Monday, May 20, 2013

Hitting Notes that Ring True, Thoughts on The Great Gatsby

by Bill Johnson
I teach that a story creates movement, and that movement transports an audience. The elements of a story's movement ring true, because setting out a story's promise establishes, in a musical sense, the key a story will be told in; just as the notes played for a song ring true by having a relationship to the key of the tune.

This concept lends itself to understanding why the 'notes' of a story can fail to create a satisfying movement that rewards and 'moves' an audience.

The Great Gatsby is a good example of a story movement that shifts keys.

The opening scenes showing the wild party scenes at Gatsby's mansion could be called garish, or the key of G. Everything and everyone is hyper and loud and colorfully extreme. It's an other-worldly experience, which is part of the point, that the wealthy live in their own world with its own rules.

Later in the film, it comes out that Gatsby bought the mansion and hosted the parties hoping that Daisy, who lives in a mansion across the bay, might be drawn in. He then enlists Daisy's poor cousin Nick to invite Daisy to lunch. When Daisy arrives, Gatsby is so nervous, he rushes out into a rainstorm, only to come back soaking wet.

At that moment, the story switches to the key of E, or human emotion. Now all the characters hit 'notes' in a key that express human feelings, unlike the opening scenes.

The movie continues in this key until near the end of the film, when Nick's narration is pulled directly from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. We can this the key of C, for contemporary fiction.

The 'notes' of this literary voice are not Nick's voice, however. He's done nothing to suggest that he has the voice of one of the great writers of the 20th century, so even in the key these notes are played, they don't quite ring true.

At this point, the film has shifted into a third key, and none of these keys work particularly well together.

The result is mixed reviews for the film, because the parts never cohere – move together -- in a pleasurable way.

This is not to say someone couldn't set out to create discordant music (think punk rock or avant garde), but that's not the kind of music a big-budget Hollywood film aims for to satisfy a large audience.

Another example of this type of movie was the remake of King Kong. The journey on the ship is hyper-stylized. Any one shot of the crew on the ship could be framed and hung in an art gallery. The love affair of the main characters is ordinary. Then there's the slap stick comedy with Jack Black. Three different keys that never worked to create the notes of a powerful story song.

A common problem in first scripts is to shift the tone in an attempt to heighten a story's climax, going from drama to melodrama, from comedy to slap stick, for example. The shift only abruptly changes the story to a different key, which is discordant and unsatisfying.

Audiences will not know the technical reasons why a big-budget Hollywood film is not pleasing, but writers interested in creating powerful screenplays (or novels or plays) would be aided by understanding what makes the word 'notes' of their story ring true to the key they are writing in.
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Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on AmazonKindle for $2.99 and on Smashwords.  He teaches workshops on writing around the US. He is currently the office manager for Willamette Writers, a group in the Pacrific Northwest with 1,700 members.

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