I just reread one of my favorite essays, John Barth’s “Incremental Perturbation: How to Know If You’ve Got a Plot or Not,” and the timing was perfect: it was in the middle of a holiday season when my family watches a lot of films on DVD. If the connection seems dubious, I promise it’s not.
In the essay, Barth, a novelist and short story writer known for his metafictive and postmodern works, lays out in pyrotechnic fashion the mechanisms by which narrative movement occurs. You can find the essay in Creating Fiction: Instruction and insights from the teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, edited by Julie Chekoway (Story Press,1999).
First and foremost, Barth advocates for dramaturgy, and dramaturgy, as he defines it is “the management of plot and action, the architecture of story.” From Barth’s essay, I’d define plot as a system of events carefully chosen and ordered, mindfully paced, and resolved in a way that satisfies. Add to this, he advises, Aristotle’s stipulation that dramatic action be “whole” and “of a certain magnitude,” two qualities that, as we’ll see, are integral to storytelling.
Yet even with this wisdom as a guide, knowing if you have a plot is not always clear. So how do you tell, Barth asks? “By never again reading your own stories or anybody else’s—or watching any stage or screen or television play—innocently, but always with a third eye monitoring how the author does it.” In other words, if you endeavor to make stories, you can’t take them for granted. Stories exist all around us in highly digestible form, and as Barth says, can be used to build an understanding of how it’s done.
Which brings us to the The Sound of Music—a film that may not spring to mind when considering narrative structure, yet I came away from my last viewing newly aware of the lessons it offers.
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