This blog is part of a series on how I came to write Come Bargain With Uncanny Things (tickets available now!). If you want to read the other parts, see the links below:
If you’ve watched a film, you’ll be familiar with the Hero’s Journey, often transformed into Save The Cat: a beat-by-beat structure for how to make a film of almost any genre that feels dramatic.
This form is ubiquitous. Hero starts in an everyday position, is asked to do something outside their everyday, refuses it, the antagonist does something to provoke the hero to accept the ‘call to adventure’, hero does something beyond the everyday, fails, feels dejected, passes through that dejection to a new understanding of self (possibly with new skills or equipment), and faces the antagonist to triumph.
This might be Star Wars: A New Hope. It might equally be a romantic comedy.
The form is so ubiquitous that I was once told by an eminent opera maker that, despite my desire to write outside it, this was something nobody would understand, since ultimately “all films end up with two guys punching each other.”
A claim I disagree with, when one considers just a few options I love (all of them broadly described, with apologies):
Noh Theatre: the best way I’ve seen to describe how plot works in noh is “in Western theatre, something happens; in noh, someone happens.” That is to say, it is a highly descriptive form, in which people are more likely to be reflecting on a single brief moment of interest in someone’s life.
While the Warrior and Madness plays (two categories of the standard five) can be quite dramatic, and all feature beautiful combinations of dance, costume, and music, there is ultimately a wonderful simplicity narratively, allowing a 50 to 180-minute exploration of one moment, drawn out in exquisite detail.
Reading the various treatises on noh by Zeami, Kunio Komparu and others is an education in other ways to structure events happening on a stage. Something else is possible, which is why creators like Glass and Beckett drew on noh in their work.
The Mahabharata: An Indian epic that has an utterly sprawling structure, wildly ignores the Hero’s Journey, favouring instead dozens of interwoven strands all tying together to explore a central theme: what is the right way to live?
It is remarkably human, and almost always larger than life. Sometimes it dives into being four or five narrative layers deep (Vyasa tells the story of the brothers Bharata, in the course of which someone tells them an informative story, in the course of which a character relays another story…).
Once again, another wildly different notion of what narrative might be; it might be parsed as a collection of thematically linked short stories at one level, or a rambling epic poem on the other… were we to evaluate it against the Hero’s Journey.
Instead, what it offers us is a very useful model for interactive theatre: that one does not need a single protagonist, since a series of events happening at the same time and of necessity sometimes tying together will work wonders, and one where the unity comes not from a single dramatic line, but from numerous separate events all dancing along sub-sections of the same theme.
Ursula Le Guin: An author who I love dearly, in particular her essay writing.
For she is an author who wants to listen to the world. While her Earthsea novels are justifiably well-known, I think that most influential for me here was Always Coming Home, an anthropological study of a future society that will never exist, woven around their poetry, customs, and fragments of a story about one of their people.
It’s not a conventional novel, but it’s undeniably an exciting approach to writing. For she is writing about the world as her protagonist, rather than an individual person. The excitement is in seeing how lots of different elements in isolation come together to form a whole.
Which I rather like.
You’ll see some of these elements in Come Bargain With Uncanny Things: there is no hero, and if you try, you’ll be unlikely to succeed. What’s important is coming into play across the community.
What you do across the world is a part of it, in cooperation with one another, all exploring a central question that I’d not like to state here, for I simply feel that I’d not want to write a blog telling people what to think.
But I would like you to come along and find out.