Tuesday, April 13, 2010
The Best Fictional Plot Point.
I've been a little preoccupied, lately, with just how right I continue to be about various things, like, for example, best sellers.
Not all that long ago, I set out a road-map for The Best Next Best Seller, which was proven to be 100% accurate (if not a little more accurate than that, even) almost immediately.
This past weekend, I was proven even right-er -- that's the motto of this blog, after all -- when two different publications highlighted two different best sellers, each of which followed my instructions to a T.
In Entertainment Weekly, there was a highlighted review of the new "book" Orange is the new Black, a supposedly-truthful (but not really) account of a woman's stay in prison. (I say supposedly truthful because even though the author wants credit for telling about hard-to-talk about stuff, she won't own up to actual drug trafficking, maintaining instead that she only carried money, not drugs. So she wasn't really a drug dealer, you see.)
You can tell that the author of Orange is The New Hackneyed Cliche For A Title read my advice, because she subtitles her book "My Year In A Women's Prison." That was one of my pointers for people who want to write a best seller, remember:
Keep in mind, that a year is a good length of time to do something for. Doing it for less than a year seems to lack some commitment. Who wants to read 6.3 Months Of Pancakes: My Mornings At Denny's, And What I Learned? But do something weird for more than a year, and you're probably the Unabomber.
And the author took that to heart, lying in her title, because she actually spent 13 months in a women's prison -- but she didn't want to look weird, so she shortened it to a year for the title.
The other best seller who followed my advice was written up in The New Yorker, which is the magazine I get on my Kindle and which is the magazine that's responsible for me not getting any work done this past weekend as I read two back issues.
In The New Yorker, there's a review of not just the first book to follow my advice, but also the next book, a book called The Infinities, by John Banville. I like the idea of The Infinities, and I added it to my reading list, because even I am susceptible to those things that make a book a best seller. In this case, what Banville did was follow my advice about recasting an old classic; The Infinities, which features Greek Gods, is an adaptation of an almost-unheard of play. As The New York Times puts it:
“The Infinities” is based on the myth of Amphitryon, a Theban general whose wife, Alcmene, was seduced by Zeus while her husband was off fighting a battle. Since Zeus came to the virtuous Alcmene in the guise of Amphitryon, she can hardly be called adulterous; all the same, Amphitryon was cuckolded. Was Alcmene wronged by the god or honored? The story of this triangle has been dramatized several times, as a (lost) tragedy by Sophocles and as a comedy by, among others, Molière and the German writer Heinrich von Kleist (whose work, including “Amphitryon,” Banville has adapted).
There is nothing new under the sun, it seems -- including that phrase. All of mainstream publishing will continue to be, forever and ever, a recasting of old stories in a slightly new light (thereby following in the well-trodden paths of televised cartoons and superheroes), until we just have the same story, told over and over and over.
And with my luck, that one story will be based on a Law & Order episode.
I'm not sure why we -- and by we I mean you, and by you I mean mainstream publishing and media and TV and other things that put stuff in front of the public -- keep recycling old ideas in new coats of paint, dressing our wolves in grandmother's clothing, so to speak, over and over. It's not like there's a shortage of ideas out there; there are plenty of new ideas and new things and creative storylines and plot ideas.
I come up with new ideas at a rate of about 3.2 per second, after all -- I could write four TV shows today and still turn out a half-a-novel, leaving time for me to eat some microwave pork rinds for a snack this afternoon. And it's not just me; other people other places are coming up with creative ideas, too.
We have, in fact, so many creative ideas that we don't even have time to write them all down or actually flesh them out -- we have so many creative ideas that some ideas remain entirely fictional even when they're already fictional.
I'm talking about fake things in real stories -- or fake things in fake stories, however you want to think of it. I'm talking about the fake books that authors make up for their fake authors in their stories to write, the fake musicals that people create for movies about musicals, and, now, today, I'm specifically talking about
The Best Fictional Plot Points.
