable in helping me to see why certain elements don’t work and how to effectively shift them structurally to make room for a greater development of character or story. It doesn’t mean that I have reworked my entire novel in order to fit a shallow, culture-specific mold, but instead that I have learned to examine my narrative through an age-old framework and use these fundamental ideas of story-telling, both ancient and modern, to help me tell my story in the most effective way.

Yes, sometimes it’s as much fun to break the rules as it is to follow them. But even then, the ‘rules’ are still rules, right?

Or are they?

Therein lies the great mystery at the heart of all artistic endeavour.

 

 

Elise Janes

 

One Thousand Words

The first thing I noticed about Bombay, on that first day, was the smell of the different air. It’s the blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the Island City, and the blood-metal smell of machines. It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and loves that produce our courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches, and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers.’ 

(Roberts, 2003)

Busy_Street_in_India

I’ve been back in Australia for one week now and already, India feels like a dream. I’ve fallen back into mundane routines. It’s week two of the uni semester and I’m back to work. The busy cycle of adrenaline and fatigue has already taken away that freeing feeling of confidence and possibility I brought back with me to Australia. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I find myself thinking about the pink soap box of Sard I left back in India in the guest-house. I tried once to wash my clothes by hand, only to be left with damp clothes smelling of dirty air, curry and vomit. As unpleasant as this reflection is, it reminds me of the reality of India. I must remember that study tour wasn’t all smooth sailing and exploring. There were times in India that were very challenging for me. Despite this, India was great. It’s fueled me with knowledge. It’s changed my ambitions, my perceptions. It’s changed my life.

I think back to when we visited the set in Vasai. The area seemed very industrial in contrast to the green landscapes surrounding it. People across the road from our bus were chipping away at white stone in the sun. As we walked closer to the set, we passed a group of ladies working with clothes. They sat in an area that looked like the back of a petrol station or a dirty, concrete toilet block. And yet, in their hands they held beautiful, intricate, colourful garments. ‘Embroidery for film costume overlaps considerably with embroidery for private clients and the fashion market, and its specialists share the same social attributes. Several independent workshops are located in known slum areas of the city, where artisanal industry flourishes owing to the concentration of urban craftspeople and the availability of affordable space’ (Wilkinson-Weber, 2014).

The culture of India and the Bollywood industry runs so differently, so uniquely. Everyone and everything has purpose or potential. The slums aren’t seen as places of poverty, but, rather places of productivity. I went to India expecting to see an industry like Hollywood where people pursue film from an early age for the creativity and the popularity. In India, you work for money and for survival. Even those with a lot of money produce films ‘to sell popcorn’ and pocket the rupees. Professionals in Bollywood acquire skills through practice and seem willing to take on anyone with a drive to learn.

India 1

On the set in Vasai, we talked to well-renowned actor, Sachin Tyagi. He seemed more than willing to speak to us and was very charming. He admitted that sometimes acting is good but, most of the time it is torture. What I loved most about the study aspect of study tour was learning from the honesty of people in the industry. Here in Australia, I feel that guest speakers always strive to be inspirational. They are all about fulfilling dreams. In India, Vivek Vaswani taught me that ‘you have to set goals, not dreams. Because, you wake up from dreams and they are gone. Always deal with facts when you make decisions. You must make mistakes.’ These are truths I needed to hear. These are facts that work in the entertainment industry, an industry that is quite frankly, less about dreams coming true and more about profit.

In the meeting with Hansal Mehta, we were told that in India, everyone’s values, the things they say even, come from what they’ve seen in films. I feel that even at twenty years of age I am still confused about my own identity and my own values. This study tour has made me surer than ever that the way I’m going to form values and learn in my life is to do what I’m passionate about, travel. Meetings in India taught me that if I pursue producing I should take advantage to co-produce on international projects, get to know international filming laws and treaties. Working internationally in film would be an invaluable experience. However, I’m not sure if I’d focus on producing. Learning so much about producing and directing made me realise that maybe it’s not for me. I think I’m more passionate about writing, specifically travel writing or scriptwriting.

