Tag Archives: Catch 22

Lit Crit: Catch-22

Finding out that Joseph Heller was strongly influenced by Franz Kafka in writing Catch-22 caused me one of those ‘oh yeh.’ moments, similar to finding out that Woody Allen based his early screen persona on Bob Hope. But there is something so unique about the later versions that I hadn’t noticed. Obviously, the lesson is: if you’re going to steal, steal big. No one will suspect.

Lord knows how many times I’ve read Catch-22 (about three) but I can tell you the last time, because I had book-marked it with a rail ticket to Burnt Oak dated Dec 2000. All the set pieces are present and correct: the old Italian brothel keeper preaching cowardice, Orr continually building and taking apart his stove, Aarfy jabbing his pipe stem into Yossarian’s stomach as the flak explodes around them. When four obscure characters from the novel came up on a recent episode of Only Connect I was proudly able to identify each, and make scathing noises as the actual contestants failed to spot them. Snowden, a photographer? Pah!

Yossarian suffers a little from being the author’s voice, but manages to keep himself distinct by initiating many of the novel’s anti-establishment actions. But it’s Milo who shines. The capitalist making hay while all around him falls apart: promoted and promoted.

You never know what is going to date. Richard Attenborough’s films probably started to age a few years after they were out of the can: the pacing is wrong, the character treatment sentimental, the camera work weird. Ghandi was made in the 80s but looks older than If…. from 1968. But then Malcolm McDowall’s pugnacious face may never grow old.

Catch-22 is still vital. Every irony bang-up-to-date. If there’s a misstep it’s the 1950s US macho: If the assault on Nurse Duckett had been written today, it would have been with a different intention.
And I’m looking for answers to my current novel problems. If there is one lesson it’s the constant exasperating, frustrating, infuriating energy of the thing. If such things could be bottled and poured down the book spine it would certainly rescue me from my disjointed backstories and aimless wanderings.

Still, deep breath. Back into battle.

A Satisfying Plot 4: Emotion

A woman is praying as hard as she can. Two minutes later, elsewhere in the crowd, a man is crying. Let me tell you about Atletico Madrid.

I’m not a football fan, but last weekend I happened to be staying in Spain with a friend who is. We watched the end-of-season league decider between AM and Barcelona, and she told me the story. Two seasons ago AM are adrift. A team of talented local boys who cannot hold it together. Their key striker, in particular, will often go off the ball to settle an argument with fists. When their manager leaves, an ex-player puts himself forward to take over for a season – he stays for two. During that time, he pulls them together. As a fellow street-fighter, he teaches the striker to channel his energy. And slowly the team rises. Challenging the eternal dominance of the main two clubs: Barcelona and Real Madrid – who have co-opted all of the broadcasting rights and built up teams with such depth that Barcelona can boast three strikers, each of whom has been the top goal scorer for their separate countries. And this is the team that Atletico Madrid faces.

Twenty minutes into the game and AM have lost two of their best players to injury, including the striker. And this is a team of only eleven good players. No depth. All they have to do is draw, but at half-time they are a goal down – with the one glimmer of hope that a Barcelona player has been sent off, reducing them to ten.
When Atletico Madrid return, two of the players are wearing different-coloured boots: one from each of their fellow injured players. And the team plays like a team: energy and commitment. They level the score, then settle in to defend their advantage.

With two minutes to go, a woman in the stands is praying as hard as she can; and, when the whistle goes, a man is crying with relief.

Any good story telling requires an ability to tap into strong emotion. The genres practically announce the emotion to be evoked: romance, thriller, horror. Even literary fiction will have at its core an emotion that is being drawn out, explored.

A quick scan across my books-to-keep shelf shows:

Pride and Prejudice – love
Catch 22 – anger and humour
Code of the Woosters – humour
Sophie’s Choice – loss
Middlemarch – love, loss, thwarted hope

And it’s not just football and novels. When I learnt stand-up comedy, the teacher Jill Edwards told us we could use two techniques. The first, just thinking of set-ups and punchlines. The second, to dig deeper and deeper into a subject using a strong emotion: anger, worry, love; without ever trying to be funny. Just ranting on the same subject. Whatever you may think of him, when Michael McIntyre talks about ‘The Man Drawer’, he doesn’t just think it’s interesting – he LOVES it! Watch him build the obsession: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgUpDGAIdds
So, why is all of this bothering me? Partly because I’m writing a novel that could very easily lose touch with emotion: becoming an exercise in humour and imagination. Emotion is a lodestar that tells any creative person whether or not they are on the right track. The rote of techniques, structures, questionnaires and exercises often lose the fact that emotion is what drives the good writer and draws in the reader.

On Saturday 24 May, Atletico Madrid will attempt the double: finalists in the European Champions League. And who are they up against? Real Madrid. That other titan of Spanish football. This post is being written before the game, but posted after. I could add the result. But I won’t. Partly because if you’re interested you’ll find out. But also there is an argument to be made that the best football teams are not those who win or lose, but those who tell the best stories.