I'm not sure what else to call this category -- a category I started thinking of when I read the rest of The New Yorker's review of The Infinities. In The Infinities, it seems, the main character has come up with some kind of equation that describes how there can be multiple universes in which there can be degrees of reality that differ from ours -- including the reality in which The Infinities takes place. I don't know yet if the Banville actually bothers to come up with an equation, but I hope he doesn't, because seeing what he might think is the actual equation for a multiverse would kind of wreck the fun imaginary quality of the possible equation -- the fictional equation that helps drive the plot forward without actually existing.
A "fictional plot point," then, is something that an author or creator makes up to move the plot along without ever actually showing that thing to the audience. It's a MacGuffin, only it doesn't even have the ephemeral existence of a MacGuffin: A fictional plot point is not even revealed, and doesn't actually exist, ever. Unlike, say, the Chimaera that Tom Cruise chased in Mission:Impossible 3 (subtitled Mission: Prove Tom Cruise Is An Awesome Husband), the audience/readers/people like you and me never see a fictional plot point. The characters may pick up the Maltese Falcon, in some instances... but a fictional plot point can't be picked up by the characters, can't be opened up like a book by Nicolas Cage, can't be dragged out by Nazis and revealed while Indy and what's-her-name keep their eyes closed, and can't, ultimately, be explained as simply bacteria in the bloodstream of the world's most annoying 8-year-old/future Sith Lord.
No, a fictional plot point is more than all those -- more tantalizing because they don't actually exist. And while things on TVs and in books don't actually exist, ever, the fictional plot points don't actually exist even more. Or less. They're actually-er less existent than the things around them.
Take the contents of Marcellus Wallace's briefcase. In Pulp Fiction, at least some of the action centers around that briefcase, and a large amount of speculation exists about what was in the briefcase. (It was even the subject of a Straight Dope column.) Tarantino said to his actors that what was in the briefcase was whatever you wanted it to be, but that misses the point. What was in the briefcase was entirely fictional, more fictional, meta-fictional, than even the fiction of Pulp Fiction. The viewers were left to wonder what's in that briefcase, and the wondering added another level to the movie, a level that couldn't have existed absent that. Imagine if Tarantino had shown you what was in the briefcase. Imagine if he had said the briefcase had Marcellus' soul, or gold, or, improbably, radioactive material, or (probably) drugs and money. Would Pulp Fiction have had the same offbeat, barely-existing in this world vibe?
Fictional plot points -- fictions within fictions -- create a world within the world. An author or TV show writer or director already comes up with the whole world for us to go into, whether that be Hogwarts or Los Angeles or a moon base. But then, by devising a fictional plot point, the authors make up a wormhole into yet another level of reality, an area where our minds -- already engaged in creating the world of the fictional piece we're watching or reading -- create another world, one where the equations that describe the multiverse can be short or complex or made up of, I don't know, colors, for all I can conceive. One where gangsters can chase around Los Angeles after a briefcase-full-of-soul (if you're of a religious bent) or briefcase-full-of-heroin (if you're not.)
That use of a fictional idea, barely described and hardly fleshed out, creates a ghostly kind of spectre inside the fictional world, adding a nuance to the story that can't be achieved by concrete details like MI:3's showing us the Chimaera in a tube that appeared, to me, to be identical to the plastic tube I use at the bank drive-through.
The use of a fictional idea lets the mind race -- as it does when trying to picture Jerry Seinfeld's move, a close contender for the winner of this nomination.
Jerry's move was mentioned in the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine is still dating Putty, and at the start of the episode she realizes that Putty used a move on her that Jerry used to use. When she tells Jerry, he gets mad at Putty and forbids Putty from using the move. He also tries to teach George the move (but George has to use a cheat sheet.)
And all we're told about the move is the barest of details: you'll need a bed with a headboard. It can end in a swirl, or a pinch. I believe, if I remember correctly, that the swirl was supposed to go counterclockwise. That was very important.
