Wednesday, 10 February 2010


Their role in the making of stories

Part 2: Props propel
In theatrical terms a prop(erty) is usually an object with a practical purpose – a chair, a lamp, a tea-set. It need have no further purposes than its obvious function. On the other hand it may serve as a key player in the drama, its significance growing with the rapidity of events. In a detective drama, for example, props may be crucial evidence leading to the uncovering of the criminal and the resolution of the story.

In such circumstances props have symbolic value for one or more characters – like Cinderella’s glass slipper; or they suggest threat or danger, like the poisoned apple in Snow White.

Many stories take the form of quests – for the prop (treasure, the Holy Grail) which proves the source of striving, hardship, conflict. In the case of the Holy Grail as competed for in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail what drives characters in its pursuit is more than a cup of gold, silver or clay; it is the prize of eternal life. The message is as clear as it is in the story of Icarus.

Vertigo: a single fateful decision
Those familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo will know that the whole plot rests on the axis of a single prop, a jewelled pendant which we see in the portrait of the mysterious Carlotta and which is worn by Madeleine (Kim Novak), the enticer of Scottie (James Stewart) and later in her true persona as Judy.
Her decision – Judy-playing-at-being-Madeleine – to wear the pendant on a date with Scottie, gives the game away, leading to the film’s denouement.
It is left to the audience to resolve in their own minds whether a woman of such remarkable adroitness would have committed this spectacular error, unless (probably Hitch’s intention and the most likely explanation) she was blinded by love.

The ‘McGuffin’
The term ‘mcGuffin’ was invented by Hitchcock. He defined it as that which the characters in a story are in pursuit of, but the audience/readership know – as far as the overall narrative is concerned – is merely a trigger for action; a device for playing the story along.

What matters is how we see the characters react to the mcGuffin and its pursuit and how they react to each other and the circumstances of the story. Nevertheless, without the mcGuffin one could argue there would be no story. If the characters in Waiting for Godot were not waiting and waiting for him, what opportunity would there be for the interaction that makes the play?

Rings and things
Writers are squirrels or jackdaws: they bury a nut for a winter’s day; they horde something that gleams in the hope that one day it will fit as significantly into a narrative as Carlotta’s pendant. In piecing together and constructing the story of my novel Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa, research brought me to a prop that was both real and illusory and which was to usefully to add intrigue and mystery to the sub-plot of the narrative.

This was the Pushkin Ring. It existed. It was bestowed on the poet by his lover, the wife of the governor of Odessa. Pushkin wore it for the rest of his life, until he was shot in a dual. The ring eventually came into the keeping of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. During the Revolution it disappeared and has not been seen since.

I asked myself, what if the Pushkin Ring had come into the possession of one of my characters, or the character’s family; and what might possession of this lost national heirloom impact on the drama of the story? In addition, what if this priceless token of Russian heritage has fallen into Ukrainian hands, in turn those of a family as rent by division as Russia and Ukraine?

Prop power
The danger in introducing props is their power to dominate. A precious ring is one thing; that it belonged to a great poet and dramatist is another, raising the decibel count to a higher level; perhaps threatening to subvert the main plot. Monika’s story in Fair Game could very easily have sprung to the fore as the fate of the Pushkin Ring was followed through. If that had happened the scrutiny of relationships would have shifted to her warring family and away from her (more meaningful) relationship with the story’s heroine, Natasha.

Props as evidence
Illustrated at the beginning of this blog is the cover of The Ghosts of Izieu, a Penguin Reader aimed at the Pre-intermediate level of readership. It had a good run, but now that it is out of print I’ve gone back to the original and completely re-written it, and expanded it.

Elise is holidaying in France with her father and his new wife. Again, real life is imported in to fiction, the story of Jewish children in hiding during the 2nd World War and threatened, if caught, with deportation. By dint of a number of circumstances Elise steps into the past, becomes one of the children in hiding.

She is not perceived as a visitor from the future, but definitely one of them. No one will believe her claims that she is ‘other’, that she is from another existence. In this case it is props alone that seem likely to rescue her: the trainers she is wearing, and, on her T-shirt, a picture of Michael Jackson (1958-2009).

Structuring around props
Often if not invariably a ‘trigger’ (See Blog 7) is incorporated into the action and becomes a prop-player in the narrative, sometimes peripherally, sometimes centrally. Sign of the Swallow, my first novel for teen readers, is about three silver medallions forming a set, each bearing the sign of the swallow and part of an inscription, the meaning of which can only be deciphered once the medallions are brought together.

