Subjective, objective, and Soviet toothbrushes
Sunday round-up: age-banding, and putting the cart before the horse

Wanting, needing, yearning, dreaming

There used to be a terrific series on Radio 3 - Monday afternoons, as I remember - called Stage and Screen. It was always a stand-alone programme about theatre or movie music, from the acutely avant-garde to the blockbustingly popular, and apart from the fact that it was always full of all that gorgeous repertoire, the discussion of the interaction between drama (and so at least by implication, storytelling) and music was consistently illuminating. The Broadway musical seems an impossibly tight form to us novelists, lying back comfortably in the arms of our own baggy monster of a tradition. And composing music, complete with beginning, middle and end, for a three-minute-forty-seven-second cue which has already been shot, is also something to make even those of us who are turned on by technical and formal challenges feel a bit weak.

I get grumpy when it seems that the nearly as tight principles of screenwriting are being applied to fiction without any acknowledgement that the two art forms are in many ways fundamentally different, and that happens a lot, not least in books about creative writing which ought to know better. But there's no denying that the basic simplicity of the novel-like elements of a musical (the time-frame of the experience so relatively short, the music/set/choreography doing much of the work that the novelist has to do for themself) can mean that the big bones of the storytelling can be seen and discussed amazingly clearly.

So I wish I could remember more of some of the programmes that were about narrative in musicals. It was school-run time, so I couldn't easily make notes, and in those pre-DAB, pre-podcast days it was hard to catch up later. Sometimes I think I might try to track down some splendidly vulgar Write your Musical and Make a Million book, just to see whether what it says chimes with what I remember: that in a good musical the big songs are the seemingly natural culmination of a build-up of plot and emotion, an outburst of feeling and action too strong to be contained in mere prose speech. And this idea, mutatis mutandis, is something that fiction writers could do well to think about.

One of the things that most often isn't working in novels that I do editorial reports on is what's sometimes called One-Damn-Thing-After-Another syndrome: when the plot just seems like a series of things that happen. The writer has usually thought quite hard about what the characters are trying to get, what need they're trying to fulfil, and then either written a series of scenes to explain it, or tossed a series of obstacles in their path. If these two kinds of scene are alternated, it can give the illusion that the novel has a plot. But if the reader's not to get bored with each damn thing trotting along about as excitingly as junctions on the M1, fiction needs to be all about change: narrative drive isn't about bomb-blasts or sex scenes or crying on the best friend's shoulder, it's fundamentally about how those moments change the characters' needs and desires, and therefore their actions. In practical, how-I-suggest-you-revise-your-novel terms, what that means is that the writer needs to pinpoint the crucial moment of change in their head, make it clear in the scene (however subtly, however buried in the subtext) and then re-write what comes before so that the change is convincing, and re-write what comes after so we see the effect on them, the other characters, and what they all do next.

I can remember two examples that were discussed in Stage and Screen of the natural place for a big song in a traditional musical - the place where feeling's to strong to be contained. The first is the classic opening 'I want' number, where the hero/heroine bursts out with what will, fundamentally, be the driving reason for the whole story. Eliza Doolittle's 'All I want is a room somewhere' is a classic of this kind, while Belle's first number in the Disney Beauty and the Beast is another example, though I can't remember its title. The village is narrow and boring, they all think she's weird because she yearns for something grander and more exciting, but her main suitor - her perceived future - is stupid and vain. The number is shaped as her progress through the village, which is clever too, because it means that within the song itself there's movement. It isn't just a single statement, it embodies change in itself, a literal and figurative feeling that we're in a different place at the end from where we started. All in about three minutes: a page and a half of a novel read aloud.

A second big moment of change was first pin-pointed, apparently, by Rodgers and Hammerstein in Carousel, and it's the kind of product of fundamentals and practicalities that I love. One of the drawbacks of forming a muscial (most musicals?) around a love story (even a sad, going-wrong one like Carousel) is that the biggest moment of change of all - when the hero and heroine declare their love - should be the biggest song, the highest point, but it can't happen too early, because the plot's based on the business of getting them together. So how do you get a high enough point into the first act? If you don't, after all, the audience might not bother to come back after the interval. To overcome this inherent drawback of (if you believe Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots) the most fundamental story of all  Rodgers and Hammerstein invented what's since become know as the conditional love song. 'If I loved you,' in Carousel is the original of 'I'll know when my love comes along,' in Guys and Dolls, 'On the street where you live,' in My Fair Lady, and a dozen others. If the 'I love you' song is about fulfilment, which always risks being the end of the story, the conditional love song is all about desire in the true sense: wanting, dreaming, yearning, needing. Which, of course, is the mainspring of fiction.

I hate it when I hear of aspiring writers meekly trying to force the words and ideas that are tumbling out of them into some prescriptive mould that will - the how-to book swears - mean that their book will sell. But when I look back on things I've written, and books I've read, I can see many moments which you could call either the 'I want' moment, or the conditional love song, or, no doubt, the other big moments a musical has. In fact, I think this post-hoc understanding - the commentary on A Secret Alchemy which is part of my PhD, if you like - can be far more fruitful, in learning your trade, than any studying of a textbook before you start. But that's for another post...

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