I found myself very drawn to and inspired by the meeting we had with the scriptwriter. It was interesting to observe that the scriptwriter had the ability to balance writing for films with other roles in the industry. He still had time on top of this to engage with his hobby, creating mash-ups and film trailers. At Everymedia, I learned that in public relations you take a small part of an interview and turn it into a big story. In the same way, I suppose I’ve taken a small aspect of the study tour and brought it to the forefront of my mind.

Listening to the scriptwriter, taught me that telling a story you want to tell will make you enjoy writing.  One day you’ll read something and think ‘there’s an idea there.’ You have to believe in the idea because you will spend six months with it. ‘Any script that we write we make sure it’s not more than two locations because if I have to freight the equipment to 5 different locations, I’ll go crazy if I don’t have that kind of money to move. Dangerous Ishq is a film that actually needs 5 different locations, but I’m shooting one around Bombay and shooting around Rajasthan and finding everything there, otherwise I would have to go to Mysore and go to Calcutta, and I can’t afford that’ (Tejaswini, 2013). This reflection from Tejaswini reminds me that if I pursue scriptwriting or any role in the entertainment industry, I need to remain realistic. I need to be smart about the content I create and make the most of the resources available to me.  In the scriptwriting meeting, I also learned that inspiration often comes out of writing for other projects. I believe that in my life, a lot of what I do will stem out of working a variety of jobs. I am an indecisive person and my career will likely be fluid as a result.

India 2

Photo credit: Joe Carter

There are so many pieces of advice I learned on study tour that I can apply to any profession in creative industries. Hansal Mehta for instance, taught me that it is important to stick with a story and always have a pitch and a visual in your mind. And, never forget the heart of your story. As Gautam Kohli said, have a big idea and take it to the end. Suparn Verma taught me that industry is about establishing relationships and using them, there is nothing else to it. Komal Lath taught me that you should always have teams of three so you can depend on at least A, B or C being available. You should have about six people in your line of business and you should have a point one and a point two. Point two should have a link directly to the person you need to reach, perhaps a star or a valuable contact. Komal Lath also reminded me of a crucial fact. Everyone in society wants something for an exchange. ‘Filmmaker Arin Crumley, of Four-Eyed Monsters fame, attended Cannes this year to make connections for his next, in-progress feature. He describes his strategy: My process has been talk my way into events I’m not on the list at, talk to people about what they’re looking for, and through my own insights and ideas, see if I can help them. And through that people are offering to help me. It’s been a big lesson in working together as a community’ (Macaulay, 2012).

Study tour gave me the opportunity to learn information that I’d never considered before from people who live in a culture so different to my own. The fact that I’ve been to India gives me an advantage. I should take aspects of the way India works and apply it to my work in Australia. For example, in writing I can consider the structure used for content in Bollywood. Structure in Indian film is much different to Hollywood. In Bollywood, there are two different movies in one, before and after the interval. In Creative and Professional Writing we learn to avoid being cliché. By writing a story with the same structure as a Bollywood film, I immediately move away from what is cliché in the Western world. I can produce something with my background knowledge of Bollywood that will separate my work from other people’s.

I am so thankful for the experience of study tour. It was such a privilege to learn from inspirational and genuine people who seemed so confident in you and willing to help you. In Australia, most professionals in the industry would not give you the light of day. Sharing this experience with a group of students who are so like-minded and driven and interesting was what made study tour the best it could be.  I miss the experience every day. It is amazing how transformative three weeks of your life can be.

Take me back to the fifth of July. I want to do it all again.

 

Carmel Purcell

First published on Carmel’s blog.


Ganti, Tejaswini. 2013. Bollywood. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Macaulay, Scott. 2012. “12 Tips on Networking from the Cannes Film Festival.” Filmmaker, May 30. Accessed August 10, 2015. http://filmmakermagazine.com/46168-1-tips-on-networking-from-the-cannes-film-festival/#.Vccp1vlbGed.

Roberts, Gregory D. 2003. Shantaram. Australia: Scribe Publications.

