Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On Literary Analysis

Alright, so before I get too much farther into the year (and the subsequent book/movie reviews), I want to take a few minutes to talk about a few core concepts of storytelling and it's subsequent criticism. These are ideas that I will be referring to often over the next few months, so I recommend reading this post to brush up on some of the earliest lessons of creative writing in order to follow along with the coming blog posts.

Okay, here we go.

As any basic creative writing instructor (or student) will tell you, there are (traditionally) four elements that make up a story.

1. Plot, the stuff that happens.
2. Character, the people who do the stuff (or the people that the stuff happens to.)
3. Setting, the place where the people live and the stuff happens.
4. Perspective/Voice, the way in which the stuff about the people is told.

In addition, any basic teaching on structure will tell you that modern storytelling identifies three acts within each story.

First Act: Introduction/set-up; this is the place where the author establishes characters and posits a problem of some kind.
Second Act: Wacky hijinks/development; usually, this is the place where all the interesting stuff happens, and some of the initial plot twists occur.
Third Act: Finale; this is where we find our final plot twists and our heroes solve the problem introduced in the first act (except in epics or especially twisty works where solving the initial problem [or even trying to solve it] just reveals more problems that need to be solved until you're led to averting WWIII or something similar.)

For the academics in the crowd, this can be understood as:
1st, Introduction of thesis.
2nd, Body of argument.
3rd, Conclusion of evidence.
(Really, stories do work like this. Go check it out. I'll wait.)

Alright, does everyone have the basics down now? Okay, now a few caveats.

1. I will only ever discuss plot, character, and setting when I do a review. Occasionally I'll touch on voice or technique if the author's use of it made a particular impression on me or I thought it was really important to the book/movie/whatever. For the most part, however, I'm going to avoid it.
Because I don't consider myself particularly proficient in this area to analyze or critique it effectively. True, a majority of my current works are focusing on interesting/alternative narrative styles, but that's likely more of a by-product from my lack of skill than anything else. (Me not knowing what I'm doing drives me to practice, basically.)

2. I'll be using my own terms for the core storytelling structure, borrowed from Christopher Nolan's 2006 film The Prestige. (If you haven't seen it, go watch it. I'll wait. [Actually, even if you have seen it, go watch it again. I'll still wait.]) So, we have:
-The Pledge, when the author makes a major promise to the reader.
-The Turn, when something surprising changes about that core promise.
-The Prestige, when everything we've learned about that promise comes together in the end.
Now, this approach involves more than simple linguistic preference. In the books that I like to read (and eventually would like to write), there are often a number of plot threads all weaving in and out and around each other. It becomes very difficult to identify one, core, central "storyline." There can be as many as three, or five, or seven, or eight storylines all going at the same time, eventually convalescing into one, unified ending (usually). For this purpose, I like to analyze separate storylines as though they are each an individual story, noting where they contribute to the main plot.
Thus, there can be multiple Pledges and Turns within a book, though there is seldom more than one or two Prestige. Even though I could break down the separate stories into their own "Act One," "Act Two," "Act Three," I like to use this terminology as it more directly reflects the purpose of structural analysis, as well as the three most important elements of plot.

Beyond those two points, I'm toying with attempting to analyze all storylines within the confines of a five-act structure (the structure most famously adopted by the likes of the Roman tragedians and William Shakespeare, as well as other Early Modern playwrights). But that's still an embryonic idea, so we'll worry about that later. For now, though, when you see me use these terms, you'll hopefully know what I'm talking about.

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