Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Identity of Story

How much can you change a story and have it be its genuine self? Classics like “The Great Gatsby” endure numerous iterations, emphasizing certain variables and eliminating or altering others. This latest Leonardo DiCaprio version preserves many of the most famous lines and states the original themes so blatantly that F. Scott would drink himself to death even faster if he had to hear these lines.

But, aside from the disparities between film and fiction, is this still Fitzgerald’s story? Nick Carraway has become someone else—a fiction of screenwriter imagination. And because every narrator impacts story so powerfully, the transformation of Nick changes everything.

His most famous lines come near the novel’s opening: “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” Fitzgerald assures us that this is a reliable narrator, an antidote to “careless” Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and even Gatsby. Nick’s the human embodiment of the eyes that oversee a landscape of shame. In the film, though, Nick becomes voyeur rather than conscience, less an outsider than someone intent on sampling insider privileges.

The end of the film resurrects Fitzgerald’s vision, as a morose Nick muses that no matter how much we hurl ourselves forward, we remain doomed to endless retreat. This ending resurrects the original, suggesting what gives story identity.

It’s not character names. It’s not quite plot. No. Readers sense story identity through three avenues:

Point of view.
~ Your narrator is your reader’s window into your story. This controls what readers see, how remote that feels, and whether the view is pristine or occluded. Nick Carraway is a very particular window into the worlds of Gatsby and the Buchanans. Does your narrator succeed in emphasizing or concealing what you intend?

~ Voice.
Storytellers bewitch via authenticity combined with charm, humor, or majesty. But a genuine personality that’s long-winded, passive, and effete bewitches no one. Is your voice not just unique but one that readers want to hear long after the story ends?

~ Theme.
Plot is only a vehicle for delivering vision, and you can’t reduce any theme worth its weight in plot to a platitude. Do your themes embody a vision that’s yours alone?

Tip: Love and respect your story enough to protect its inherent integrity.

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