What is a non-linear narrative, and should my story be one?
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Lady Macbeth and rubber duckies; how much do you need to explain?

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the new film Lady Macbeth. The performances are marvellous, the direction remarkable - especially for a first feature - and costumes and settings are beautiful in a terrifyingly austere way. But I also noticed an aspect of the script which is extremely relevant to writing fiction and creative non-fiction, or anything else story-shaped. In neither script nor image does Lady Macbeth give you almost any backstory or side-story (my term, but you know what I mean), for any character or situation. We learn almost nothing beyond the edges of what we can see and hear in the moment.

So you discover only the barest of reasons why Catherine is in the situation she's in - and that only well into the story - and are neither shown, nor told directly, anything at all about why the other characters act as they do. They just act, and we know who they are by how they act. And that's not because the characters are too busy talking about other things, or the film was too long and got cut: it's just under 90 minutes, and the barest script I've seen since Meek's Cutoff.

The film is, at heart, the story of Catherine growing from child to woman: coming to understand herself and the world she lives in, and taking control of both. (It is, if you like, the dark inversion of Bridget Jones's Diary.) What matters is who she is at the beginning, what happens, and how that makes her into who she is at the end. So, I'd suggest, any careful explaining of how the beginning came about is superflous. Indeed, where the original Leskov novella has a whole extra act where the consequences of who Catherine has become play out, the filmscript stops at the moment when she recognises her full adulthood, and the movie's all the better for it. Beginning, middle and end is all we need.

I'm not say that it's the only way to tell all stories but certainly this very, very close focus is very appropriate to the source story, and to Catherine's situation. It's also true that they had a very small budget, but while there's nothing inherently virtuous or ennobling about being force to cut your coat according to too short a cloth, the sparseness of the storytelling is in this case a happy consequence of poverty. After all, all creators have a budget - of time and energy, at least - and one crucial creative decision is always to pick a coat which can be cut without compromise from such cloth as you have.

But, more generally, it's worth asking yourself in any project: do I really need to explain? Of course you, as the writer, may need to work out for yourself why Ann is so angry about everything, or Bob so beatific, just as an actor may make up stories about their character to find the keys to the personality they must embody. But that doesn't mean the reader needs it spelled out, or even mentioned at all. So if your first reaction to "Do I need to explain?" is "Yes, of course,", then ask yourself, Why do I think I need to explain? If you've understood for yourself why Ann and Bob are as they are, then as characters-in-action and -interaction they will be consistent, and their consequent change and development will convince: explanations of the psychological mechanics underlying that convincingness will then be superfluous.

At the very least, being ruthless with this stuff helps you to avoid the pop-psychology of a glossy magazine article, or the over-neat cause-and-effect of a self-help book anecdote. And with luck it'll steer you away from what film director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky unkindly but accurately called the Rubber Ducky Moment. As John Yorke describes in Into the Woods, this is the scene when the character (or the movie) explains that they've been formed by the moment that big brother took away their beloved rubber ducky, and the audience is invited to understand that the whole story is the consequence of that, um, shall we say, emasculation? Not that it's always an individual personal event: the original Rubber Ducky trauma may well have been large and socio-political: the dissolution of the Abbey, the ravaging enemy army, the social exclusion after the bitter divorce. 

The Rubber Ducky Moment, says Yorke, is usually laid out in Act Four (of Five, as the train announcements put it) and I'd never say that having such a moment is automatically a crime: it may make sense for us as readers to realise just how deep-rooted this character's damage (aka "flaw") is, just as you thrust them into the ultimate, change-or-die climax in Act Five. But it's still not a given that it needs spelling out to us. Can you not trust us to sense and believe in the length of the roots, without hoiking them out and brandishing them in our faces?

What's more, amazingly often these days, you'll find the original Rubber Ducky trauma, or the Moment when the character reveals it, displaced to be the Prologue. I'd argue that this is an even bigger sign of a writer's lack of confidence in themself, even if it's masked as their lack of confidence in the reader. Do you really not trust yourself to hold onto our attention, without showing us the crucial moment right at the beginning? It reminds me of those "next episode" trailers which basically summarise the entire story, from terror that we might not tune in.

But refusing to rely on the Rubber Ducky Moment in all its soap-bubble, bouncy, bright-yellow glory, is also very good for you as a writer. The reason Lumet and Chayefsky were being sniffy about the Moment is that so often it isn't a revelation of what's in a character's psychological depths, it's a substitute for those depths. We all know the kind of novel where we're told that a character has a Porsche or a Beretta, wears Prada or listens to Springsteen, as a feeble substitute for evoking those things for the reader. As a teacher looking at that kind of manuscript, I'll be saying: "What about the reader who's never heard of Prada? What have you given them, so that they know what it's like to be dressed in it, and what that means for the story? It's that which is important." 

In sum, storytelling is an act of human communication, and one of the things that humans learn (or should learn) as they grow up, is also relevant to more formal, substantial acts of communication, such as a book. In the words of comedian Craig Ferguson, when you feel you should explain something - either directly or indirectly - about the context of your characters' actions and reactions, stop, and ask yourself: 

  1. Does this need to be said? (At all?)
  2. Does this need to be said by me? (Explicitly to the reader?)
  3. Does this need to be said by me now? (At this point in the story?)

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