Tag Archives: A Tale of Two Cities

Grand Allusions or, Where Many Men Have Gone Before

"I have been... and ever shall be... a metaphor."

I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for probably the fiftieth time last Friday.  The significance of experiencing a movie about sacrifice and the promise of hope and resurrection on Good Friday did not escape me, either.  In a previous post I discussed the writing lessons learned from Gene Roddenberry, about the need for a story to always be about something; to that I’d add The Wrath of Khan as a further lesson, for not another science fiction film comes to mind with more of a pedigree so indebted to classical literature.  Where Star Wars is the most famous embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, The Wrath of Khan is steeped like the finest blended tea in the traditions of Shakespearean drama, and its famous finale borrows greatly from the story of Jesus Christ.  As writers we need to be aware of the traditions of storytelling, the recurrence of specific themes and motifs throughout history and the capacity of allusion to elicit powerful emotional reactions from our audience, for these notes will tend to seep into our own work whether we are conscious of it or not.

It is interesting to observe, as we delve into the Christian parallels at work in this particular tale, that The Wrath of Khan in many ways represents the “New Testament” of Star Trek, as it was the first Trek to be produced without Gene Roddenberry as its guiding hand.  He was removed from day-to-day supervision of the film by Paramount studio executives who blamed the massive cost overruns of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Roddenberry’s working style.  The Wrath of Khan was instead produced by Harve Bennett, who came out of the penny-pinching tradition of 70’s television, and written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, a beginning filmmaker whose biggest success to that point had been a series of Sherlock Holmes continuation novels.  Meyer is a studied intellect with a well-stocked library, and he packed the screenplay with references to A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, the Horatio Hornblower novels, King Lear and Paradise Lost, eschewing complicated special effects unavailable to this movie’s reduced budget in favour of character development and deep thematic exploration.  As a result, even though the movie cost a third of what it took to mount the first one, it feels substantially more epic.  Meyer dared to tackle what tends to be taboo among movie stars forever worried about their image – growing older.  He elicited from the infamously hammy William Shatner tremendous depth, nuance and vulnerability, arguably the best performance Shatner has ever given.  Actors love Shakespeare, and Meyer gave his cast the next best thing – a brilliant pastiche, set, despite its futuristic trappings, firmly in the Bard’s thematic wheelhouse.  (On the DVD director’s commentary, Meyer relates how he tried to convince Ricardo Montalban that he would have been a magnificent Lear, and regrets that such a performance never came to be; I know I would have loved to see it.)  Although they never worked well together (or by any reports even liked each other that much), Meyer knew the same basic truth as Roddenberry, and by extension Shakespeare – that the weirdest, strangest, most alien people can be relatable on the basis of their emotions.  A laugh and a tear are literally universal.  This is where the use of allegory comes so strongly into play.

The best allegories operate invisibly.  We don’t exactly know why something we are reading or watching is resonating with us so much, other than it seems to appeal to something deeper in the unconscious mind, or in the heart.  The power of the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s sins and his eventual resurrection touches the instinctual fear of death held by all living things, and to the human need to find nobility and purpose in what can seem like the meaningless end of life.  The three-act structure of drama parallels this instinct as well:  in the first act, you introduce your character(s), in the second, you drag them down to the lowest possible point of total collapse, and in the third, you show their climb from that abyss and ultimate triumph.  In this too we find the Greek concept of catharsis – the emotional release found in an audience’s experience of a character’s pain and suffering.  Interestingly, in the original cut of The Wrath of Khan, there was no hint that Spock’s death might somehow be overcome.  It was observed by the powers that be following an ambivalent test screening that the movie featured Good Friday, but not Easter morning.  The end of the film was then reshot (against the wishes of Meyer, it should be noted) to provide more uplift and hope, including a concluding shot of Spock’s coffin at rest in a Garden of Eden-like setting on the Biblically named Genesis Planet.  Whether or not one is Christian, the cycle of sacrifice and rebirth (whether that rebirth is literal, or metaphorical in terms of the reborn spirit of those left behind) has a primal appeal, and when one of the pieces is missing, as in Wrath of Khan’s original ending, things feel out of sorts – the emotional experience is incomplete.

