When The Window Doesn’t Open
Bear with me; I’m going to push this analogy. If stories are a window to a different world, the reader or viewer has to be allowed to open the window and step through it for a while, returning just before it closes again. This isn’t a Joseph Campbell theory, it’s common sense. Frightening stories work because you are secure knowing you can get out. Fantasies work because you’re sad knowing you have to leave.
Of course there’s always ‘Cats’, a window through which you’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming, of which more later. ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ does a very odd thing, though. Frank L Baum shows you a desirable world and allows the visitor to choose to go back. It was this paradox that made me write ‘Calabash’, a book about a boy who is seduced by a place that will harm him. I wish I could revisit that novel and expand upon it.
Some stories can’t stand the weight of the visit. In ‘Cats’, a book of nonsense rhymes because a nonsense play in which the novelty is family-friendly songs in fancy dress, which in turn becomes a hugely budgeted film* that collapses under the conceit, in the same way that you can’t make a film out of Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes – although you could probably get something out of Belloc’s ‘Cautionary Tales’ because there are genuinely interesting characters residing within them.
The Star Wars universe gets away with its dreadful cod-Shakespearian intonations because the set-up is sub-Shakespeare. Similarly, Marvel films are tonally correct because the comics had Stan Lee’s bizarre mock-grandeur in their dialogue exchanges. The DC Comics empire has struggled with this problem because it never had a Stan Lee. Its patrician, moralising stories have always been told without an internal voice.
When you write a story you have to make a lot of early decisions that don’t include plot or characters. What kind of language will you use? What do you want your reader to feel? Can the story take the weight you’re demanding of it? And later, when you’ve been doing it a while, how much can you play with the reader’s expectations?
You also have to create rules for your world. One hilarious review of ‘Cats’ complained that it did not follow its world’s internal logic. In one scene a cat unzips her fur seductively – is she skinning a cat? And Dame Judi Dench is wearing a fur coat, so has she donned a dead cat skin to go over her own fur?
If you’re writing a frippery, a gossamer-light confection, you’d better be sure your language delights enough to keep the reader on board because the plot won’t. Remember the film ‘What’s Up, Doc?’, which was loosely based on ‘Bringing Up Baby’? Its tightly wound clockwork plot was so perfect that suddenly there was room for the characters to be very funny from one moment to the next. ‘Jojo Rabbit’ appears to be as daft as ‘The Producers’ but both make the same point even though they’re 50 years apart. (Oddly, ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ also has a rabbit motif; Barbra Streisand is playing Bugs Bunny in all but name). Critics have complained that ‘Jojo Rabbit’ cannot take the weight of its subject, but in my book making mock of evil never gets old.
Sometimes the window miraculously opens – ‘The Railway Children’, ‘Winnie the Pooh’, ‘The Secret Garden’ and similar tales are the most obvious examples. In E Nesbitt’s book the window opens into the countryside. In ‘Mary Poppins’ the magical world represents childhood and comes to you before taking its leave all too soon.
What an author presents through the window must be more wonderful than life on this side of it, but it must also be believable.
*Just as Jesus died for our sins I’ve seen ‘Cats’ so that you don’t have to.