Plots Are Excuses for Hanging Out in the Writer’s Reality

Anton ChekhovRight now I am listing Aimee Mann’s song “Frankenstein.” It’s kind of strange because I watched Frankenstein and then Bride of Frankenstein just last night. Well, it isn’t that strange. I watch those films a lot. If I like a film, I’ll watch it over and over again. But I don’t bring the song up because of Frankenstein. There is a line in the song, “I won’t find it fantastic or think it absurd; when the gun in the first act goes off in the third.” It is a reference to Anton Chekhov who noted, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” This is a problem.

Why have centuries of audiences loved tragedies and comedies? We all know how they’re going to turn out. Imagine the first four acts of Othello exactly the same: Othello has his little jealousy problem and Iago jabbing at it. Then, at the beginning of the fifth act, Iago has an epiphany, “Why am I doing this?” He runs to Othello and says, “Hey buddy! I am so sorry. I was pissed off at you about passing me up for promotion. Desdemona is pure as the driven snow.” And they both burst out laughing. “I’m really glad you told me that,” Othello says. “Because I was just about the strangle her!” Iago replies, “Well, that would have been a tragedy!” Wiping his brow, Othello exhales profoundly, “I’ll bet after I found out the truth I would have killed myself!” Then they walk out into the fog and Iago says, “Othello, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Other than those few people like me who would think that would be funny as hell, everyone would hate that ending. I mean, what was the point of those first acts anyway? The same goes for the comedies. Imagine if at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio lifts the veil and finds that it is Hero who he thought dead. But instead of rejoicing, Hero pulls out a knife and slits his throat. Actually, that’s a much better ending. But again, the audience wants what it expects. And Claudio is not the villain of the play (even though he is) and so he gets his happy ending.

Of course, I can see the two plays coming together. Because really: Claudio rejects and embarrasses Hero based upon almost nothing. And then, instead of confronting her in private, he does it in the most public way imaginable. Even if she were guilty, his behavior is abhorrent. So in the “Ballad of Claudio and Hero Part II” all it would take is a fifth rate Iago to move Claudio to strangle Hero. I think people would accept that even though the “Ballad of Claudio and Hero Part I” was a comedy.

The point is that when writing fiction, you have to walk this line where you give the reader what he expects but not so much that it is boring. The worst form of this is the Agatha Christie school of, “Oh, let’s just throw in red herrings.” Her best work is probably Murder on the Orient Express where the red herring is that there are no red herrings. But this is why I think postmodern fiction is a distinct improvement, because it isn’t about anything. It’s like the different between going to a regular party and going to a wedding. The essence of postmodern literature is that you are just going to hang out in a reality for a while and if someone gets married great, but it is hardly the point.

I think that this was always the case. Othello and Richard III are fun because of their smart villains. The overall plot of Much Ado About Nothing is stupid. The story of Benedick and Beatrice is concluded at the beginning of the fourth act. For all I care, Hero could have really died and the play end with Benedick killing Claudio. Although admit it: the play would be better without Claudio and Hero in it at all. The whole thing could be about tricking Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love. Much the same could be said about most of the other comedies.

So I don’t want random guns thrown into stories for no reason. But just the same, I don’t want everything to be important and everything to lead to something else. I just want to go to the party and I don’t want to feel like there has to be a wedding to justify it. Because I know how weddings end.


For some reason, this song comes to mind:

4 thoughts on “Plots Are Excuses for Hanging Out in the Writer’s Reality

  1. Interestingly that Chekhov, who wrote both plays and prose stories, would bring this up. Because for me it’s definitely a bigger problem in plays/film than in literature. You can use extraneous, non-plotty detail/action/dialogue to create mood and character in both mediums. But plays/films do so much more rarely. I suppose that’s a function of their limited running time. You have to keep audiences engaged and I imagine it’s natural for writers to worry if a wonderful little detail which they love, but which doesn’t directly affect the plot, might be self-indulgent.

    There’s a fine line between foreshadowing in tragedy, which emphasizes the theme that all human lives are failures in the end (we all die, as does everyone we love), and cheesy obvious stacking of plot mechanisms. I have a hard time with so many well-reviewed dramatic films these days because it seems to me plots have really become robotic; insert hint A of device B to be used in moment C. Thank God for Tom McCarthy, who uses our expectation of how many screenplays work to surprise us when his don’t work that way; Alexander Payne does this a little, too.

    I’m almost afraid to ask, but do you enjoy Aimee Mann? Because I think she’s pretty much a minor deity. Like any artist, she has hot and cold streaks, and like many artists, she got what attention came her way for stuff that isn’t her best (the "Magnolia" songs, which are terrific, but she has written better.) I’m amazed that people don’t consider "Bachelor No. 2" to be one of the best albums ever made. Not that everyone has to like what I like! But, geez, a few people should . . .

  2. @JMF – I think Chekhov was really talking about the short story, which is what he is generally considered the master of anyway. (Regardless of the "chapters" part.) But the Mann misquote is far more common because, frankly, we don’t expect as much art in the theater.

    I don’t think that McCarthy sets out to abuse our expectations. He’s just interested in characters more than plot.

    Aimee Mann? I do like her, but mostly just because I like women who abuse me. I think she is a sloppy songwriter. The first Til Tuesday album is unlistenable. The second album has a brilliant side. "David Denies" is a great song. And there are some lines in "Coming Up Close" that I really like, "’Don’t you know that I could make a dream that’s barely half awake come true?’ I wanted to say. But anything I could have said I felt somehow that you already knew." I think that better sums up the end of a relationship (or the non-start of one) than just about anything. It can go on for years. What is the point of talking? [i]Everything’s Different Now[/i] is the most fulfilling of their albums.

    Songs like "Superball" are just an embarrassment. "Frankenstein" is a clever metaphor. The music is more interesting than her usual stuff, I assume because it was co-written with Jon Brion. I’m very fond of "Ray," probably because of the line, "I think I know another lonely exile when I see one."

    I like her philosophy of love, which is not very rosy. Michael Penn is a far better songwriter, but I usually don’t want to listen to him. Jules Shear is sort of the sweet spot in terms of brilliance and craft. Aimee Mann gets more play than she should because she’s at the top of the list on my phone. But I still listen to Bob Dylan more. I don’t think I’ve heard much since [i]I’m With Stupid[/i]. I still search out Shear, though.

  3. Well, yeah, "Superball" is album filler.

    That’s a fair take on the rest of her stuff. What she’s best at is the throwaway line that rings true. You might check out "Bachelor," which was her last album with Brion. I don’t know why they split up; maybe it was personal. Seems like a waste, but then again there are people I can’t work with anymore, despite the good work we did together once upon a time.

    I’ll check out Shear, thanks!

  4. @JMF – You shock me. Really!

    This was my first introduction to him over 30 years ago:


    Here he is later all by himself off one of my favorite of his albums, [i]Allow Me[/i]:


    Plus he wrote those hits for Cyndi Lauper and The Bangles. And then all that work with Pal Shazar, who I guess he finally married. (Better choice than Aimee Mann!) You should check out their very funny but correct version of [url=]It’s My Party[/url]. But here’s a Shazar song that sounds like one they wrote together, but I don’t know for sure:


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