The issue I have struggled with in my own writing is when does allusion and allegory venture over the line into imitation and duplication?  When so much of our creative world at present feels like karaoke, the value of true originality escalates into priceless.  Yet audiences both literary and cinematic have this need for the reassurance of the familiar, the sense of being able to connect with the story on a visceral level, that commonality of hope and fear shared by all of humanity.  Campbell observes that we have always been telling each other the same story over and over again; his titular hero of the thousand faces.  Writers need to accept this basic truth or they will never even get started:  they will be crippled, as South Park so wittily showed, with “Simpsons Already Did It” syndrome.  And not just accept it, but come to embrace the idea that by infusing these ageless themes into their own work, they are taking part in a tradition that dates back to cave paintings and the fireside tale, and deepening the emotional experience of their story for the reader who will bring to it those same instinctive feelings about life and death.  They will recognize the thread linking your words, their life, and the lives of all those who have come before and will come afterwards.  And your work will truly live long and prosper.

Baby, what’s your line?

I’m obsessed with opening lines.  I can spend hours in a bookstore scanning first pages and evaluating the effectiveness of their greetings.  What is true in the dating world applies equally to literature – the first line sets the tone for the entire story to come.  It can either grab you by the metaphorical balls or wheeze pathetically as if to say, “well, I’m not much to look at, but please if you could be spared a minute or two, if it’s not too much trouble, if you don’t have anything better to do.”  Crafting your own is a daunting challenge mainly because of what you are trying to avoid; you never want your hello to your reader to be the narrative equivalent of “Baby, what’s your sign.”  The Bulwer-Lytton Awards, which commemorate the worst published writing, are named after the man who began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the immortal phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the ranks of mediocrity are plentiful enough without daring to offer one’s own work up for consideration.  The trouble is there are already so many amazing examples out there, that began intimidating all writers to follow decades before you were even born.  Behold just a smattering of the most familiar and most celebrated:

  • “Call me Ishmael.”  (Moby Dick)
  • “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”  (Ulysses)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  (1984)
  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  (Pride and Prejudice)

There is my personal favorite, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” (do I really have to cite it?) and a new addition to my ranks of greats:  “Imagine you have to break somebody’s arm” (Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller).  So what makes a truly great opening line?  I’ve read thousands and I’m still trying to figure it out.

There appears to be no singular rationale, other than that the perfect example is able to convey copious amounts of thought-provoking story information while making you hunger for more.  Who is Ishmael?  What is Buck Mulligan up to?  Why are the clocks striking thirteen?  Why is Colonel Buendia being executed, and what would compel him to recall seeing ice for the first time in the moment of his death?  What has always struck me about openers is how off-handed they seem to be, as if they were composed quickly, in a matter of course of getting on with the meat of the story, even though for all I know hundreds of hours of thought and revision have accompanied each individual letter and punctuation mark, their shapes calculated precisely for maximum impact.  There are limitations:  the line cannot be so “out there” that it stops a reader’s momentum dead so they sit and ponder its meaning endlessly.  It has to be a kick in the pants to force you onward.

The Great Gatsby‘s intro does just this:  “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”  What does this tell us?  That we are about to be led through this tale by a man who is looking back on reckless youth and continuing to this very moment to wrestle with the meaning of those years.  What is the advice his father gave him and why has it haunted him since?  We need to know more, hence, we need to read more.  Contrast this, say, with the first line of Elmer Gantry:  “Elmer Gantry was drunk.”  Without factoring in the character’s name, this is really only two words.  Yet they still crack open the door to a mystery that demands exploring.  The book is called Elmer Gantry; why are we being introduced to the protagonist in such a disagreeable fashion?  Why is he drunk – is this a regular occurrence?  What could be so wrong with his life to compel him to become inebriated?  Is he a tragic or comic character?  Only one way to know.  Turn the page.

You can drive yourself a bit batty with that first line.  In writing my novel I have gone through dozens of iterations of my opener, scaling up, scaling down, going broad and universal and then small and personal, and struggling to find that ideal balance of brevity versus length, captivation versus compulsion.  It’s an invitation that has to ask without sounding desperate, and has to reassure the reader that a trip inside this little world of words is going to be worth however much time we have asked for their attention.  No wonder it’s as difficult as working up the courage to approach that sexy woman in the bar.  I remember hearing some pick-up advice once and I wonder if it can be applied here as well.  The gist was that if you are at that bar and you see a woman you are attracted to, you are obligated to approach her within 30 seconds of seeing her, otherwise not at all; the idea being that the longer you wait, the more you invest in the outcome, making a possible rejection more damaging to your ego.  The lesson to be drawn, then, is to just start writing in medias res, as if you are already on to the next woman, and that first will either come along or she won’t.  Being casual about it might ultimately lead to failure, but overthinking it makes failure certain.  The thing to remember is that it is only a start, and where you go afterwards is what really matters.

