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Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Every character must want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.”
What Vonnegut didn’t say was why we should care. If Bill or Joanie or Rachel want a glass of water, what’s it to you and me?
The answer lies in what’s keeping them. Human drama lies not in desire but in obstacle. That’s when we, the audience, become engaged.
We might, therefore, amend Vonnegut’s quote: “Every character must want something…. And something else must prevent him from getting it.”
One of the things I often hear from aspiring memoirists is that they are afraid that their stories are boring. They worry that their lives were too mundane to make stories out of them.
It’s an understandable concern. Our lives are filled with so much that feels inconsequential, it’s difficult to isolate the parts with dramatic verve to shape them into a compelling narrative. To be sure, it requires skill, and perseverance, and perhaps no small amount of talent, too. But no one goes through life without desires, and no one gets all desires fulfilled without obstacle, and that is the basis for every story. This is why all of us have stories, powerful and compelling stories, once we learn how to tell them.
I’ve been recently rewatching one of my favorite television shows of recent years, the widely acclaimed “Breaking Bad.” The show centers around Walter White, a middle-aged suburban dad and high school chemistry teacher, who turns to making the highest grade crystal meth on the narcotics market, along with his partner, one-time student and now slacker junkie Jesse Pinkman.
I’m a spotty re-watcher, and I tend to skip around to find the more memorable episodes. In this case, I came across one of the most brilliant episodes of the series, which comes in the third season and is titled simply, “Fly.”
I remember watching the episode the first time, and by the end of it, I thought it unusually riveting. If you’d have asked me to describe it, though, all I could say was this: A fly got into Walter and Jesse’s state-of-the-art meth lab, and Walter wanted to get rid of the fly. The fly, doing what flies do, kept getting away.
That’s it. For nearly 50 minutes, the drama surrounds one tiny speck of a thing: the fly.
Rewatching the episode and paying more attention to its construction, made me realize just why it worked so well.
First, a recap of its first moments (don’t worry, no spoilers):
The fly first appears less than five minutes into the episode, buzzing annoyingly around as Walter hovers over some figures with a calculator and Jesse just having left the lab for the night.
Walter, nostrils flaring like an angry beast’s, goes after the fly, trying to catch it, swat it, slap it, but each time, under the sting of his palm, he turns up his hand to find the fly gone. Nearing madness, Walter looks up, and sees the fly resting on the ceiling 20 feet above. There is no way to reach it except by tossing his shoe up at the ceiling, which he does several times and keeps missing. The fly isn’t so much as startled from its resting place. On his fifth attempt, Walter’s shoe hits a light fixture on the ceiling, which causes the bulb to rain down in a million shards of glass, while one of the shoe’s laces snags on the now-debulbed light fixture. Walter looks up at his shoe dangling far above. He’s lost the battle with the fly, and now he’s lost his shoe. With only his sock on one foot, Walter carries a broom up to the gangway, where he climbs over the railing, extending the broom out by its long handle as far as he can. If he reaches far enough, he might just about swab his shoe with the wide end of the broom, and unsnag it. With his other arm holding the railing, he leans his body precariously over the cavernous lab of gleaming stainless steel vats below, and gives his shoe several hard swats until it finally comes loose and falls. Just as the shoe tumbles, so does Walter, spinning through the air headfirst onto one of the steel vats, then bouncing off it like a rubber Spalding ball and splatting onto the floor flat on his back. We wonder how he didn’t break his neck.
In the meantime, the fly comes buzzing right back.
The episode has barely begun — all of the above takes place within the episode’s first ten minutes. Then, for its entire 50-minute length, the mad hunt for the fly continues.
Does life get more mundane than wanting a fly out of your workplace? Could there possibly be anything more pedestrian? And yet, the episode, from its opening shot to its last, is gripping.
It works, because even our most mundane desires, when faced with an obstacle, lead us to the bigger questions of life. In Walter’s case, as the episode unfolds, we learn that getting rid of the fly is more than just about the fly, but also about mortality, fate, coincidence, family, love, batty aunts with possums, and a good dose of Jesse’s sponge-like retainment of random facts. (“Ebola…. It’s a real disease on the Discovery Channel where your intestines slip out of your butt.”)
But it also demonstrates what is key to every single story effectively told: desire and obstacle.
Every character must want something…. And something else must get in its way.
This is still a principle adhered to widely in film, and even more so in television, and these forms are often judged by it — even if indirectly. I would argue that memoirists, too, have an advantage here because of this.
In literature, over the last century or so, there’s been a movement away from story. Instead, we see an over-reliance on literary tricks, streams of consciousness, linguistic pyrotechnics, wonderful and fully realized characters who simply do little and little happens to them. A mountainload of brilliance has been produced with such methods — which has given us, among others, Faulkner and Joyce and even Henry Miller and Philip Roth.
However, it take an unusual mind and unusual skill to make a story work when veering from established narrative principles, and the abandonment of proven formulas has filled landfills with literary crap.
I have never attended an MFA writing program, but I strongly suspect that literature’s place in the rubric of “fine art,” and the training of cadres of “professional writers” has produced an aversion to story — plot, to speak plainly. Many writers, it seems, fear that good old-fashioned storytelling would reduce their work to mere pulp. This is nothing less than tragic, of course — it means we no longer care for the plain reader’s enjoyment, and is there anything sadder than an art form reduced to irrelevance? (Is there anything sadder than a poetry reading attended only by poets?)
The flip side of this is that newer forms still adhere to old-fashioned rules — or at least there’s less fear in doing so. This is true for the novelistically serialized television series and it is also true for the memoir. Readers and watchers, as well as critics, still judge by more firmly established narrative principles.
This can change with time, but this means that the memoirist, like the creator of the novelistic TV show, has an advantage for the time being. These are new forms created with the widest appeal, because their narrative conventions are, ironically, the oldest ones known to humans.
This also means that where memoir is concerned, it is not about the unusual lives we live, but in the ability to begin from the most basic storytelling formula: desire and obstacle.
Memoir is said to be “having its moment,” and some theorize that its grounding in real life is its attraction. But I would argue that it’s not the “real” we hunger for, but story that sucks us in and makes us miss our train stop, story that makes us keep listening as we sit in our driveways for that last chapter on the audiobook, story that makes us watch one episode and then another, and then — damn it, it’s 2 a.m. on a worknight, but we just have to know what happens next.
Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “Drama is real life with all the boring parts cut out.” The “Fly” episode in Breaking Bad is one of the most brilliant demonstrations of this. It’s also especially instructive to the memoirist. Cut out the boring parts, and every day, every hour of your life contains compelling story.
Begin with the desire and then show us the obstacle. It’s where all good stories ever