Sunday, July 26, 2015

Plot Fiction like the Masters (Terry Richard Bazes)

The title of this small, valuable book immediately suggests its intended audience - aspiring fiction writers - although intense fiction readers would also find it worth their time. It is pitched closer to literary criticism than a "how to" manual, so it is not like one of those screenwriting guides that tells you that you must concoct a sub-crisis on page 46 of your script. (And thank heaven for that, because those screenwriting books are a scourge against creativity in Hollywood. If you ever wonder why all the big-budget movies you see seem vaguely the same no matter what their genre, it's because they are.)

Terry Richard Bazes, a novelist himself, and the holder of a PhD in English Literature, is more sensitive than that, and less prescriptive. He is putting forward neither a General Theory of Fiction (again, thank heaven) nor a writing formula. Rather, he is looking at three acknowledged classics of their genres - Ian Fleming's Dr. No, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust - and extrapolating certain similarities of approach in their plotting, which center on the notion of plotting backward from climaxes so that each step that leads up to them is effective, and false ends that do not lead up to them are eliminated.

Now, this analysis would not work for every good novel, or at least not in so bald a way. Since this is a book about plotting, it privileges plot as the key element in fiction-writing: "A great plot is a page-turning machine." That is true as far as it goes, but readers whose interests in fiction go beyond plot may feel that Bazes is giving short shrift to characterization, atmosphere, prose, and so on. I felt this specifically when Bazes discussed "minor characters," whom he tends to see as purely functional. I don' think that the minor characters in Austen, for one, read quite so mechanistically as that.

Still, one can't complain that a short book is focussed on what its title says it will be focussed on, especially when there is such abundant good sense and sharp close-reading technique along the way. A lot of the basic ideas here go back to Aristotle's Poetics, although Bazes relies more heavily on Gustav Freytag's famous pyramid of plot structure. I have always had an issue with how Freytag's ideas are diagrammed, which I wish that Bazes had dealt with. A typical Freytag pyramid is drawn like this:

The problem is that this diagram makes it look as if the climax of a story occurs at the mid-point, and that the rising action and falling action are given equal amounts of space. But this is very seldom the case. An accurate diagram would usually be shaped more like this one for "Little Red Riding Hood":

That is more like it! The rising action is gradual and takes up 75% of the story or more; the falling action is precipitous and swift and takes up 25% of the story or less. The tendency in movies especially - and now popular novels follow movies' lead - is to compress post-climactic action ruthlessly.

A particular strength of Bazes' essay is the deliberate disparity among the three texts he analyzes. You can't get much more different than Dr. No and Pride and Prejudice! Bazes wants that strong contrast between an action-oriented text with virtually no internal characterization and a psychologically-oriented text with deep characterization, in order to demonstrate that notwithstanding their immense differences, the two novels use plenty of the same plotting techniques. The contrast is indeed an effective one, although it must be said that although it is easy to follow Bazes' analysis of Dr. No whether you have read the book or not, it is much less easy to follow the discussion of Pride and Prejudice if you have not gotten that book under your belt (and recently at that).

Tossing in A Handful of Dust, a comic novel with a cruel edge and a nasty resolution, is a cheeky move and also works to the book's benefit. As with Dr. No, the discussion of this book is crystalline whether you have read it or not (and if you haven't, you'll want to afterwards).

Plot Fiction like the Masters deserves a place in the budding novelist's arsenal.

Plot Fiction like the Masters: Ian Fleming, Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Story-Building

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