Wilkinson-Weber, Clare M. 2014. Fashioning Bollywood: The Making and Meaning of Hindi Film Costume. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

 

The Dreaded Synopsis

This week I had a wobbly moment. Old fears resurfaced. Past anxieties tried to sink their claws in.

Efforts to prepare my work for submission saw me make blundering attempt after blundering attempt to write a synopsis. What is it with these short forms of message conveyance that terrify me so?

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Over the years I’ve had no shortage of conversations with fellow writers on this subject. We say their names with scorn and undisguised disrespect: Log lines. Blurbs. Outlines.

A common question is uttered with disdain: How am I expected to condense my entire novel into 25 words, 1 paragraph, two pages? (choose your poison)

We sigh. We cringe. We try not to show how daunted we are at the prospect of doing these very things.

And so, for my part, I remained dismissive of these stalwarts of the publishing world’s submission requirements. I put those unaddressed fears in an envelope, put the envelope in the post addressed to a day that’s always tomorrow.

Except, this week, I was forced to peek inside the envelope. And there it was – the fear that my inability to address flaws in my last project were back and a ticking time bomb at the core of this current project.

These flaws include:

  • An overreliance on back story
  • Key moments that occur outside of the scope of the novels’ time frame (that possibly should not)
  • And the worst one of all – that the character’s struggle does not make sense.

Questions (criticisms and self-chastising) ensued.

  • How could I end up here again?
  • Have I learned nothing?
  • Why do I keep repeating the same mistakes?

I wobbled. My stomach did a few flip-flops. I spent a testing 50 minutes on the train home from work wondering whether eight months of work was about to slip through my fingeman-writing-booksrs. It was all disappearing and the version of reality where I am not good enough was bearing down upon me.

Then I made the decision not to accept this – to fight back. I swallowed my pride. I reached out. Through social media and email I asked friends for help with writing a synopsis. Saviours came to my aid. Their kind words and offers of assistance gave me renewed hope.

The wobble passed and I was still standing, my latest project still intact. And the synopsis?

It’s three pages long with aspirations to be a slender two. I’m getting there…with a little help from my friends.

The Labyrinth is Thoroughly Known

2013-04-10-labyrinth

Last week I got a bit academic on you and started down this road of form and structure, and what it means to readers and writers and so on. The reason for this dialectic digression stems from my own exploration of the concepts of form over the past few months while I have been structurally editing my manuscript. As anyone who has ever done this knows, ideas of form are integral to the structural process.

I began last week by underlining the fact that ‘form’ as a concept is incredibly complex and a multifaceted term that at different points in one discourse may refer to genre, style, format or structure, or something else altogether. Indeed, ‘form’ often refers to a combination of all these things within the cultural connotations that society has built up over a good few thousand years of literary and narrative art, since well before Aristotle’s Poetics first tried to categorise and define these ideas.

Not only do these concepts of form span history, but they also span ethnicity. While world cultures vary in language, customs, religion and social structures, the ideas of form within storytelling seem yet to transcend even these vast diversities (Let’s pause for a moment and wonder at the incredible global unity that is created by the sharing and telling of stories, and how we have come to be at this moment in time as a result of the many ages and cultures that have come before).

So form is complex, yet it is also timeless. It’s difficult to define, and yet a firm grasp of form can provide an author with a necessary framework to build or remodel a work of narrative art. This is why so many literary courses deal weightily with the study of form. It not only informs our reception and criticism of narrative work, but also the way in which we construct it.

Last week I proposed we look at some theories of form that have emerged over the past fifty years or so, since the advent of Modernism combined with massive industrial and technological progress opened the world up to a greater consumption of and formal interest in literature. In the 1950s there unfolded a rebirth of literary academics, and therefore a new progression of philosophical schools of thought about the subject. Here we shall touch on only a few, but at least some of the most important theories that shape how we currently think about structure and story.

Northrop Frye

Last week I pointed you in the direction of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism as a foundational academic work that paved the way for all modern concepts of form. Frye was labeled a ‘structuralist’ (as opposed to the post-structuralists that came later) because his theories were founded on the idea of certain concrete and universal frameworks of story.

