Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Kick that chair out from under them - Psycho

I'm going to be discussing the story structure of Hitchcock's classic horror film, "Psycho", so if you haven't seen it, don't read any further. Go watch the movie! Enjoy it. Then come back and give this a read.

*** Spoiler Alert***

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The film "Psycho" is based on a novel, and I'm curious to see how close to the book the movie turned out. I'm especially curious about the story structure. Does the novel follow Norman Bates, or does it follow Marion to her rendezvous at the Bates Motel, and then carry on with the other character's unraveling the mystery of her murder.

The reason this is so intriguing is that it was a daring move to have what is essentially the film's main character (Marion) die about 40 minutes in. The movie starts with Marion and we are with her so long, watching her every move (sometimes in great detail) that we fall into the comfortable idea that she is our lead, the damsel who will face darkness but come out on top. We don't see that she'll end up at the bottom of a bog sliced up and wrapped in plastic. Hitchcock pulls it off and still manages to keep the movie moving by passing the mystery of Marion onto the mystery of Norman Bates and his mother. It works great on film and in the hands of a skilled director.

Can this be pulled off in a book?

It's a tempting experiment to try, but I don't think that readers would enjoy the idea. If you spend roughly one third of a book getting to know a character only to have them brutally murdered, I think the reader is going to feel punished and cheated. It would be almost impossible to keep that momentum going, instead it will be like a brick wall in the story, one that will stop all but the most determined reader.

Now, I've read some series that use the death of a main character (usually around book three or so), and that's fine. A series usually has such a large cast that this kind of thing is expected. But in a one shot story, I'm not sure it can be done. (And killing your character off at the end is a different thing all together. That's makes the story a tragedy.)

What do you think, can story structure like "Psycho" only work on film?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dumbledore’s Big Secret

***Spoiler Warning***

I'll be discussing some of the plot points of the later Harry Potter novels. At this point, these books have not been made into films, so those of you who have only watched the movies and want to keep some of this knowledge hidden... wait for my next entry about classic horror films.

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This weekend J.K. Rowling said something to the effect of, "I've always envisioned Dumbledore as being gay". This little statement made the news. Its pretty telling that the sexual orientation of a fictional character made headlines in many major websites. Fans of the Harry Potter universe were abuzz. Hell, this is my first official Blog entry! The adventures of Harry Potter have really captured peoples imaginations. Children and adults have been devouring these books, propelling Rowling into the upper echelons of fiction writers. I admire Rowling's skill and her stories. I think she's created a memorable series and enjoy reading and listening to it (Jim Dale does a spectacular job reading the audio books).

I find two things very interesting about Rowling's comment. Up till this announcement I had never once thought about Professor Dumbledore's sexual orientation. Even the person who asked Rowling the question wasn't even asking if Dumbledore was a homosexual. The question was something to the effect of "Did Professor Dumbledore ever find true love?" For the entirety of the series sexuality is kept to a minimum (these are children/young adult books after all), and it certainly doesn't come up in the case of the teachers (what kid or teen wants to imagine their teachers having sex?).

This boils down to a simple fact: Dumbledore's sex life is immaterial. It has nothing to do with the plotting of the series. It has nothing to do with Harry's destiny. It has little to do with Dumbledore's character. That last statement may seem strange, but think about it. Its safe to say that up to this moment few people had even considered this aspect of Dumbledore. He was defined by other characteristics.

This is what makes Rowling's work so effective. She has mastered the art of show, don't tell. Almost all the characters in the Harry Potter universe are defined by their actions and reactions to others. While Rowling does give us some brief visual descriptions of characters, she does not simply tell us characterizations. She doesn't say "Hermione loves to study and is a bit of a nerd." She shows us Hermione answering every question in class. She shows Hermione always doing homework and going to the library.

In the same way she treats Professor Dumbledore. She shows him being friendly to Harry, looking out for him and defending him (even going so far as to shield Harry from the truth up to "Order of the Phoenix". She shows him facing down Voldemort and doing his best to fight the rising evil. All these actions and deeds define Dumbledore, and since they are viewed by Harry (and by us through Harry) we have a vivid picture of a great wizard. We don't think about Dumbledore's sex life because it is not relevant to the story and the actions the story requires. It took a direct question to the author to reveal this.

This tells me that Rowling has a vivid fully developed character sketch for her characters (and she has said as much in interviews). However instead of burdening the reader with every last detail of each character she has created, she let the actions reveal that character to us. She puts the characters in a situation and lets them react to it. To keep the character true (and this is the important thing) she has to know things about the character that may never come up. This is where small elements of the story may be affected. Why does Dumbledore treat Grindelwald the way he does? Rowling knew that Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald. This choice directed Dumbedore's actions and moved the plot in a different direction.

This seems obvious now, but after first reading it I didn't immediately think that Dumbledore loved Grindelwald. I saw a strong connection between the two young men, but I attributed this to Grindelwald's charisma and ideals. Dumbledore was obviously caught up in his friends fervor and I think most of us have experienced a friendship of that kind before. With the information that Rowling provides this is not an incorrect interpretation. Dumbledore being gay only changes the relationship between them slightly. The end result is the same.

Did Rowling choose to downplay Dumbledore's homosexuality? Possibly. No one would know except for her. Obviously she's aware that many people would have a problem with a character in a "children's" book being a homosexual. At the same time, it doesn't really affect the plot, so it could be easily left out. It doesn't have an immediate affect on Harry's story. If the book had been all about Dumbledore, this bit of characterization might have come up.

In the end I think this little piece of the puzzle is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as much of the other background information we learn in "The Deathly Hallows". Instead it allows me to appreciate Rowlings skill as a writer, and especially her work with characters. It is one of her great strengths, that she can create characters that the reader cares about and becomes deeply involved in. It's that skill combined with expert plotting and pacing that made her final Harry Potter novel such a intense, emotional and powerful read. It's that skill that puts her on my list of favorite authors

Monday, October 22, 2007

What's in a Blog

It was a bit difficult to come up with topic that would make my blog interesting to read. I decided to talk a bit about storytelling in all of its facets. Each week I'll pick either a specific work of fiction (novel, story, television series, movie, anime) and go over it. In a way it will be review, but my focus will be on the way the story is constructed and how it works most effectively or how it doesn't work.

In addition I may focus on one aspect of storytelling. This could be something technical, like plotting or characterization. It could be something broader like types of stories and why I feel they work.

So I hope you find the subject as interesting as I do. Who knows maybe I'll expose you to a story you've never encountered before or showed you a different take on something familiar. And feel free to comment and challenge my views, I always appreciate a good debate.