Young Tom is involved in numerous adventures, in Bruges (where he meets William Caxton) and Florence (where he meets the young Leonardo da Vinci) before the mystery of the medallions is solved.

On the penultimate page of Sign of the Swallow, the question is asked, ‘And the medallions, around which so much evil had gathered, what of them?’ The reader must find out how they came to ‘lie at the bottom of the Mediterranean’.

Back on the shelf
Unlike the Pushkin Ring, the medallions were an invention. Sometimes, however, what might be considered props integral to a story might eventually be discarded. My second novel, The Bull Leapers, was set in Minoan Crete, among its leading characters, Theseus.
So what about the labyrinth, the minotaur and the ball of string? Excised every one!

My aim in The Bull Leapers was an attempt at a historical reconstruction, to tell a story of the possible, to bring the myth into a credible historical context. Thus the labyrinth is not the complexity of the palace of Knossos, but a dance, executed in a courtyard of labyrinthine design. The minotaur is two things – the real bulls in the stadium, and Tauros, the evil son of Queen Pasiphae.

True, Ariadne appears and she and Theseus fall in love – history is not about making things dry and dull; but escape from the labyrinth is surviving the sport of the bulls.

Personal properties
Props serve as adjuncts or accoutrements of character. In Where Nobody Sees the feisty character of Petra, member of a group of travelling players, has her character affirmed by the powerful motorcycle she inherited from her Dad, while Luke, the boy she meets, has the character accoutrement (among others, of course) of the Japanese garden he has created.

These props come as the choices of the characters. They can also spring surprises and, fulfilling dramatic requirements, challenges to character. Talking in Whispers is set in Chile at the time of the seizure of power by the military. Andres’ father, a famous folk singer, has been snatched by Security. At the Santiago Stadium where prisoners are being dumped by the hundred, Andres has a camera thrust in to his hands as an American press photographer is seized and dragged away.

The film in that camera is a prop critical to the direction of the story and the life of Andres. It pitches him into profound danger, but it also gives him a purpose at a moment in the story of despair and confusion.

Waiting in the wings
Props are harvested and put to use according to need. They crop up, they pop up, you dig them up. Sometimes
they have lain in personal earth for many a year. In Talking in Whispers, the most important prop I yanked out of my childhood. Hand and string puppets were my hobby; and for a while I was a one-lad touring puppet theatre.

In Whispers, the twins Isa and Beto are on the road with their puppet theatre. They rescue and befriend Andres. Their puppets become the means of protest and resistance to the Junta, and the ‘star’ of their show, General Zuchero, in every detail a facsimile of the
leader of the military government, General Zuckerman (naturally not to be mistaken for the real life friend of Maggy Thatcher, General Pinochet):

Proud as a peacock, the General strutted into the sunlight, medals gleaming, moustache fluffed and groomed, helmet polished and plumed. In his right hand Zuckero wielded a toy sabre with a flag of Chile attached to the point.

The crowd responded to the appearance of Zuchereo with gasps of delight, and with laughter when he raised a hand to salute and knocked off his helmet flowing with llama wool dyed purple.
‘Shame on you, General.’ Immediately Isa replaced the helmet with a military peaked cap which fell straight over Zuckero’s eyes.
‘Arrest that cap at once,’ screeched the General in a nerve-jangling voice, while Isa’s lips hardly moved a fraction. ‘Put it in irons. It is a traitor to the Republic.’

Not only do the puppets speak from the heart of Isa and her brother, they begin to give courage and hope to the crowd; to see the possibility of not talking in whispers.

Gearing up the imagination
Props largely start out as clues, half-baked items that require working at – dusting down, polishing, rejigging, adapting, connecting with other props; and the exercise is driven by imagination. Lots of writers will have found in managing workshops that a useful opener is to get fellow scribblers to make something of a random selection of props: given a banana, a compass, a caged canary and a bottle of ketchup, no two people would write the same story.

One could at least predict that all or most of the stories produced would confirm, at least in part, the theory that all the world’s tales, whatever their source, revolve around a limited number of narratives: the props might differ, but certain key features can be relied on to recur; something to look at in Blog 9.

About half-way through Avatar’s two hour and 40 minutes duration, a few questions formed in my head: first, ‘Is this a load of bollocks?’ Is it just well-made, horrendously expensive, overhyped 3-D tosh? Was Andrew Pulner in his Guardian review fair to talk of ‘vacuous ecco-waffle’ and could Andrew Brown in his blog be excused for calling the film ‘a shameful travesty’, describing the storyline as ‘just gruyere, made up of nothing but cheese and holes’?

