The film ends with one of Peter Parker's English teachers throwing down a little bon mot - the kind of thing screen writers like to think is deep and spiritual, and will probably get made into Facebook statuses by angsty / deep teenagers. The idea? That it's been said before that there are only ten story lines in the world - but that perhaps there is really only one: Who am I?
Now, trite superhero morals aside (With great power ... comes great responsabiliteh! Secrets ... always have a price! It is our actions ... that define who we arrrrreee!) the idea of limited story lines is nothing new. There are various ways of phrasing the idea, and various lists of possible contenders, but behind it all is the same concept - that though there's nothing original, there's always a new way to look at a story.
So, boy meets girls. Or girl meets boy. Or boy meets boy, or girl, girl. Conflict. Resolution. The end.
Can you really grind down a story and come up with an equation, however loosely defined, to explain story types?
|I like Margaret Atwood because she always looks just the right kind of mad|
Margaret Atwood wrote a fantastic short story - truly fantastic - called Happy Endings, that deals with the different views and possibilities in an initially simple relationship story. You can read it free online here and, in fact, you should. Now. Right now. Do it!
The ending lines tell a lot.
That's about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
Now try How and Why.
The What in books is important, don't get me wrong. But the How and the Why, as Atwood puts it, are where stories get their individuality.
John le Carré puts it simply and beautifully, and way better than I could:
The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.
So, conflict drives stories, or at least, something happening which requires an explanation.
Why do we want there to be defined categories? To be able to say there are ten, or five, or seven, or one true story in the world? Is it because then we could categorize and separate stories and make them neat? Or is it just because then we could understand better how they work and what makes some good and some bad?
In the end, of course, it doesn't necessarily matter. Even if there are only five stories, let's say, there are still endless options within each, and endless, infinite possibility for originality and surprise. The classic conflict narratives (Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society , Man vs. Self, Man vs. God) are still almost impossibly wide and all-encompassing. They're good, but not the be all and end all.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a fun, exciting movie, and the CGI is only getting better, but I've gotta disagree with Parker's teacher. Classifying story types into an easily teachable number is like separating the different types of emotion. Beyond broad, sweeping categories, anything else is ridiculous.
I don't want to get caught up in the pretension of literary theory too much, so now, let's change topic.
I got two books sent over from England recently, which is always exciting. The first is part seven of Alexander McCall-Smith's Scotland Street series, Bertie Plays the Blues.
I'm going to read this series till he stops writing them - it's brilliantly witty, engaging, and relaxing, which is not something you get in a lot of books nowadays. Weirdly, this series breaks a lot of the rules I talk about on this blog (planning your plots, having an endgame, etc) because of its format. Written in weekly installments for The Scotsman newspaper (a la Dickens publishing his novels in small installments all those years ago) it meanders on and on, following the lives of various characters, with no real conclusion in sight, but none needed. It's fun and simple and silly, and I'm enjoying it as much as the others.
The second book, just received, is Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones.
I'm writing a Loki-inspired trickster character in my latest book, and a quick Twitter post asking for suggested reading brought this to my attention. It wasn't available in the local libraries - a fact I bemoaned on Facebook. My Mum saw the post, and ordered the book for me on Amazon. Very sweet - thanks Mum. (Yes, 26 year olds can still thank their mums. It'd be rude not to). There was a slight delay in getting it here, since she then started reading it herself and got hooked, which can only be a good thing. Looking forward to starting it soon! Have to admit - to my shame - it'll be the first Diana Wynne Jones book I read. I'm sure it won't be the last.
And that, for now, is all.