Don’t be discouraged if you began to drift halfway through Frye’s ‘Polemical Introduction’ and gave up before you even started on the first essay. Frye is considered by many to be the most important theorist on Western literature to have existed in the past fifty years. So his work is necessarily detailed and extremely thorough.

Here’s the general idea about Frye:

  • He was one of the first literary theorists to develop a theory of criticism solely based within the framework of literature itself, instead of applying theories of criticism from other fields of study, as everyone else was doing at the time.
  • This meant he studied the works themselves and developed a theory based on content and communicative ability instead of the whims of literary trends and personal taste.
  • As a student of Aristotle, he based his analysis of literature on the elements identified in the Poetics.
  • By interrogating the substance of great works of literature, he surmised that literature has a general tendency to rely on primitive formulas.
  • He developed a four-fold scope of analysis that was inherently cyclical, that is, took cues from the progressive and atmospheric change of natural seasons, the ages of man, and the progress of history.
  • This is where his famous theory of seasons comes from, where each season corresponds to an archetype of story: comedy, romance, tragedy and satire.
  • He argued that myth and literature are codependent, as literature is merely a means for a society to reinterpret and revoice myths that are central to its foundation and development.
  • His theories focus on the way in which these myths are retold.

In summary, Frye was a genius. In order to really understand his work you need to read it, but short of that try Wikipedia’s summary or this rather helpful slideshow. Basically, he discovered that within certain combinations of foundational elements, all the variety of world literature takes life, much like the twelve tones of music, transmuted through differences of register, metre, rhythm and timbre, form the basis of all the musical works of the world.

Essentially, he found that literature is about telling the same stories in an infinite number of different ways.

Joseph Campbell

Campbell takes this concept of central story archetype one step further in his seminal work, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, from which the theory of monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey, is derived. Campbell was a scholar of legends and world religion and his work points to the same conclusions as Frye regarding literature and narrative being simply the retelling of myths. However Campbell goes on to decide that all stories can be traced back to a single myth, irrespective of time, place or culture: the transformative myth of the hero.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_(1891)

Here’s where we can get less abstract and more concrete about form, specifically how it applies to narrative structure. While Campbell’s work was also complex and expansive, he was very adept at applying his theories to modern stories, not just literature but film as well. Add to that a fantastic way with words and ideas, and you quickly see why this guy became so important to contemporary story theory.

Campbell’s work is much more accessible for non-academics than Frye’s so I recommend a full read. However, this series of interviews with Bill Moyers provides a comprehensive and entertaining summary of his ideas, beginning with this fantastic quote from The Hero with A Thousand Faces:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the heropath. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Here’s the Campbell overview:

  • Through extensive comparative research of myths and legends throughout the world he developed a theory that all stories centre on a hero completing a transformative quest.
  • He defines a hero as someone who has found or achieved or done something greater than the norm; who has risked himself for the benefit of others.
  • Like Frye, Campbell discovered that story was cyclical, specifically formed by a going and a return.
  • The basic motif is that of leaving one condition and finding a source of strength or change in order to bring the hero into another, more mature or advanced condition.
  • All stories are based on the objective of saving something: a people, a race, a person, an object, an ideal; and of the hero sacrificing something in order to achieve that salvation.

Have a quick search around the internet and you will find countless diagrams of the hero’s journey and pictorial depictions of Campbell’s work. You will also find a lot more information on the ideas that have come from his writings, specifically the monomyth, but also the structures of initiation rituals and coming-of-age stories as they tie in to the hero’s journey.

In summary, Campbell found that all stories can be traced back to the idea of a transformative quest, that of sacrificing one state for another in order to benefit an external cause.

So…

You may not agree with the above ideas, in which case you would be more interested in the schools of deconstructionism and post-structuralism which became very popular when meta-thinking was all the rage, and was probably what dominated most literary corridors when you were at university (and no doubt still does). Next week we’ll touch briefly on these thoughts, and consider why, after all that, we keep on coming back to this inescapable idea that there is nothing new under the sun except the way in which we colour things.

Is the labyrinth thoroughly known? Or is it impossible to ever know?

