This last summer, at the same time that I was thinking about Ford Madox Ford’s theory of fiction writing, I went to go see maybe the most disappointing of the summer films, X-Man Origins: Wolverine. It’s just come out on DVD. I’m not much of a Wolverine fan–I just like other X-Men more—and he is perhaps the most popular character in the X-Franchise, put into everything to help it sell. He’s the high-fructose corn syrup of Marvel Comics. A film promising to tell the story of his origins seemed like it could only have the organizational clarity of a spilled grocery cart–who knows what could be in it and in what order?
I was thinking of writing about Ford’s theory as I’m more of a fan of Ford than it might have seemed in the correspondence Maud Newton and I did this summer for Granta online. Ford in particular was one of the first writers to really try to figure out how one wrote fiction, and he came up with most of the principles by which we teach fiction today. “Show don’t tell”, for example is one of those rules that by now makes my eyes roll into the back of my head, but he is the one who set out to prove it is true (and this is why it is repeated).
I went in anyway, wanting just some fast-paced, mindless escape. It was immediately clear to me, though, as I watched the wincingly awful beginning, with the montages and the scenes of childhood, that the film-makers had made what we call in creative writing classes “the mistake of verisimilitude”. They mistook a life for a story, in other words. And so I sat through what should have been a high-intensity action film that had been turned into a low-tempo biopic, and began restructuring the film with Ford’s principles in mind.
The theory of Ford’s I speak of here is Impressionism in the service of Modernism. This is not as widely taught as it could be but it is widely practiced, though… not as well as it could be. Ford was trying to both understand how writing was done, and to move novels towards being artifacts of consciousness, stories that resembled the ways we think–and we don’t remember our stories, the ones that happen to us, chronologically–we move through a map of impressions.
This map of impressions was the source of one of Modernism’s hallmarks, defamiliarization, and this, used indiscriminately as an aesthetic choice, may be the real issue I have with so many novels. And this may be why Modernism’s imitators takes a beating here a bit—I’ll never deny that Modernism matters to us as writers, not the least for how it brought the vernacular into our literature, something that has yet to happen still in many world literatures, or is happening now—my problem isn’t so much with Modernism as its imitators, a group who have turned what was a literary avant gard into an orthodoxy with high priests.
Impressionism as a technique in the service of Modernism is this: the writer creates a surface that gives off the impression of a life but this is the surface to a story with a plot. The reader is guided through what seems to be the casual accrual of detail into the story, and if it works, the ending seems fated and inevitable, the only possible outcome, but is hidden from the reader until the ending. Nearly every contemporary novel written now and in the last century was done with this method whether the author knew it or not. And whether the author was able to pull it off or not.
Most people, though, don’t know this is what they are doing and as a result much of it goes wide—especially in student writing, where the student tries just to create the casual accrual of details and thinks that is a story. But it is not. Most of us recognize the student who reads Hemingway and begins using casual conversations that go nowhere, instead of casual conversations that only appear to go nowhere, which is what Hemingway did. Hemingway who was Ford Madox Ford’s assistant for a while. Standing in parties at the back, with the very quiet Jean Rhys.
Part of this technique—Impressionism in Service to Modernism—involves what Ford called the “time jump”, which we now know of as the space-break: a leap through time and/or space usually that accomplishes what exposition cannot and removes from the story an unnecessary walk through the quotidian details of the character’s life (ahem, Wolverine).
Herewith, Ford, applied with extreme force to Wolverine:
Begin not at the chronological beginning but with a dramatic scene that draws the reader into the story’s action, at a distance from the beginning.
Bolt, played by Dominic Monaghan, a human electrical generator, is a carnival worker off-duty, sipping a bourbon in his trailer. Bulbs he can light as he just thinks about it hang along the roof of his trailer. Sabretooth, played by Liev Schreiber, appears at his door. They have a short conversation, in which it is clear that Bolt has been expecting a visit of some kind from his past. A potentially lethal visit.
Bolt: You know, I’ve never said anything, to anyone, about what happened.
Right away, if this was the beginning scene, the whole thing would pull taut. In a way the film never managed to do.
This method, of beginning near the middle, is in widespread use*, perhaps never more so than in any episode of anything J. J. Abrams has put on television or film. Most episodes of Lost rely heavily on this technique.
This is also a structure that is used to exhilarating effect in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, for example. The narrator picks up the night prior to Giovanni’s execution, and moves back in time in his reminiscence to his first encounters with men, his childhood, and then to meeting Giovanni, until both streams of time come together at the end. In any case:
Go back in time next, to the beginning of the situation of the dramatic action and explain what the reader has just seen and identify the characters. Bring the reader up to the moment right before the scene that began the fiction.
Bolt: I always thought it would be Wade.
Victor: Wade’s gone.
And so the next scene should begin with the formation of Weapon X, the program Bolt, Wade and Wolverine escaped from, the program Victor seems to still be in–a black ops group with questionable motives at best. Move up through the departure of Wolverine from the group and the further disbanding of the group, and conclude this background section with Wade’s “death” at the hands of Victor and then perhaps show Wade’s body being brought into Weapon X’s lab, for his transformation into Deadpool, who appears at the end to battle Wolverine and Victor both.
Develop the story through to its climax and end.
I find the word climax abhorrent and yet I won’t act like there’s another word.
The next scenes should be Logan and his love, Silver Fox, off in the Canadian woods, and then confronted by first the boss of the Weapon X operation and then the film can move, more or less unchanged, to its end.
Which, in the end, is what’s so sad about what happened. It just needed a tweak.
When you are trying to create suspense in the reader or viewer, you reach for what’s called Dramatic Irony, which puts the reader in a place where they know less than the author about the story, but more than the character they’re watching. This even allows for creating stories that are not for the characters—the much-reviled epiphany. If you are working with Dramatic Irony, no one has to realize anything, ever, in your film or novel, except the audience.
I don’t really know why a widely known dramatic structure such as this was somehow unknown to writers with credits like Troy, but all I ask is that, as a fan of these films, please: DO NOT make more Origins films per the biopic structure. Give us a plot.
*The structure inherent in this approach has been described in the book Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott (and she gives Ford credit), as the Story Alphabet: ABDCE: Action Background Development Climax End.
I read this as many of my students kept talking to me about it and I wanted a frame of reference. This is, over time, the single idea that stayed with me from it.
Note: I also went to support the American film debut of Daniel Henney, one of the Koreanish stars featured in the post that has, since it appeared, been my top ranked post for traffic.