These are the bricks you’re looking for

A few weeks ago, an episode of The Simpsons took a poke at Lego, criticizing the volume of licensed Lego products and charging that the world’s favourite building toy is no longer about individual imagination and creation, but rather the mindless duplication of whatever the designers have created for you.  Certainly Lego has changed since I got my first set back in the early 80’s.  Back then, aside from the boxes of generic brick assortments, there were only three product lines – Town, Castle and Space.  Nowadays, there’s Pirates of the Caribbean Lego, Harry Potter Lego, Star Wars Lego, Spider-Man Lego, and a forthcoming Lord of the Rings line, where you will finally be able to purchase a Lego Legolas (the mind trips at the metaphysical implications of that one).  There are Lego video games, Lego board games, Lego cartoons, Lego movies, even a Lego Architecture line where you can recreate famous buildings like the Sears Tower or the White House.  YouTube is full of amateur Lego recreations of classic movie scenes and Eddie Izzard’s comedy routines.  And the surest sign that the popularity of the little Danish toy that could continues to swell is that much to the chagrin of parents, retailers almost never put it on sale.  Lego comes as close as any product I know of to a textbook example of inelastic demand.

Upon glancing through the Lego section of your local Toys R Us, it would seem that the trend has moved towards replication rather than innovation.  The instructions enclosed with each set used to be harder to follow – you would be shown stages of construction and it was up to you to figure out which bricks you needed to find amidst the pile.  Now everything is laid out much more clearly, with each brick given its own part number, arrows showing how they should be connected, and a helpful suggestion to assemble your set on a hard surface, not a rug (I guess during all those hours assembling spaceships on my bedroom carpet, I was doing it wrong.)  At the same time, not that I’m keen to disagree with The Simpsons on anything, but upon deeper examination, their assertion is still not particularly fair.  To its credit, Lego has been savvy enough to realize that their sets have different levels of appeal:  some want to collect the licensed sets just to build them as presented, but the majority of Lego’s fans treasure these sets not just for the chance to build an X-Wing, but for the customized parts that can spur their own flights of fancy.  The first Lego bricks were strictly rectilinear, but with the new lines came varieties of curved bricks and specialized parts like flags, steering wheels, fruits, swords and countless others that opened up new possibilities for creation – everything didn’t always have to be ninety-degree angles anymore.  Indeed, builders both young and adult have flooded the Internet with images of fantastic constructions, some inspired by popular culture, others wholly new and inventive.  One could be given a collection of paint and shown step-by-step instructions on how to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but the true artist will always use that paint as the building blocks – sorry about the pun – of their own unique fabrication.  The same as how a keyboard could theoretically be used to retype A Tale of Two Cities, if that is your inclination, or it can help write a new, original masterpiece.  Lego is at its core merely a tool for creativity, and the set designs are only one option for how to wield it.  The use of the tool is up to the individual.

There is still significant merit in “just following the instructions,” as some of my friends used to natter dismissively.  A great number of today’s engineers are kids who grew up putting Lego together.  It can be an invaluable vehicle for the conceptualization of spatial relationships.  Personally, I have a profound interest and obsession with comprehending how and why things work – I’m not one to take the world on faith alone, and much of this I can trace to my fascination with watching Lego spaceships take shape one brick at a time.  To this day I still find assembling Lego to be a most relaxing activity – my mind is at peace and my attention focused on the movement of my fingertips as each piece is connected to the next.  If nothing else, it’s made me a genius at putting Ikea furniture together – so let no man assert that those silly plastic bricks are of no practical value in the real world.  As far as I’m concerned, anything that fosters curiosity and a need for understanding is a good thing.

Now I just need to see if that argument works with my better half regarding that $400 Lego Star Destroyer I was eyeing this past weekend…

UPDATE:  This story came out the morning of January 25, showing the kind of creativity Lego can inspire.