plot twists

My love of plot has been established, certainly, but permit me to say a few words about the intellectual delights of the plot that twists. I’m going to talk about film here for just a minute.

The trick to making a convoluted or complex plot work is (I think) pacing. You’ve got to keep things moving quickly enough to keep the viewer (or reader) running at an easy jog, too intrigued to give up, but breathless. I have been thinking about this since we watched Identity on DVD yesterday (John Cusack leads a great cast, well worth seeing), and trying to put together a short list of movies that have (for lack of a better term) a corkscrew plot that ends up someplace you don’t see coming.

The obvious film in this category is The Sixth Sense. I have never run into anyone who went into the movie unprepared, and guessed the twist (at least, nobody I believed). The same is true of M. Night Shyamalan’s next movie, Unbreakable (which I liked better than The Sixth Sense, but I’m pretty much alone in that camp.) Other movies which raised the confounding of expectations to an art form include Arlington Road, 12 Monkeys, Brazil, and The Usual Suspects (although TUS is flawed by an shift in POV toward the end that is, really, a cheat). Having said this, I realize that the twists in all these movies all have something in common, in that not one of them has what you’d call an uplifting or happy ending. I expect some people might disagree with me about Unbreakable, but I do find that ending rather dark. Running around Philadelphia wearing a rain slicker while you’re being pelted with humanity’s worst thoughts, well. It just doesn’t strike me as a happy career choice.

[digression] It’s no coincidence that the Mathematician loves these movies, as he always roots for the Dark Forces. In fact, we’ve had an argument going for years about Brazil, in which he says the ending is a happy one and I insist it is absolutely the opposite of happy: a man driven insane by torture is not my idea of a good time. But, sez the Mathematician, he’s finally where he wants to be. I don’t know, maybe this is a mathematician vs non-mathematician view of things. [/digression]

Writing this I come to a realization: for me, the test of a really well done corkscrew plot is the fact that I am forced not only to accept the inevitability, but to embrace a Bad Ending as the only possible and true resolution. And more than that: I kinda like it.

Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett: my favorite historical novel of all time

[asa book]0375704779[/asa] This is from Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising:

He departed. So, in due course did Messer Pigello, followed by Claes and his satchel. Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it.

I have re-read this novel and the rest of the series many times, but some things never change, no matter how many times I pick them up.

First, I have to read Niccolo very, very slowly. Dunnett has absolutely no patience with lazy readers. The plot is very complex and she doesn’t coddle: you read closely, or you will be lost. It’s amazing, really, (and heartening) that these stories are so popular and widely read in a day and age where people seem to lean toward the easier options available to them.

Second, I don’t mind being a little confused and having to read slowly or even to re-read, because there are riches here to be enjoyed. She writes like a Brueghel painting: there’s so much going on, you have to dedicate all your attention but when you do, you’ll be amazed and rewarded.

Which brings me to this short paragraph I’ve quoted from Niccolo Rising. This is, of course, historical fiction. the Niccolo series starts out in fifteenth century Bruges, which was the capital city of Flanders and today is widely considered to be the best preserved medieval city in Belgium. The main character, Claes, is introduced as an awkward, good natured, good looking eighteen year old with a penchant for getting himself and others into trouble, for romancing housemaids, and mostly for surviving the beatings everybody seems to heap on him. But that’s just the early impression. Claes (who undergoes a transformation and will be known, eventually, as Niccolo) is about as complex and interesting a character I have ever run into in print.

The reason this paragraph delights me is that Dunnett manages to do so many things in a few words. She sets us up for more of Claes’ macchinations, and she also points this out, an author intrusion of the gentlest sort: Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it. She keeps the tone and the voice of the time, which is very difficult to do. Strictly speaking, this kind of authorial intrusion should be disruptive in a novel that otherwise limits point of view very strictly (which is one of the reasons the plot comes across as so complex — Niccolo has got a handle on everything, but she rarely lets us in his head, because that would give far too much away, and Dunnett intends to make the reader wait). But it works anyway. Why? I don’t know. I do know that she’s got a truly distinctive authorial voice, something that is rare and to my mind, precious.

I adore this novel. I would love to set up a wiki and take it apart, sentence by sentence, image by image, historical facts one by one.

oh, please

Browsing through novels while I waited in line at a local store, I happened on this line:

Her eyes exploded with merriment.

Now where do we even start with a sentence like that? The author wants to … what? Show us this woman is in a playful mood, I suppose. The author (this is an author; the book is in print) chooses to focus on the expression in the character’s eyes to establish her mood.

I put the book down immediately, but now I wonder, who in the heck had the point of view? Who was watching her eyes explode? The man she was talking to? Is this an omnicient narrator, seeing and knowing all things?

Eyes are hard. My advice? Stay away from them. Faces in themselves are hard — every face is basically the same, and eternally different — but eyes are the hardest. Mouths do contort, but eyes? None I have ever seen, thank dog. Eyebrows, wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, yes. But not the eyes themselves.

Now I have this urge to go look for prose about eyes that works. I wonder if I’ll find any.

PS There are other things wrong with this sentence, but I don’t think I can go on.

first person narratives

There are fads in storytelling just as there are fads in clothes. A visit to any bookstore makes that clear; if you pick up a dozen new novels in a row a couple of things will ump out at you right away.

First person narratives are very popular just now, and have been for a while. The narrator tells the story to the reader, and thus we live in the narrator’s head and see the story only from the narrator’s limited point of view. I don’t particularly like first person narration, for exactly that reason. I think of it as the Charlotte Brontë approach, or the Reader, I Married Him school. In addition to writing first person narration, Charlotte Brontë was quite nasty about Jane Austen‘s work. Thus my scorn. Sniff. Scowl. (Quotes from Miss B about Miss A in the extended entry below.)

Okay, so I’ll admit there are many excellent first person novels out there. I just can’t think of a single one at this moment.

Now here’s the rub: the one place where first person narration works for me (in a limited way) is in epistolary form. If Character X writes a letter to Character Z, then I get to hear X’s voice, and I learn a lot about the relationship between the two of them. I am very fond of doing this for my own characters. It helps me figure them out in a way nothing else can. If Curiosity sits down to write a letter her voice sounds very clear to me, more so than at any other time. If the character wants to write a letter, I am very pleased to take dictation.

In general I love novels that mix up forms. Third person narration interspersed with letters, newspaper reports and advertisements (there’s another topic to write about here, old newspapers), legal documents. In my own work I don’t often use poetry as I’m not very good at it, though once in a while I have made a small exception.

Possession: A RomanceA.S. (Antonia) Byatt is a superior novelist and she also writes some of the very best literary criticism and analysis. For people interested in thoughtful, intense discussions about storytelling, her collected lectures are really worth reading. Otherwise I love her Possession: A Romance. Byatt is a former academic, and she dissects academia with laser-like precision in this novel. It’s everything in one: a well-plotted mystery, an intriguing love story (times two), an academic satire, a wonderfully done historical, a clear and striking picture of the lot of women (and especially women artists and writers) in Victorian England, and an ode to the poetry of that period. How this book didn’t get onto the lists of the century’s best is beyond me. Stunning prose, and first class storytelling. Possession is a demanding novel, one that has to be read closely and re-read many times to get all the complexities, but it’s so worth it. (I have also listened to it on tape, which was another wonderful experience).

Unfortunately, I can recommend the movie, which was a terrible disappointment.

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