How do you compete with Charles Frazier? Nightwoods is a wonderful book—one of those rare novels that you’re glad you’ve read; wish you hadn’t so you could have that first-time delight again; and that have changed the way you look at the world in ways that cannot be undone. How does he make such bizarre characters not only believable but convincing? Real? I don’t know. What I do know is that, if you haven’t read Nightwoods yet, you must.
I’m reading Into the Woods, A Five Act Journey into Story by John Yorke. Yorke is Managing Director of a UK independent film producer (Wolf Hall among others). He’s been Head of Drama at Channel Four and Controller of Drama Production at the BBC. This is a man who understands Story.
So far I’m up to page 3 in the Introduction, and already I’m excited.
The quest to detect a universal story structure is not a new one. From the Prague School and the Russian Formalists of the early twentieth century, via Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, many have set themselves the task of trying to understand how stories work. In my own field it’s a veritable industry – there are hundreds of books about screenwriting (though almost nothing sensible about television). I’ve read most of them, but the more I read the more two issues nag away: Most of them posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories. How can they all possibly claim to be right? None of them ask ‘Why?’
Why? I’ve never seen that question addressed before. I’m reading on, and I’ll be reporting here.
Not by Force Alone, due for publication later this month (March 2013), has changed its name and is now The Binding.
Some of my favourite writers are those who appear to draw their characters from life – warts and all. But I did say “appear”. Because many of the stories that are most true to life are, to a great degree, invention. Jane Austen, for example – you don’t read her books so much as inhabit them. The people are real, the buildings are real, the motivations are entirely believable and I have no doubt that there was a basis of observed reality there but what made her such a consummate artist was what she did with that reality.
I started mulling this over when a friend in England sent me this picture of Cartmel Priory. He and his wife had been to a restaurant there to celebrate his birthday and he shot this. His email told me how beautiful the Priory was – and all I could think was, “How could you leave it like that?”
I left it, too – not my picture, not my problem – but I was irritated. Irritated enough to come back to
it and remove those horrible, ugly bins. I ended up with this.
Then I sent the pic back to my friend with a message saying, in effect, “I’ve fixed it for you.” And now he was the one to be irritated. He had sent me “an accurate portrayal of how it actually was” and in return he had received “a glossed up olde-worlde picture of how you’d like it to have been. A FAKE.” (Olde worlde? I can see two cars, for Heaven’s sake).
I’d like to say I was hurt but I can’t because I don’t get hurt easily. I did, though, ponder the question of expectations. Then I asked my friend what was the last novel he had read and he said he couldn’t be sure but he thought it was Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad which had been a set book at school several decades ago. He hadn’t enjoyed it and was in no hurry to repeat the novel-reading experience.
And that, I thought, was it. Those of us who like fiction want to see reality, yes; but we want a form of reality that has been processed by the artist. What we want is the reality behind the reality. Which is what I thought I was doing when I removed those dreadful bins.