With thanks to Isabella Lawrence. Anyone interested in learning stand-up comedy from Jill Edwards, the person who taught Seann Walsh, Jimmy Carr, Francesca Martinez and others, go to http://jill-edwards.co.uk/

A Satisfying Plot 3 – Movement

At the start of a recent scene in Game of Thrones *mild spoiler* the young
Arya is riding on the same horse as her captor. She complains to him that
she wants her own one. They argue. At the end of the scene, she rides away
on her own horse. I won’t say what earned her this right. But the point is
that plot-wise, she starts in one place and finishes in another.

Movement is what gives us a sense that something has happened. It can be in
a character’s emotion, behaviour, status, physical location, attitude,
possessions, learning, etc. One of the points of the solution to the
mystery of ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane is that, for better or worse, it shows
us how far the character has moved since the start of the film.

The problem I’m facing at the moment is that I have an incomplete novel,
with sixteen characters. A lot of time is spent explaining their backstory
– because it’s fun – but they are static portraits, and it leads to an
overall lack of movement. I was trying to look for a solution to this
problem, and remembered Catch-22. The first chapter is eleven pages long,
and ten characters are mentioned. The protagonist, Yossarian, is in a
hospital bed with an unidentifiable condition and no intention of moving.
Then ‘The Texan’ is admitted to the ward who ‘turned out to be good-natured,
generous, and likable. In three days no one could stand him.’
As a result,
Yossarian discharges himself. Movement.

But movement towards or away from what? From what the character wants.
What Yossarian wants is to get out of the war (or just have an easier time
of it). But he is constantly frustrated by the illogic of the US army
system, the behaviour of his fellow soldiers (very rarely the enemy), and
war itself. The more he wants, and the more thoroughly he is frustrated,
the more engaging the plot becomes.

The minor characters also display movement. Often crossing paths and
hindering one another, as well as Yossarian.

There may well be a book in which there is no movement. But even in The
the main character moves physically and in action. He may not
change emotionally. But that very lack of change is the point.

Movement can happen anywhere. Greg Mosse points out that it even occurs in
a paragraph. This is from Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie:

There’s no swell to speak of, just the little lapping waves, so landing is
just a matter of running the Zodiacs up onto the stony beach, allowing us to
jump ashore. Not jump exactly: we swing our legs over the sides of the
inflatable, and drop down onto the land, ideally between waves. You don’t
want to get your feet wet, because they’d soon freeze.

The puzzle set up is, where are we? Also, what is this ‘Zodiac’? The
‘inflatable’ tells us, if we didn’t know. And the final line gives us even
more information. The movement is towards resolution of a mystery. It
creates modest drama and tells us more about where we are. If the final
line had been at the start, it would just have been journalism.

Chapters start in one place, finish in another; sub-plots progress in tandem
with the main one. The main movement though, is in characters and what they
want. It must be a movement engaging enough for the reader to want to find
out what happens next. The question for the writer is, does this volition
interest me, drive me, turn me on, appal me, inspire me, horrify me, attract
me, fascinate me, impress me. If not, the fight for it, frustration in
achieving and final resolution are unlikely to interest the reader.

The battle between Arya and her captor will continue until the final
resolution: moving forward, backward, forward again. But always moving.

Satisfying Plot 2: Twists and Turns

The comedian Tony Elvin (young, black) used to start his act by saying, ‘This reminds me of the last time I was in court: an all-white jury, white defence and prosecutor. And me…the Judge!’ Whenever someone tells a joke or starts a routine, a game begins in which the audience tries to guess what the punchline will be. The comedian had better beat the audience to it.

A similar game is played in drama and fiction. At the start of the first episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer *Spoiler* a fearful girl is taken into an empty school at night by an older boy. She asks him if he’s sure they are alone, and when he says yes, she suddenly turns vampire and attacks him. From then on the series will follow this line: defying your expectations; establishing women as powerful.

Creator Joss Whedon delights in second-guessing his viewers’ understanding of dramatic clichés. I’m not going to tell you how he introduces the title to the horror film in Cabin in the Woods, but it’s worth renting just to see how he does it.

But if people have become so sophisticated, how do you write a twist that both surprises and makes sense within the story you’re trying to tell?

It might be worth starting with a list of the few of the typical twists and turns. So, with a little help from Wikipedia, here we go (I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimum or at least make them the less significant ones):

Something happens you didn’t expect. Scarlett O’Hara smashes a plate against a wall. Rhett Butler pops his head up from the sofa where he’s been sleeping.

Something happens you did expect but not when you thought. Everyone knows a couple in a romantic comedy are going to get together, the skill is in delaying and then second-guessing the audience’s expectation.