I mean, Brown is even disappointed at those aspects of the film which have won most accolades. He’s of the view that the 3-D effect is in some ways ‘even more two dimensional than normal films, since there is only one plane where anything is in focus’.

What interests me is why Pulner and Brown are in such a minority. True, most people who admire and are moved by Avatar are unlikely to join the growing legions of Avatards. Whatever the answer to my questions about bollocks and tosh, there has to be an explanation of the film’s amazing success.

For all Digital Domain’s technological virtuosity, the fact that some 60% of the movie is computer-generated, what is most striking is familiarity of content. In so many instances the film is a replay of what has gone before, on screen and in the real world, personal and public.

During the second half of Avatar I couldn’t get Peter Pan out of my head – all that fluff, all those flying lizards, but at the same time I was conscious of rather nastier experiences, in real life, the My Lai massacre of innocents in Vietnam, on screen, Apocalypse Now, Dances with Wolves; in literature, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, about the destruction by the white settlers of the Native Indian tribes.

I was even reminded, as the Na’vi warriors went for the gunships and the robot war machines with their bows and arrows, of the Polish cavalry charging the advancing German armoured divisions at the beginning of the 2nd World War.

Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking that director James Cameron might have found a copy of my teen novel, Justice of the Dagger, hanging on a string in the studio toilets: here, rain forest people are under attack from the Yellow Giants, the earthmovers sent in to harvest the timber and trash the tribes.

The familiarity aspect has also much to do with the personal. These Na’vi may be ten feet tall, blue-skinned with silver freckles, but they are humanoid in every way. They feel the same, sigh the same, kiss the same and they fight the same. In Andrew Pulner’s words, they have a similar weakness for ‘mystical rabbitings’.

Take your pick of all the resonances. There are so many, mingled and easily evoked and grasped, that no spectator, young or old, should feel excluded. The message, if it can be called that rather than a scribbling on a wall in single syllables, is of course salutary and in tune with environmental rectitude and the need for us to all hang together.

Maybe it shouldn’t ask any difficult questions (and Avatar certainly doesn’t), such as How would the Na’vi of Pandora survive the incursion of hard currency; at what point as barter became business, would the profit motive raise its ugly head; how would conflict be resolved, equality preserved?

Talking of equality, the film does not explain how this works in a society which has kings, princes and princesses as in every good fairy tale. When they are not flying their winged lizards, how are the Na’vi organising themselves on the ground?

The comparison with a rival sci-fi movie, also issued in 2009, is dramatic. The aliens in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (produced by Peter Jackson), are anything but amiable, and they are certainly not fancyable; in fact in close-up they make you want to run a mile. They suffer similar white-man treatment as in Avatar (the robots seem to have been constructed in the same workshop). One system of apartheid is laid uncomfortably on an older one. There is no epiphany, no easy resolution and no comforting closure.

Avatar offers, simplistically, all three. That may answer the question, Why so popular? And explain the movie’s Golden Globe awards and the reports that the Chinese have renamed a mountain in honour of what Tom Huddlestone in Time Out considers might signal a ‘new dawn of politically engaged sci-fi and horror’. So why do I keep thinking of Fairy Gossamer?


Piero della Francesca: A Journey Through His Art. Article originally published in The Times expressing the pleasure at seeing the artist’s work in Tuscan and Umbrian contexts.
The Writing on the Wall. Short story set at the time of the Palestinian Intifada.
Last Flight of the Heyford K6875. Update of an article published in Derbyshire Life, describing the last moments of an RAF Heyford caught in a blinding storm in the Dark Peak, Derbyshire; among the crew, my Uncle Jim Barker, recently married. There is as yet no memorial to the many aircraftmen killed in the Peak District before, during and after the 2nd World War.
History’s Neglected Women. Among the 19th century radicals who fought for the liberty of the press were several women of outstanding ability and courage; among them, Eliza Sharples, nicknamed Isis and The Lady of the Rotunda.
In Praise of Women’s Soccer. It is a little-known fact that once women’s soccer was immensely popular, matches drawing big crowds – until, on 5 December 1921, the Football Association banned women from playing on FA-affiliated grounds. It took decades for women’s soccer to recover from this cataclysmic decision.
Representing Realities: An Overview of News Framing. The text of a lecture delivered at the University of Keio, Tokyo, and published in the Keio Communications Review (No.29, 2007); this posting dedicated to the author’s media studies students over the years.

My thanks for reading this; a punt if not a coracle, so the next river jaunt will be March. Barring an election, a writerly topic will be Codes of Narrative.