The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, August 21, 2006

This Blog Will Eat You

by Andrew Tibbetts

Christopher Booker says there are only seven plots. Okay, sometimes he adds a couple significant variations but this is a blog not a PhD dissertation, so we’ll hit the highlights and ignore the subtleties. Just like politics.

All the stories you’ve ever heard, read, seen, thought about, or had tattooed on your rump fall into the following categories: “Overcoming the Monster”, “Rags to Riches”, “The Quest”, “Rebirth”, “Comedy”, “Tragedy” and “Voyage and Return”. I thought that when I’m out of blog ideas I’d take one out for a spin. And guess what, I’m out of blog ideas. (That’s not true. I just lied. I have several blogjects on the go but they’ll take the kind of care and attention I wasn’t able to give this time. Because I’ve been writing! Fiction! A story has welled up through a crack in my writers’ block. I don’t mind this brief diversion at all because my story is monster tale. And that’s the first of the plots.)

Overcoming the Monster

Our first story in English- Beowulf- was a monster tale. And some of the most recent popular movies- Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, The Devil Wears Prada- follow the same archetype. You need a monster and someone to overcome it. You can call that someone the hero, or just Jack. The actual plot is very simple. It’s the stuff the hero does to vanquish the monster. You can get fancy and have a middle section where the hero becomes disillusioned and gives up. Or you can get all modern and have the monster win- Invasion of the Body Snatchers, All About Eve, Bush/Gore 2000!

In a typical Canadian modern short story version, you need two characters. Your hero shouldn’t be too heroic and your monster shouldn’t be all bad. It’s also best if the overcoming is ambiguous. Perhaps a young girl escapes the amorous advances of an older gentleman. Perhaps a boy learns the darker side of his mentor and cuts his ties. One I love is Guy Vanderhaege’s “Teacher” from his superb collection Things As They Are. The monster is a tough six grade teacher who takes it upon herself to knock our narrator down a peg. For all the stories we’ve come across about giant squids, aliens, great white whales, radioactive lizards and the like, in our lives our monsters are usually people in authority over us: teachers, bosses, mental-ward-nurses. These petty tyrants get our knickers in a twist for real. Befitting its era and geography, our hero isn’t completely heroic- he’s a bit arrogant, we can actually relate to the teacher at times- and our monster isn’t all bad- she’s energetic and skilled, there’s lots to admire about her. As well, the overcoming is ambiguous. She is certainly overcome, that’s crystal clear. What’s ambiguous are our feelings about it. This isn’t a Disney movie where the bad guy falls in poo and everybody laughs. This story has the multi-grained love/hate/and-everything-in-between relationship to revenge that make Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s films so delicious and unforgettable. I won’t say anymore, because I want you to rush out and read the story yourself.

Thinking about this plot archetype in relation to my own writing was so surprising. Almost all my stories fall into this cateogory. I always write about kids and difficult relatives or workers and difficult bosses. I think my monsters are very good. Let’s face it. The hero is an excuse to spend time with the creature. However these stories fail if the heroes let you down. Jody Foster in Silence of the Lambs gives you more than Ed Norton in Red Dragon. Or I should say Clarice Starling gives you more than that other guy. There has to be something monstrous about the hero. They have to be worthy of the monster. That’s part of the fun of the new film Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the glee with which the French race car driver assesses his American vanquisher. At the end when Sacha Baron Cohen and Will Ferrell lock lips, it’s the first time I can recall that a monster story has revealed it’s secret heart, because, of course-of course!- a monster story is a love story. Ask Captain Ahab. Ask Clarice. Ask Guy Vanderhaeghe’s six grader now he’s all grown up.

So, I have to make sure my heroes are as interesting as my monsters, worthy of their half of the love. That’s what I learned about my writerself today. See you next time, when we tackle “Rags to Riches”. (Please, send money, so that I can have some personal experience of this topic.)


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Love this, Andrew, especially since I've just finished a Monster story -- my first, I think -- and it was really fun...sort of. Rags to Riches, eh? Do you have a PayPal account?

Mon Aug 21, 12:50:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I was expecting another blogject. Your Jernigan exclusive? I kept my submission waiting for last minute Tibbetts insight.

And a G.V. rec?

Sigh. Now I have to read him.

Mon Aug 21, 02:09:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

I can't wait to read the next installment of this. Now it's time to write a monster story!

Mon Aug 21, 05:31:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

I learn something everytime you post, Andrew. Monsters, eh? Not sure I've touched that plot before, I wonder if I can imagine suitable hero. Looking forward to your next plot topic!

Wed Aug 23, 12:56:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Hooray, Tibbetts is doing another blogproject thing. I just love classes with Mr. Tibbetts. I may have to save-to-print this series.

Mon Aug 28, 12:20:00 pm GMT-4  

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