What you think is going to happen, doesn’t happen – but something else does. A red herring leads investigators (and the reader) toward an incorrect solution but, by discounting it, closer to the real one.

What you think happened, wasn’t what actually happened. In retrospect, the same scene can be seen in a different light. Darcy’s snootiness at the first ball is explainable given the behaviour of Elizabeth’s family.

Someone isn’t who you thought they were. The menacing stranger turns out to be an ally; a close friend, your greatest enemy.  For the reader, the narrator themselves may be not who you thought they were: Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or Usual Suspects.

The character isn’t who they thought they were. The Greek term for this is Anagnorisis (Discover). The protagonist’s sudden recognition of their true nature. Eg Oedipus or Sixth Sense.

When you think everything is lost, it turns out it isn’t. Almost every Hollywood blockbuster.  Again, the Greek, Peripeteia: the sudden reversal of fortune which arises naturally from the character’s circumstances. Eg Match Point.

When you think everything’s won, it turns out it isn’t. Every other Hollywood blockbuster.

Help or hindrance comes from an unexpected direction. Also known as Chekhov’s gun. A character or plot element is introduced early on, but the usefulness or relevance is not revealed until later e.g. Shawshank Redemption, or all the villains in Scooby-Doo. This also covers those times when a minor character turns out to be more significant/powerful than you thought.

Events are revealed out of order. There are several versions of this:

In Media Res. ‘Into the middle of things.’ The narration starts in the middle of the events, so that characterisation, setting, and motive is revealed through flashbacks. The Prestige.

Non-Linear Narrative. Plot and character are revealed in a non-chronological order, so the reader has to piece together the timeline. Catch-22.

Reverse Chronology. Events revealed in reverse order. Time’s Arrow.

Something happens which you feel is deserved.  Poetic Justice. In which a virtue is ultimately rewarded or a vice punished in way that has a logical connection to the deed. Theatre of Blood in which the critics of a Shakespearean actor die Shakespearean deaths.

So, how do you go about writing one for yourself? Remembering that your reader is just as clued up on twists and turns as you are. My experience is that it can be done in two ways. In the first, you decide from the start what the twist is going to be. The problem with this is that if you think of it quickly, so will the reader. The Farrelly brothers used to deliberately write their heroes into such impossible situations that they, as writers, had no idea how to get them out of it. Then they’d think about it for a few months. The principle being that if it took them three months to figure it out, it was less likely the viewer would second-guess them.

In the second, a twist emerges after a few drafts of the story – connections you hadn’t seen. I’m just completing a ninth synopsis for my two-years-in-development novel, and new twists are occurring to me as I get to know the characters better.

A good test would be, does it surprise you? Are you pleased with the way it advances or concludes the story? Is it in keeping with the genre, characters, plot, theme of the novel?

A few additional thoughts occur:

You don’t have to have a twist. Typically, with romantic comedy – despite twists in the middle – by the end, you’re just relieved they’ve found each other. Give them something cute to say, and let the kissing begin. Charles Dickens said, ‘Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.’ There is something important here. Which is that a lot of good drama/comedy is less about clever twists than – ahem – delaying the climax. The reader needs to feel there has been a sufficient test to the characters’ will. Overspun and you just get bored.

You can get away with loads with a strong character. There are some television programmes where I will enjoy the first series and then stop watching. Because, I know that essentially the same story is going to be told over and over until the ratings drop. There are other series where each programme is a carbon copy of the previous one, and I will happily watch each one. The difference? Character. In House, the twists, are as follows: patient admitted for presenting problem; turns out it’s not what they thought it was; turns out it’s life threatening and they still don’t know what it is; House has breakthrough based on something said in an unconnected conversation; patient cured. But the character – misanthropic healer – is so strong that really, it doesn’t matter. I just want to see him be rude to people and cure them over and over.

The longer you signal a twist, the better it needs to be. The title Sophie’s Choice sets up an expectation. And despite the fact that it is not revealed for a fair proportion of the novel, it lives up to it.

Avoid the ‘Not Fair!’ red flag. Readers and viewers have a finely tuned sense of justice. I still remember the sense of outrage when a new series of Dallas started with Bobby in the shower and it turned out the whole of the previous series had been a fantasy he’d had. My god, the man must have been clean.  Another Greek term: Deus ex Machina, an unexpected, artificial or improbable character device or event introduced suddenly to resolve a situation.

The twist must make sense in terms of the theme, genre, characters. Even better, it should confirm the theme or advance it: consider any number of the twists in Game of Thrones which confirm the theme, ‘You win or you die.’ Romantic books have romantic twists; horror books have horror twists, etc.

In the end, if you choose to include a twist, it’s you in a tennis match with the reader. They think they know which way the ball will be returned. Your task is to surprise them, while staying within the accepted boundaries of the game.



The Wikipedia page is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plot_twist