Perhaps therein lie two sides of the same coin.

 

Elise Janes

 

Poetry

Molly parked her walker up under the window of the dayroom and took the last place at the table. The poet was sitting on one of the long sides; he’d set up plates of cream biscuits down the centre as if this was a kitchen table and it was going to be some chatty morning. Molly tried to pull her chair in so she could reach the complimentary paper.

First thing, before mention of the biscuits, they went round the table listing favourite poets. Keats, Browning, Wordsworth, a nod to Shakespeare and even God with the Psalms. As the latecomer, the visiting poet – whose name she couldn’t recall – came to Molly last. She said she liked Sylvia Plath. Not that she’d read anything beyond the sensational newspaper reports at the time, she just wanted to be different; she’d never been one to conform and wasn’t about to start. The poet nodded sagely.

‘Wasn’t she the one who killed herself?’ asked Arthur, the only male resident to turn up to the poetry workshop.

sylvia plath

The woman beside Molly leaned over and whispered for her alone: ‘that’s where poetry gets you.’ She smelled of Yardley lavender talc. Molly recognised her as she breathed her in, and was instantly glad Patience was here. She reached into her low slung cleavage to fetch out her glasses – that way she could see what was going on too.

‘So you are all fond of a poem with a rhyme, Plath fans excepted,’ said the poet with a tiny bit of acid in his voice. ‘Do you want to see if you can write something without rhyme?’ The enthusiasm was not returned unconditionally. The idea of a three line form poem seemed okay though. ‘None of us are likely to die before we finish,’ murmured Patience. Molly couldn’t help sticking her glasses back on her nose and glancing across at Joyce just to make sure. Joyce’s chin was resting on her chest and her baldness was exposed: a naval gazing slump.

Molly was still muttering out strict syllable patterns for her haiku about a muddy pond when Patience shoved her own bit of poetry-paper over for her to see.

Blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah

Molly put her hand over the paper and started a reply, feeling like she was at school again, sharing secrets with a girlfriend, living in the light of her smiles and approval.

Ha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha ha

Patience gurgled and spluttered and sprayed a bit of spit and Molly lost sight of her as her own eyes crinkled into slits.

‘Would you like to share your poems?’ the poet asked. Molly opened her eyes to see him looking straight at her. The poor thing, what disappointments he must have had to end up doing poetry in an Aged Care Hostel.

‘No, it’s a bit personal,’ Patience interrupted boldly. She reached over and patted Molly’s goanna-skin hand. Molly felt electricity shoot up her arm. The hostel’s nylon carpet was a bugger for static. And she’d been in love with Patience from the moment her son admitted her. She missed Nancy every day – who wouldn’t after forty-three years together – but Nancy was dead and Patience lived in a room in the same corridor.

‘A love poem next,’ announced the poet. ‘Maybe we can extend ourselves to ten lines.’

Molly didn’t hear the instructions; she was composing a love letter she’d never send. She knew every metaphor she could come up with was a cliché because love was a cliché no matter the age. A nipple still stood up like a rose bud, tides still rose too, and a storm wave still crashed through secret caverns.

The room went silent around her except for the scratch of pens negotiating their way across paper and Joyce’s soft snoring. Molly did try to put some of her thoughts down but they were always one step ahead of her arthritic joints. Arthur was quicker. He read out an ode to a woman who was ‘the prettiest rose in the garden’ and ‘the twinkliest star in the sky.’ He wasn’t the only one in the workshop to tear up as he read, though his face remained a continent of dry creek beds and no tears fell. They all needed a break and an orange cream. A trolley of teacups chattered in. Patience poured more electricity into Molly as she touched her.

‘I was thinking about all those years at boarding school,’ Patience confessed. The left side of Patience’s face sagged a little even when she smiled. A stroke was not always as gentle a thing as the movement of Patience’s hand down Molly’s arm.

‘It is like school,’ agreed Molly, hoping to recapture the collusive intimacy of their haiku laughter.

