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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Guest Blog on circular narratives

Back in the past Lucy left a comment on the blog about her 'new idea for scriptwriters'. Obviously this would be a home for it. So here it is! Cheers Lucy.

Hi Tim, thanks for expressing an interest in my Narrative Circle idea on your blog.

Bit of background - at uni I became very interested in the French philosopher Roland Barthes, who wrote "A Structural Analysis of The Narrative." I came up with my own idea of The Narrative Circle as a reponse - it became my most trusted answer for exams and my dissertation. My mentor at the time said I should expand it into a book, but to be honest I wouldn't know how to make it interesting for 100+ pages, which is why I thought it may be something you'd like.

If you are unfamiliar with Barthes, the basic gist of his idea was this: just as sentences are made up of words which are in turn made up of phonemes, narratives too can be viewed in this "linguistic" fashion - they are made up of sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc (or sentences, turning points, acts, etc - dependant on what medium you're in.) He talked of all narratives being composed of these "building blocks" in that they all have a beginning, middle and end, no matter which order this was in.

This got me thinking: I did the scriptwriting degree around the time MEMENTO was really huge - I think it was 2001 by this point. Everyone was going on about how it broke the boundaries, how NON-LINEAR it was. I watched the film and yes, I liked it but I found it frustrating because a) that huge deus ex machinas at the end with Teddy ("oohh, you've already killed John G" - I got the point, but I still felt cheated) and b) it didn't seem non-linear to me at all. The main plot was backwards, the subplot was forwards. What's non-linear about that? It follows a line!

Yet still everyone was going on about non-linearity and how it was this BIG NEW THING so I was delighted when an essay title arrived on the list that week at uni: IS NARRATIVE NECCESSARILY A LINEAR FORM? I set out to prove NO narrative was linear at all. Not if you view it as a circle.

Why would you do this? I see everything as a circle: you don't do things in straight lines in your life, completely passively; you go back to things, start again, multiple times. For example: you don't watch a movie in a straight line, you go and get a DVD, watch it, respond to it, go back to it, discuss with others, maybe watch it again...Even if you hate a movie you will still talk about it at some point, even if it's just 20 years later. And so it goes on and on, in ever decreasing circles.

For example, as I said: main plot goes backwards in MEMENTO - subplot goes forwards (Sammy Jankis), joining up at the point and paying off with "Never answer the phone." This is a circular motion to me. In PULP FICTION - we start in the middle as the beginning AND end, ergo making it circular. To me, at least. This is before we include the notion of audience's reponse, even.

Barthes said all narratives had a beginning, a middle and end: a set up, conflict and resolution. He didn't say which order they were in - so is there any such thing as a non-linear narrative when narratives aren't actually linear according to my idea of the circle? Does my Narrative Circle demonstrate Barthes' point? I think it does. But I would be interested to hear what you think.

BTW - I have some pictorial representations of this if I've garbled way too much here! Just didn't know whether you'd want attachments from me without my asking!

Best regards, Lucy


Lucy said...

Cheers Tim. I suppose, at the root of this, I'm saying structure IS important, but it can also set you free... Wow, sounds a bit new age, but hopefully I don't sound like too much of a mad hippy: new writers often see things like structure as a constraint and that's a shame. If you see it as a tool - to be used however you see fit - then suddenly the task seems a little less daunting.

David said...

I don't think I buy this. Most narratives start at a certain point, involve a journey (physical or metaphorical), a transformation of some kind and a new reality. How is that a circle?

Some narratives undoubtedly are circular but I don't think you can apply that construct to every narrative. I don't see the purpose.

By the way, the singular phrase is Deus ex machina (no 's').

Lucy said...

Thanks David - there's a couple of errors in there; the price paid for writing a lot of my emails with one hand and a baby bouncing on my knee!

Whilst it's certainly true stories are journeys with the transformation you describe, I'm not actually staying just within the confines of the story when I describe the narrative circle. I'm also including the notion of audience response as well - Barthes also talks about the idea of narratives being "universal" in that they are with us, every day, in every situation, so in that sense there is no BEGINNING-MIDDLE-END in that order within our own lives, so why should there be in our writing, viewing and responding?

I include audience response to reject the notion that film comes out of a screen and into your senses without people actually incorporating the experience into their own lives - whether the film influences their own writing, they talk with colleagues about it or they reject it as the worst film ever. To me, that is circular. It has a point (for me) because it helps me, as a writer, to work back and see how I've evolved.

However, as I'm always keen to stress - if it doesn't work for you, then that's totally your call.

Tim Clague said...

Myself and my colleague Suki are working on a new feature script. It has an usual structure. Its called Loop - which might go some way to revealing the idea behind it. We gave up on any form of conventional structure ages ago. We now just ask ourselves two questions. Does the scene order:

a - make sense to the characters. Would they really do that?

b - make an exciting story for the audience. Can they follow it? Is it interesting and offer intrigue?

I think a range of structure ideas in your tool bag is a good idea.

But I see the story-as-a-circle idea as something a bit more. To me it seems to be saying that the story 'experience' is a circle. Telling the story, remembering the story, retelling it. This is the cycle. Not just the film itself.

I'm not sure if this is what Lucy means. But its what I took away from it!

Lucy said...

That's exactly what I mean Tim! Nice one.