The Fabula and Syuzhet in Stories

Fabula and syuzhet in Memento
The fabula and syuzhet in Memento
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IN TODAY’S ARTICLE, I want to talk about the fabula and syuzhet, two relatively obscure but useful terms in stories.

Unpacking the fabula and syuzhet

The syuzhet is the story we encounter on the screen or page. It is the blow-by-blow account of the narrative events that comprise our tale, in the order set out by our book or film. These events may or may not make immediate sense to the audience or readers, and therein lies the fun and intrigue.

This is very much the case in Memento, for example, where the protagonist’s retrograde amnesia is mimicked by the syuzhet’s presentation of a narrative that is given in reverse order in the black and white sequences, and in normal order in the colour sequences. The effect of this on the audience is one of confusion and obfuscation, much like the confusion and obfuscation experienced by the protagonist.

The fabula, by contrast, is the product of an ongoing process of deconstruction and reassembly of the syuzhet during the act of viewing/reading, using accepted norms of coherence and inference so that the reordered story has a clear beginning, middle, and end—in short, a story, reordered in our minds so that it makes sense.

Without this reordering, films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, Donny Darko and Jacob’s Ladder remain confusing. Indeed, many of the films we see in the art-cinema circuit, demand such an active process of fabula construction if they are to make any sense at all.

The question now arises: Why should the syuzhet differ from the fabula? The answer is simple: Presenting events in their naturally occurring order, without hiding, withholding, or misdirecting the audience, robs us of the element of surprise and may result in a predictable and boring story. 

The point, in relation to writers, however, is that we need to have a thorough grasp of a coherent fabula, in the sense of knowing its beginning, middle, and end, before we can begin thinking about styling it into an effective syuzhet that can manipulate, misdirect, and surprise its readers and audiences. It is here that thinking about our story in terms of a fabula and syuzhet proves useful.

Summary

Thinking about your stories in terms of a fabula and syuzhet is helpful in constructing complex but coherent narratives that intrigue and challenge your readers and audiences.

Every Hero Needs a Nemesis

The nemesis in Crash
Matt Dillon is a strong nemesis in Crash

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ONE of the chief functions of the nemesis in stories is to force the hero to evolve. Without the nemesis’ constant prodding, the hero’s effort to achieve the story goal is doomed to failure.

The Model Nemesis

Die Hard‘s John McClane is in a bad marriage. He is separated from his wife and is headed for divorce before Hans Gruber enters the fray, kidnaps a bunch of people, including John’s wife, and forces him to step up to the mark. By having to rescue his wife from the arch criminal’s clutches, John realises how much he truly loves her and what he has to do to save his marriage, which he does. Thank you, Hans Gruber.

In The Matrix, Neo is riddled with self-doubt. Is he indeed The One? The answer remains unclear until he faces and defeats his nemesis, agent Smith. But for Smith, Neo might still be vacillating over this world-saving question.

At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick Blaine is self-serving and unlikable, until he gives up on the woman he loves in order to contribute to the war effort. This is a huge shift for him. Were it not for Ilsa Lund, the opponent who turns his world upside down, he would not have grown through this sacrifice, remaining static and selfish — someone of no moral consequence.

In Crash, Terrance Howard has to deal with a series of problems concerning his wife, as well as with the specter of racism. But having to overcome Matt Dillon’s constant harassment, causes him to emerges a stronger and better man. Here again, no Matt Dillon, no personal growth.

Although the clash between the hero and the nemesis ostensibly occurs at the surface level, the level of actions and events, it is the effect on the hero’s inner landscape that marks its true significance.

Summary

The nemesis is the hero’s polar opposite and forces change in the hero. Ironically, and unintentionally, the nemesis teaches the hero the skills and values he needs to learn in order to achieve the story goal.

Actions in Stories

Small actions in Loves a Blonde
Small actions in Loves a Blonde

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IN HIS BOOK, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA, writes: “(1) any action is better than no action, and (2) appropriate imaginative, integrated action, action complementing a scene’s other elements and overall purpose, is best of all.”

Telling actions need not only be about Godzilla crushing cities underfoot, or King Kong swatting helicopters from the sky. They can also arise in the most seemingly mundane or non-threatening scenes.

Small actions, large impact

In the Czechoslovakian film, Loves a Blonde, two groups of labourers, one male, one female, working on a project in a remote area of the Carpathian foothills end up eating in a dining hall. Both the men and women are equally nervous about meeting each other. The scene isolates one man in particular who fidgets absentmindedly with his wedding ring.

Is the fidgeting an attempt to hide his marital status from the women? We suspect so.

Suddenly, the ring slips from his finger, clutters loudly to the floor, and begins rolling away. The man drops to his hands and knees and scrambles after the ring.

So engrossed is he in his pursuit of the tale-tale object that he fails to notice that the knees he is shuffling past are no longer those of men but of women! By the time he finally captures the elusive object and pops up from under the table, triumphantly holding the ring up in his hand, he finds himself amongst the very group of women from whom he was he was trying to hide the ring in the first place!

The action itself is small in scale, but its emotional impact is huge, making for a scene that is fresh and inventive. It satisfies Professor Walter’s second observation of integrated action and exploits that age old maxim of “show don’t tell”. This is writing at its simplest and best.

Summary

Drama is action. Static scenes make for boring stories. While there is nothing wrong with large action in stories, there should be a liberal sprinkling of smaller, well-observed action too.

How to write a great story hook

Skyfall hook
Skyfall contains an early action hook

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IN A PREVIOUS post I talked about the importance of a strong first image in a story.

In this post I want to suggest four of the most useful and popular starts employed by skilled writers to hook their audiences into their stories from the get-go.

Hook types:

Action: This type of opening immediately propels us into the hurly burly of the tale. It is devoid of static moments or a slackening in intensity or pace. Movies such as Speed and Die Hard are renowned for this kind of action early on in the first act.

A great opening will hook the audience from the get-go.

Shock: This opening typically highlights the formidable powers of the antagonist and emphasises the danger this presents to the protagonist. The explicit sex scene in Basic Instinct, for example, demonstrates the antagonist’s ability to use sex to manipulate the men around her, culminating in a shocking murder.

Contrasting Characters: These openings immediately highlight the differences and incongruities between two lead characters. This helps to sustain interest throughout the entire story. In Lethal Weapon Riggs is a suicidal special forces cop whose crazy tactics conflict with the traditional approach of aging cop, Murdoch, who just wants to retire in one piece and with the minimum of fuss. Their contrasting styles, generate endless entertaining banter between them and helps to drive the entire movie.

Twist: These openings mislead the audience into believing one thing, only to discover that quite the opposite is true. In The Matrix the lead character, Neo, is introduced as a hacker and drug merchant. We soon discover, however, that he is potentially the saviour of humanity.

Summary

Action, shock, contrasting characters, and twist openings are just four types of starts used by writers to hook audiences.