Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Norman Friedman gets mentioned in at least one book on screenwriting. (How Not To Write a Screenplay by Denny Flinn.)

Friedman is useful in so many ways.
He sketches out some plot types--adventure fiction, classical tragedy, modern drama, the like, and he has a layered theory of story and of our reactions to stories.
For example, he distinguishes formal or aesthetic 'emotions'--e.g., "What will happen next?"--from moral emotions, which involve how we feel about whether a character succeeds or fails, takes action or suffers, is rewarded or punished.

His descriptions often go something like:
a person of moderate social status, through no fault of his own, is subject to terrible misfortune at first, with intermittent hopes of something better, but in the end comes to a sad end. (Think Willy Loman.)
a person of high standing and great talents suffers terrible misfortune through a relatively small or insignificant mistake, and ultimately but nobly perishes.
That is, there's always:

a person,
their social status,
their admirable or regretable moral and other qualities,
(this including whether we admire or detest these),
whether the person acts or is acted upon,
whether he succeeds or fails,
inflicts suffering or suffers, 
whether such sufferings or honors are his own fault or pure chance or choice or accident, etc. (that is: is he responsible or blameless),
what happens in these terms in the short run and over the long run (e.g., at first he succeeds but in the end is routed),
whether his status changes by the end--he becomes Prince or loses his inheritance or dies or whatnot.
Three sisters are of relatively high social status.

They have admirable qualities--being generous, knowing French, being cultured. (But they can also be snobs.)

They experience glimmers of hope--of romantic attachments, for instance.

But ultimately, through no fault of their own, or through their own inability to take positive action, their situations all worsen, they lose things and persons valuable and important to them.

In the end their states are worse then when the play started.

Yet the persist in dreaming of a better world--even a world without them, a future world, though none have children. (Only a social upstart has children, and they are not their legal father's children).
It's a nice approach. You can see how it's kind of proto-structuralist. One feels that Friedman's plot types could eventually be reduced to all the possible variables in a sort of equation--although he's not exhaustive. (Could there be a weak and detestable person who hurts others, and we admire him for it? Then when he's rewarded, we nevertheless feel bad?)  

Even making a game stab at the 'grammar' Friedman detects, we can see how action-based dramatic writing is.
Someone acts or is acted upon, injures other or himself suffers.
And in a really good dramatic analysis, everything can be stated in terms of actions.

The script or play becomes transparent, because everything takes a clear role in relation to actions, to causality, to responsibility, choice and these moral-narrative categories.

Dramatic writing is writing in actions. It can be in words or some other medium. But actions become an expressive, plastic means:
they're selected and arranged (sequenced and compounded) to say something besides themselves, to be a vehicle for meanings.
Friedman's interesting, because he helps flush out the way stories embody what might be called, in a hifallutin' way, moral-ontological intuitions.
That is: stories embody certain feelings we have about the way the universe is, the way it rewards or punishes those who are good or bad.
The "universe" part is ontological.  

The moral part is about virtue and vice (good or bad, strength or weakness) and reward or punishment (justice).
(A lot turns on guilt and innocence, responsibility and the lack of it.)
It's surprising how many stories seem to embody some very global intuitions of this kind. (I've mentioned some before on this blog.) E.g.:
Virtue is rewarded.
No good deed every truly goes unpunished. (E.g., virtue punished.)
Bad things happen to good people.
What goes around comes around.
The universe is amoral.
Everything that can go wrong will.
Bad things happen to good people.
Rewards are proportional to risks.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
Life's a bitch and then you die.
And the like.

These intuitions can be simple or complex.  

But we like and admire dramatic works when they confirm to these intuitions. We think they're 'true to life.'

To be altogether too brief: if you can't conceptualize your story with this kind of clarity, and if it has no such moral intuitions or logic, the chances of anyone being able to follow it or cotton to it are pretty low.  

Or such is my own moral and ontological intuition!

--E. R. O'Neill

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