‘I had a thing with one of the girls in the dorm.’ Patience stopped. Picked up Molly’s hand. Stroked the loose skin on the back into gullies before travelling the length of her index finger. ‘I always wondered if it counted and whether it meant I was a virgin on my wedding night. Can I get you a cup of tea? Two sugars isn’t it?’

 

Jane Downing

 

The Many Forms of Form

Literature and philosophy have been inseparably entwined in the thoughts of humankind since we first had such thoughts about such things. Almost all our modern thinking about narrative structure and form has its foundations, at least in part, in Aristotle’s famous examination of story, Poetics, which itself was a product of centuries of development of dramatic art and narrative experimentation.

school of athens

The stories we tell have impact far beyond narrative content and plot elements such as character, place and time. Indeed the way we say something is just as important as what we are saying when it comes to the influence and interpretation of meaning in narrative art.

Form is a many-faceted concept for just this reason. When we try to list form or define it in some way, we inevitably find a myriad of cross-overs between other literary elements, most particularly structure and genre (even Wikipedia has trouble). These techniques and concepts become indelibly linked in our cultural consciousness as a byproduct of the way we develop certain constructions around certain types of stories.

Literature can be said to be divided into the grand dichotomy of poetry and prose. But even there we have problems when we start to identify the way in which these two literary metrics can be presented.

Then we may try to list the grand narrative media in an exhaustive and mutually exclusive list of constructs, from longer narratives:

  • Novel
  • Epic poem
  • Drama

To shorter narratives:

  • Poem
  • Novella
  • Short story
  • Vignette
  • Legend
  • Myth
  • Folk tale

And then we should consider the performative arts who often have their own distinct formal constructs:

  • Theatre
  • Film
  • Song

And then we ask, should dance be included or is it non-literary, even though it is also a narrative form?

Then consider informative texts. Do they have their own structural conceits? Do they classify as separate forms of writing?

  • Historical novels
  • Literary non-fiction
  • Biography and autobiography
  • Documentary
  • News
  • Persuasive arguments
  • Thesis & analysis

What about functionality and purpose? Does that play into the divisions of form?

  • Fairy tales
  • Morality tales
  • Teaching parables
  • Analogy & symbology

And of course broad-spectrum genre is a major form qualifier:

  • Fantasy
  • Epic
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Drama
  • Quest

And the many derivative narrative structures that have sprung up over the most recent decades as technology plays into the way we communicate our stories to each other:

  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Music videos
  • Short films
  • Tweets
  • Status updates
  • Flash fiction
  • Vines

All of these forms, from the grand multi-volume works to the one-hundred and forty characters, have intricately linked cultural associations attached to the way they are presented. A play in the Shakespearean style may have five acts, employ poetic metre, follow the conventions of tragedy or comedy, and even include songs and musical numbers. A fantasy narrative may take the form of either a multi-volume novel or an epic poem, media themselves bound in pre-conceived structural nuance, employing well-rehearsed act-divisions and conventional literary techniques such as catalogue, dialogue, monologue, and even deeper formative layers of allusion to legend and myth.

Narrative form as a classifiable entity came under specific academic study in the 1950s, after the great revolutions of the Modernist period threw all previous conventional understandings of form into flux. Since then several schools of thought have sought to demystify the question of form for philosophical and technical reasons, in aid of both the audience and the auteur.

Clearly this is a topic too vast for one discussion, or even one series of discussions. So over the coming weeks we will explore the modern concepts of form and structure and how they apply to narrative art in contemporary practice, examining the theories of narrative form developed since the 1950s. We will touch briefly on the works of structuralists such as Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, to that of post-strcuturalists like Michel Foucault and then on into the most recent decades where the advent of screen culture has brought about the revival of the oldest known form of story-telling, the ubiquitous and oft-bemoaned three-act narrative.

To get yourself started, have a look at the seasonal myth theory of Northrop Frye and then this brilliant introduction to Joseph Campbell’s hero narrative.

Look close enough and you will see these monomythic stories everywhere, leaving us to wonder whether there are a myriad of different forms as diverse and nuanced as life itself, or if there is really only one true story, told over and over again in many different guises, tracing back over all narratives since the beginning of time.

 

Elise Janes