Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Open and Closed Stories

Recently I had an interesting exchange on Twitter about Jane Austen, and how she wrote exclusively about the run up to marriage, rather than marriage itself. In 140 characters it's hard to explain yourself as well as you'd like, so I thought I'd have a go at doing it here.

The run up to commitment story has, in my opinion, more possibilities for story development than a post-commitment story. Character A might choose X or Y or Z - or none of them. Or A might choose one of them, only for them to refuse. As a writer, there are more places to take the story telling, more possible twists and turns.

If A is married to B, then essentially the story can only go in one of two directions: by the end, A stays with B, or A leaves. What happens en route will vary, but essentially these are the only 2 choices. If A leaves B at the very beginning of the story, there are still two options: the story ends with A emotionally leaving B, or getting back together.

If A leaves B at the beginning of the story and has a high old time choosing who they're going to go with next out of X, Y or Z then we're back into the run up to commitment story, not the commitment story.

Basically, the options for a run up to commitment story are Open, when the options for the commitment story are Closed.

I've written two commitment stories and three run-up to commitment stories (with a fourth on the way), and the run-up stories are frankly much more interesting for me to write. You can go anywhere! Your characters can do anything - and anyone. Whereas, once your character is married, if they want out there is a known legal process to follow. Even if the character simply walks out, as in Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, the story is still at heart about whether the marriage holds or fails at the end.

That's not to say that stories with Closed options are essentially less interesting than stories with Open options. But because the reader knows where a Closed option is leading to, I think the writer has to work much harder in keeping the reader's interest going.


Sally Zigmond said...

It's also a matter of jeopardy and narrative tension. The 'will they, won't they?' question is at the heart of many films and TV as well as books. As soon as the characters marry (a la Jane Austen) or finally make it into the sack and declare their love for each other, then the tension evaporates. Remember that TV series Moonlighting in which Sybil Shepherd and Bruce Willis rubbed sparks off each other when playing at private eyes? It fell as flat as a pancake when they finally realised they fancies the socks off each other. They tried to gee it up with pregnancy and other plot twists but it never recovered. The tension had gone. There was nowhere to go, plot-wise.

Tenerus said...

Well I'm pleased to have sparked a Blog entry, though you had managed to get the essence into 140 characters, so Bravo Zulu!

Basically, I agree with you.

It's also easier to tell the pre-commitment story because it's played out in a social arena whereas outsiders don't tend to see the depth of dynamic between the two protaganists (or antagonists) inside the marriage.

Sally's point is also well made; one only has to think of the series of coffee ads and some US comedy series ("Grace and Graceless" or some such) to see that tension depends on uncertainty. Once you're in a marriage, the only uncertainty is who is going to murder whom and how quickly (and that's a different genre!).

It's not just about making the writing interesting to the author but to the audience also. And Austen was writing for young women interested in young romantic love (tho with 40+ year old men, which sets her apart from our era. Wonder if anyone's done a pastiche but seen from the male perspective? On second thoughts, would probably only sustain a short story let alone a novella).

Sarah Duncan said...

Sally, absolutely agree with you re tension, but it's maintained by open choices ie will they, won't they, the reader doesn't know where it's going next.

Phil, LOL re marriage leading to murder. There are several men writing in the genre from a male perspective eg Mike Gayle and Matt Dunn.