Storyacious Practices: Against the Grain

Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.

[A Teller of Tales, The Celtic Twilight, Faerie and Folklore, the sublime W. B. Yeats]

There are some who believe that creating stories is an art. Some think it is more of a craft. And, the conflict-averse, like me, concede that it is a bit of both.

One thing is certain, however: for some, storytelling, regardless of whether it is done through words or some other medium, is a lifetime vocation to which they are called.

And, so, as it is with any profound calling, there is work that has to be done, consciously or unconsciously, secretly or publicly, for its discipline and practice. If nothing else, there is the need to clearly articulate what one is struggling to, like Martin Scorcese once said (insert your chosen medium instead of cinema if you like):

The most important thing is, how can I move forward towards something that I can’t articulate, that is new in storytelling with moving images and sound?

Today’s post is by way of introducing a new column called “Storyacious Practices”. Through this new column, we will share, explore and discuss the time-honored practices of all those storytelling artists through the ages on whose big, broad, strong shoulders we stand. In doing so, we are not likely to find magic recipes to creating our own stories. As John Steinbeck wrote:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.

[Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, John Steinbeck]
[Source: Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, John Steinbeck]

But, we are guaranteed to find the best and most accessible teachers. Both through the timeless stories / narratives that they create(d) for us, as well as the meta-narratives – all those books, interviews, essays, blogs, etc., where they discuss(ed) how they approach(ed) their own lifetime vocation, chose their medium of expression and articulated that which was challenging to them.

If you’re a photographer, legends like Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus still have much to teach you. IF you’re a film-maker, Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa can still show you a trick or two. And, if you’re a writer or poet, you only have to open the books of any of your favorite writers and see how they used language to tell the truth slant.

While a good number of posts will likely be skewed more to writing (as that is what I do),  I hope to balance that out with storytelling practices from other forms / media as well.

Let’s end today’s short post with a brief sampler of future posts to come.

Recently, I started to read Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Not that I’m writing or planning to write a screenplay but I am interested in the visual storytelling that film as a medium requires and the non-linear storytelling that technology now enables. So, even though this is not a recent book, there is much to learn from how Field writes about story structure as well as how to look at certain scenes in certain movies. So, on the topic of scene-creation, Field offers a piece of advice that, while we see it often enough on screen, we don’t always register it consciously as a character, scene or plot mechanism. Here it is (and, yes, I have an older edition, as you might tell from the examples he uses, but it does not take away from the “lesson”):

Actors often play “against the grain” of a scene; that is, they approach the scene not from the obvious approach but the unobvious approach. For example, they’ll play an “angry” scene smiling softly, hiding their rage or anger beneath a facade of niceness. Brando is a master at this.

In Silver Streak, Colin Higgins writes a love scene between Jill Clayburgh and Gene Wilder in which they talk about flowers! It’s beautiful. Orson Welles, in the Lady from Shanghai, had a love scene with Rita Hayworth in an aquarium, in front of the sharks and barracudas.

When you’re writing a scene, look for a way that dramatizes the scene “against the grain”.

[Source: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, 1994 edition, Syd Field]

Now, let me suggest this simple exercise. As you go through the next few days, watching the odd movie or TV show or reading fiction, pay attention and pick out any “against the grain” scenes that you see. If you feel so inclined, come back and share them here in the comments section for further discussion.

Here is an example from a book I’ve loved and plan to return to again. Peter Carey’s Booker-winning Oscar and Lucinda. Now, both these characters are entirely “against the grain” – the gambling Anglican minister and a teenage gambling heiress. They meet on a boat to Australia under odd circumstances and eventually decide to build a glass church together and take it across the Outback. While there are many scenes in the story where Carey goes against the grain and delivers surprising twists and angles that draw us in further, when I recently heard him read this particular scene on a BBC World Book Club podcast, it made me think of Syd Field’s advice here.

The scene is set in Lucinda’s glass works, where she has taken Oscar to show him how she runs her factory, something women did not do then. The men, her employees, show him a deference and even a camaraderie that they have withheld from her. Overcome by this observation, she rushes to her office. Oscar follows her, finds her in tears and tries to awkwardly comfort her. He also tells her that he has found the glass-making process very beautiful. With her vulnerability and this new personal moment between them, she decides to show him her secret plan to build a glass house. When he sees the prototype, it is an almost-religious moment for him – he sees a glass church filled with light and symbolizing the soul or eternal spirit. The dialogue next is the unexpected. Of all the ways that Carey could have shown his characters falling in love, this is different, unexpected and, yet, feels so right.

“Oh dear,” he said, “oh dearie me.”

When he turned towards her, Lucinda saw his face had gone pink. His mouth had become quite small, as if the thing which made him smile was a sherbet sweetmeat that must be sucked in secret.

He said: “I am most extraordinarily happy.”

This statement made him appear straighter, taller. His hair was on fire around the edges.

She felt a pleasant prickling along the back of her neck. She thought: This is dangerous territory you are in.

He was light, not substantial. He stood before her scratching his head and grinning and she was grinning back.

“You have made a kennel for God’s angels.”

Whoa, she thought.

She thought: this is how the Devil looks, with a sweet heart-shaped face and violinist’s hands.

“I know God’s angels do not inhabit kennels.” He stepped into the room (she followed him) and crouched beside the tiny glass-house. It was six foot long with all its walls and roof of glass, the floor alone in timber. “But if they did, this surely is the kennel they would demand.”

“Please”, she said.

“But there is nothing irreligious, ” he said, “How could we have a sense of humor if our Lord did not?”

She smiled. She thought: Oh dear.

“Do you not imagine,” he said, “that our Lord laughs together with his angels?”

She thought: I am in love. How extraordinary.

This is but a snippet of the entire scene, which has many complex layers. It is also a pivotal scene in more than one way, as the main point is not so much that these two are in love and she’s just realizing it, but that they are both in love with the strange glass building, which later does become a church. Carey had many choices, likely, in how to dramatize the meeting of their minds finally over this single mission of building the glass church. He also had many opportunities, through their many interactions in the story, to show them falling in love. That he put these two aspects together is very telling in how the rest of the story unfolds. Also, letting us into Lucinda’s thoughts here shows how conflicted she is about Oscar – seeing him, despite his religious vocation, as evil, yet falling in love. There is much more about this scene – the subtext, the foreshadowing, etc., but we will save all that for another time.

Your turn.