Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Iron-Clad Scrooge

I was watching "A Christmas Carol" today, as performed by a bunch of church kids, ranging in age from 4 to 14 -- including my 13-year-old son, who, I have to disclose, was playing Scrooge -- and I was struck by how bullet-proof the narrative structure of this story is.

The setup is clean: Awful man does a couple awful things, and is presented with a warning. Then, the three spirits in three nights (or one night, as Scrooge discovers, as he awakes in time for Christmas) appear, moving the story from past to present to future. Then we arrive at redemption, and Tiny Tim is saved.

You can do almost anything to this story-- rewrite it, re-gender it, transpose it to any time period, animate it in 3-D or shoot it in black and white, play it for laughs or for pathos -- and if you stick to that structure, the story will work.

The audience, like the original Greeks at a Sophocles play, knows the plot. There are no twists, no surprises. To modern day westerners, the tale is better known than any bible story. And it's much more satisfying than the usual Christmas play material. The birth of baby Jesus -- the gathering of the animals, the shepherds, the wise men, and heavenly host -- is essentially static, the opposite of drama. It's why you can do everything you need to do with that story with those "living creche" enactments. But Scrooge's transformation from curmudgeon to Christmas-filled coot is satisfying.

The only thing we expect out of a new version of "A Christmas Carol" is to get to that ending, and along the way to be charmed by minor variations in the presentation, or to be won over by the performance of a Bill Murray or George C. Scott or, say, a gangly young man who looks a lot like you.

As a writer, I'm always on the lookout for these iron-clad structures, to either use them or play against them, in the same way an architect first learns how to build a sturdy house, before messing with the structure to attempt something like Fallingwater (There's another blog post to be written about how it is that some artistic masterpieces are on closer inspection leaky, hard to maintain, and way over budget -- yet are still undeniably masterpieces).

I'm interested to know what narrative structures my fellow Clockworkers most often make use of (the old buff and bluff? The Hail Murray? The Susquehanna Shuffle?) And then I will steal them. Because that's what this season is about, isn't it? The giving, the receiving, the re-gifting? That's the real blessing. Or as Tiny Tim says, Are you gonna finish that turkey leg?


  1. Speaking of masterpieces that have a faulty structure, no one can argue that the first Indiana Jones movie (that used to just be called Raiders of the Lost Ark) is the best of all of them and a grand, wonderful movie. But it's a movie that doesn't need its hero -- at all! Everything that happened in the movie would have more or less happened the same way if Indy wasn't in the movie. Yes, the bad guys might have taken longer to find the Ark, if Indy wasn't there to get to it, or they might have found it sooner, if Indy wasn't there to prevent them getting that doohicky staff thing in Tibet. But they would have found it. The closest thing to a "why we need Indy in this movie" moment was in the opening bit where maybe MAYBE Belloc needed Indy (You call him Doctor Jones!) to retrieve the idol, but I don't even buy that much. Belloc had all those natives at his beck and call. Had he wanted it, he would have gotten it had Doctor Jones not been there. And of course, at the last, the Nazi's faces would have melted just fine had Indy not been there at the end. A movie that didn't need its hero at all, which violates every canon of storytelling, and yet it works wonderfully. Now, steal that structure, buddy boy!

  2. Oh, man, Bill. I can't believe you're right -- this is Raiders we're talking about! -- but you're right. I'll never look at that movie the same way again.

  3. But the movie would have been boring without Indy, so I would say it wouldn't have worked without him. The tension wouldn't have been there between him and the opposition. And we wouldn't have cared much about the story, because we liked Indy so much as a character that we did care. Indy gave us the guy to root for, and made all of the tension work.

    This does show that the character doesn't have to make most pivotal things happen on his own and can mainly just be along for the ride if he is *cool* enough and if he gets into enough *trouble.*