As for what the move actually consisted of, we're never told. The move drives the whole episode forward but is never revealed, and how could it be? A TV show can't exactly go into detail about a sex move (not back then; nowadays, it's surprising when they don't go into details. I'm sure that by next season we'll see an all-celebrity casting of the show So You Think You've Got Sex Moves) and even if they could have, wouldn't any details have been less than the thrill of the imagined details? I can't even tell you how much time I've spent trying to figure out what the move might consist of.
(I actually get very little work done, ever.)
Jerry's Move got bumped out of the top spot by the show that took over from Seinfeld and, if I may say, bested it: Friends.
Friends started off rockier than Seinfeld, following in its footsteps, but as a longtime viewer of Seinfeld (and owner of all of Seinfeld on DVD), I still have to say that Friends at its funniest is funnier than Seinfeld at its funniest -- Friends just didn't have as many years of humor, because they went so often to the Ross-Gets-Married/Ross-Loves-Rachel well that they got sidetracked from the funny too often. (That, and Friends for some reason continued to have Phoebe on the show even though Phoebe was never funny.)
Friends has the two best fictional plot points ever, not surprisingly for a show that made brilliant, and frequent, use of fictional plot points. It seems, sometimes, like every episode of Friends had at least one major, but entirely fictional device driving it forward -- ranging from Ross' thesis to the letter Rachel wrote to Ross at the beach house to the runner-up in this category, which is The Backpacking Story:
The Backpacking Story is mentioned throughout that episode, and another episode, and throughout the references to it, the story is never told in full. Joey gets as far as she was crying... and then stops, and we never get the full story, but just the effect of the story.
The Backpacking Story is, like the move, a wondrous thing to imagine actually existing -- a story that makes people want to have sex with you. That'd be better than a briefcase full of radioactive soul, any day, right? And, like most of the fictional plot points, there's no way to actually tell the story without wrecking the story -- because whatever story Joey tells Ross, and Ross tells his date, and Rachel tells Ross, whatever version they present, there's going to be someone out there (probably me) who says "That's not that romantic...".
(That's why you don't want me to watch TV with you.)
But better, even, than The Backpacking Story was the episode Friends ran called "The One With The Joke," in which Ross and Chandler fought about who had come up with a joke that Playboy printed, a joke about a doctor monkey. In the course of arguing, they each presented their version of how they created the joke and why they should get credit for the joke (Ross' hollering "I'm Doctor Monkey!" is a classic television moment), and then Monica rules on their competing claims by telling them their joke is offensive to women...
... and doctors...
I chose The Monkey Joke over The Backpacking Story as The Best Fictional Plot Point for three simple reasons:
First, I'm married. I don't need the backpacking story. Wedding rings make backpacking stories irrelevant, guys.
Second, monkeys are funny. They just are. It's a universal rule.
And third, I laugh over The Monkey Joke and I don't even know what it is. Just now, thinking about that episode (which I can't find on Youtube, and why not?) I started laughing about what I assume is the joke -- without even filling in the details, beyond "It's a joke about monkeys and doctors and it's offensive", I can laugh about what I assume is the joke.
That is truly remarkable: creating a joke that's funny without actually existing.
Somewhere, if John Banville's character is right, there is a universe where each of these things exist - -where you get to know what's behind the door in the monk joke, where Marcellus' briefcase is opened on national TV by Geraldo Rivera, and where the backpack story is told in full. In one of those universes, the monkey joke is passed around from person to person, or emailed to everyone at work, or told by Conan O'Brien on his return to TV after Jay Leno kicks him off on a massive ego-trip.
I'm not sure I'd want to live in those worlds. Sure, they'd probably have books that weren't simply derivative works based on old classics, and people could read about things other than a mostly-made-up-year in the life of a spoiled rich girl, but for all that, they'd be missing out on the mysterious wonder of life that fills our world, a world where every book is a repeat of the last, but we can spend an entire morning chuckling to ourselves about what we imagine the monkey joke to be.
And by we, I mean me.
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