Thursday, January 3, 2013

Establishing a Plot: Comedy or Tragedy?

Historically  narratives have fallen into one of two categories, which could be restricting, but I believe, just like submitting to a discipline or any school of thought, understanding the two categories can help make your writing more clear and focused.

Comedy and Tragedy have ruled the scene for the span of all western literature, these two designations which you are probably most familiar with from Shakespeare  In Shakespeare we see very standardized plots. In comedies, the main protagonist falls from grace and must save himself before he succumbs to perdition. Likewise, in Tragedy the protagonist perishes in service of a greater ideal that supersedes all the 'wills' or motives in the subtext of the supporting characters, generally being framed as a sacrifice. Even as I describe these categories you can see that they are rather formulaic, but when you get a play like King Lear, and see how it very much sways in the balance between Comedy and Tragedy then the give between the nuances is more apparent. In this lesson we shall use plays and other books to describe these classical categories and how they can be utilized for your writing.


Starting with the lighter side of the spectrum is comedy. In books such as these we can think of such examples as Harry Potter or Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. Each title's plot is completely different  but each book follows a formula. In all comedies the formula is as follows:

Prologue  -  Conflict  -  Fall  -  Wedding

This may appear strange to see wedding at the end of this list, but this is an archetypal designation, more so today than before. I say wedding because a wedding is a joyous moment of unification. weddings solve disputes, align countries  and, occasionally, bring two people together. The archetypal analogue for this could be the main protagonist embracing a powerfully destructive aspect of themselves or maybe meeting someone that brings them out of their spiritual stupor. But we should start at the beginning and then you'll know what I mean.

Prologue - The prologue serves to introduce the main elements of the narrative involving the protagonist. Say our story revolved around a car insurance salesman. We would introduce in this segment the salesman being content or in a state of normalcy. Nothing has been shaken up yet. This might be also where you introduce certain quirks that consolidate who the character is, and what will persist in the character as the story unfolds. Also it should be notes that at protagonists of comedies are normal or mundane. The more so they are the more extravagant the conflict can seem in upturning the person's life. Obviously you can run into problems if your protagonist is too successful.  Nobody wants to read a story about a well to do stock broker who's life gets turned upside down simply because its hard to feel bad for them. This is why romantic comedies are so boring and transient. Its because they often feature protagonists that are very successful or well adjusted. Also they seem so unique and well to do already that it seems like adding love to their life is merely an arbitrary thing.

Conflict - The conflict is a moment or incident that occurs where a rogue element is introduced into the protagonists life. Here the protagonist begins to lose some comfort. In Anansi boys, Fat Charlie meets his brother on accident, who invades his life. (At this point bad things haven't happened and life hasn't spun out of control.) His presence is just an inconvenience, or obstructions to the order of things in the protagonist's life.  So in our car insurance salesman example he could come into contact with a car insurance fraud who is trying to extort him or is simply quirky and filled with undesirable habits.

Fall - The fall is the moment when everything falls apart. This is the moment when Fat Charlie's night out with his brother ends with him sleeping with daisy, or when his brother spider stands in for him at work and thwarts his boss firing him. Obviously in Gaiman's work its a combination of several factors, but the simple the event the better. This is the stage where making the protagonist pathetic and weak really shines because now his fall makes for a better emotional impact. This is the moment the fraud causes the car insurance salesman to get fired or possibly in trouble with the law.

Wedding - Now at the end can we can  discuss  the nature of the wedding and its implications. Generally by now the protagonist has journeyed through the entirety of his/her story. This is he point of unification where the car insurance salesman through both fate and fortune can implicate the fraud and bring all things to right. Its a moment of unification. Though this blog has focused on the importance of structure in narrative, writing style is key to tying up all the loose ends. I can't go into detail here as far as that goes. My best advice is to read books that are comedies and see how the author finishes the story. Imitation, as they say, is the highest form of flattery, so don't be afraid to take things from books you like just as long as it's used for purely educational purposes.  


Now much of this has been focused on Comedy, so you are probably thinking, "When is he going to touch on that? I love dark stuff! How does it all work?" Here is where a lot of people miss the big picture. Tragedy is actually follows the same exact structure. All you have to do is replace Tragedy with the final step! Essentially what tragedy does to a drama is tease out the power of the fall. In King Lear, Lear's fall could have been avoided had fate not been against him. In Tragedy, the motif re-frames the entire story and characters. For instance in Romeo and Juliet, if Romeo and Juliet actually got together then their flaws and tendencies to make wrong decisions would have been seen as quirks and whimsy. Tragedy hardens the reality of character faults, and sets a weight on their decision making that the reader can feel. The narrative turns into a moral lesson, or an example of the costs of power and greed. In a Tragedy, someone always pays that price. Whoever does determines how the moment of Tragedy is amplified. 

Therefore in sum the formula of a Tragedy would be this:
Prologue  -  Conflict  -  Fall  -  Tragedy 
The implications of both influence your plot. Though this exercise has been more structurally oriented, I firmly believe that if you understand the basic structure and nuances of each step you can start writing really powerful stuff. In writing it's all about fundamentals, and once you have that you'll be set. Next week I'll spend more time on what is actually going on inside of a plot, so stay tuned! You won't want to miss it.


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