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.
You can watch the scene here in a somewhat clipped form.
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.
This is amazing. And it made me feel so literary that the reference I was least familiar with was the Wolverine film. Your post suggests why trailers are some of the better filmmaking happening in Hollywood these days. They use impressionism, dispense with chronology, cut out everything quotidian . . . and usually tell the whole story. Thanks for another great blog.
First off. Daniel Henney is hot.
Okay, now that we’ve established that, moving on…
This was an awesome post. I love that you took popular culture to illustrate an important lesson in dramatic structure. I haven’t seen the movie, but reading this post made me wish I did, just so I could relate it to what you’re saying. I have it on pirated dvd… I will at some point.
I don’t think I’ve ever been pointed out the actualy structure the way you just did it. I mean, I’ve heard the whole, “beginning middle and end” “point of no return, challenges, climax, denouement” thing, but somehow your version is a lot more specific yet still simple. So thanks. Like you said, I think I’ve written mostly on instinct. Something like write, get critiqued, rewrite, read read read to see what other people do, write some more, get critiqued some more, rewrite… etc…
A question: can you clarify this idea of dramatic irony? I’ve heard it used but I have trouble pinpointing it down to a specific example. I’d ask you for the specific moment in Wolverine where you could be like “aha! Dramatic irony!” but a) I haven’t seen it yet and b) from the looks of this post, there isn’t one. But maybe you could come up with one anyway?
I bet you’re a fantastic writing teacher.
Describing Dramatic Irony’s not hard.
You’re at a party. A friend leans in, says, “A_______ just broke up with B_________.”
You laugh, and then as you turn back toward the door, you see B___________.
You ponder, should you say something? Not say something? And then you see A__________ enter from the other side. You wait and watch until they see each other.
That’s Dramatic Irony. It has its origin in gossip, the kind you perpetrated against people you actually knew. But you see it all the time—you see it in Howard’s End, for example, where we know, constantly, in the 1st chapter, more of what’s about to happen to the characters than they do. As soon as we know that the aunt shouldn’t go and does go, we are in dramatic irony, waiting for her to find out her trip was wasted, and it goes on from there, each new situation supplying a new source, and it doesn’t end until the novel is done.
Max Shulman once started a novel like this, as a parody of that first technique: “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life . . . But first let me tell you a little about myself.”
Of Lamott or of Ford? Lamott gives credit to Ford for it, but the resultant transformation of it into a formula I know gives some people the heaves. Ford was trying to describe how he believed the coming novels (back then, as he rallied the Modernists) should look more like people think. And in conversations I’ve had with Deborah Eisenberg about story, she’s talked about creating a model of consciousness.
The ABDCE mode Lamott describes makes that into a soapbox derby racer, though it is handy as a mnemonic device, even if it erases subtlety, as…all mnemonic devices tend to do.
thanks for pointing out this middle/beginning/end formula, since i’m now conscious of why i’m so dissatisfied with most studio movies: because they all follow the same formula. the flashback intro has really started to grate.
This was a great way to illuminate Ford’s theory. I can’t think of any essay that explains it better for the unitiated audience. However, I’m not with you on your conclusions, especially about how this might have fixed the movie.
I’m with Brian to a degree. “Action, and then this” far too frequently translates to “Flashback, and then this” or “Flashforward, and then this” in film and in the prologues of Fantasy novels, and I’m pretty tired of them. Your recommendation to do that for X-Men Origins: Wolverine wouldn’t fix the awful special effects (his claws often look photoshopped on), egregious alteration from what was interesting about the source material (Sabretooth’s his brother now, he got the adamantium willingly, and I can’t believe *that’s* how he forgot all this), or anything else that’s wrong with it (stapled-on romantic treakle, Reynolds/Deadpool is the most entertaining character and we get rid of him as soon as possible). The movie did not just need a tweak.
Making things out of sequence does not fix everything and is cloyingly common these days. It can be done well – Batman Begins follows your advice and was quite good. The film version of Jurassic Park does the same, and Crichton’s novel actually does it multiple times before giving you the plot. But it’s really on authors, screenwriters, directors and producers to come up with better uses of Ford’s idea. I’m not even convinced that all stories need dramatic openings – Shakespeare managed to open several of his most successful plays with little action, and sometimes with pure exposition (even if what was said about Denmark was dramatic). I recently read Avarind Adiga’s Man-Booker-winning White Tiger, which has an amusing first paragraph, but an incredibly inactive first chapter that was nonetheless charming and drew me into the voice that defined the book. Even more low key openings do work. It may actually be that the first scene does not need to be particularly dramatic, but to introduce a worthwhile quality of the book (or comic book adaptation summer blockbuster) before entering storytelling proper. I’m more convinced that the “Action, and then this” model is one way to open a good story, and not the only one.
Thanks on the first part.
On the last, to be very clear, I wasn’t suggesting an orthodoxy for all writers and stories everywhere—the abolition of the soft opening. Please don’t misrepresent me as such as you debate me on this. And for that matter, neither was Ford. Ford’s theory began as a description of what most writers of his time were doing in reinventing the novel to represent consciousness, and was supposed to be illuminating, not the declaration of a new order. And it was an illumination many were suspicious of, including Conrad, who felt it was better not to know how one made anything.
Your and Brian’s point about the misuse of it suggests that these people know what they’re doing–and they don’t, is what I’m trying to say. They’re more like the apes in Planet of the Apes inside the space ship, trying to make something fly and not knowing how it was made or why.
Also, I really had no problems with the special effects that I could recall. For this exercise, I was working inside of the elements the film provided—partly because I didn’t have the inclination to pursue Wolverine’s many back stories outside of what the current film provided (see under “the corn syrup of…”)—Wolverine currently exists as a character in at least 12 comics right now, all ongoing, and with different incarnations of him.
As for White Tiger, I found the first chapter unbearable the three times I tried it, and gave up. Whatever charm the book exerts is lost on me.
Lately I’ve been noticing the whole “start in the middle” thing a lot more in what I’m reading, and each time my annoyance with it grows. I’m hoping it’s the misuse of the idea that you describe – but I see advice indicating that use of said device is really “the” way to write commercially these days – so, I’m wondering if most just have that little pearl of wisdom without the rest of the necessary knowledge to flesh it out.
That being said, that’s for not being ashamed to admit you saw Wolverine. I knew it would suck, and I still went to see it, and I still… kind of enjoyed it for what it was.
I think your take would have been a great starting point for repair and made the move is it was much more watchable, but agree with John a bit in the sense that they dug a damn deep hole for themselves. Screenwriters/director/whoever really should be ashamed. Nevermind my annoyance with STILL casting white people as Natives of various flavors (Really, is it THAT hard?).