This week, Kim looks at Brooklyn in order to study how to craft great beginnings. This 2009 novel by Colm Tóibín was adapted to the 2015 film of the same name, directed by Jim Crowley from the screenplay by Nick Hornby.
- Beginning Hook – Eilis Lacey struggles to find proper work in Ireland, so her sister arranges for her to immigrate to America—Brooklyn, New York. But when Eilis struggles to adjust and homesickness becomes too much to bear, she must decide if she will stick it out or not. She enrolls in night classes and volunteers to serve the poor at an Irish parish dinner on Christmas, connecting her both to her future and her past which eases the burden.
- Middle Build – As Eilis begins to embrace her life in America, she meets Tony Fiorello, an Italian, at a parish dance and the two begin a sweet courtship, one that begins to grow more serious before Eilis is ready. But when Eilis’s sister Rose dies suddenly back in Ireland and she makes plans to travel home to visit her mother, Tony asks Eilis to marry him before she leaves. Eilis must decide whether to commit to this future now or keep her options open. She agrees. They consummate their relationship and marry at the courthouse without telling either of their families.
- Ending Payoff – Back in Ireland, Eilis is more popular than ever, gaining all kinds of attention and opportunities that she never had before going to America. She takes over her late sister’s bookkeeping job and garners the affection of a local bachelor Jim Farrell. She extends her stay to attend a friend’s wedding, and the longer she’s there the more she becomes ensconced in Irish life. But when her spiteful ex-employer, Miss Kelly, corners her with gossips she’s learned through the Irish grapevine–that Eilis is married to Italian–Eilis must decide whether to own her choices or not. She tells her mother the truth that she’s married and books a trip back to Brooklyn, and Tony and the life she committed to, the next day.
I’m classifying Brooklyn as a global Status-Sentimental genre with Love-Courtship as the companion genre.
The Principle – Kim – Establishing Life Values through Setting
I feel like I’ve been struggling a bit this season, floundering around, trying to make meaningful contributions that others will find helpful while I try to get to the bottom of what makes great beginnings … but I worry the value is more real in my head than it has been for y’all. Two things are colliding for me in this scenario: 1) I am obsessed with completeness and understanding/communicating things from top to bottom … I want to know and share EVERYTHING, and 2) What makes great beginnings is not a single moment or even a single principle, it’s a sequence of rich layers. So it’s not been easy to wrap my head around all the things that are contributing to a great beginning, let alone coherently pass along those insights. So today I am going to narrow my focus to one specific aspect of beginnings that I feel Brooklyn does exceptionally well.
Let’s begin with the four dimensions of setting that Shawn has mentioned previously: period, duration, location, levels of conflict …
In Brooklyn, these dimensions are introduced in a variety of ways.
Based on clothing, hairstyles, customs, and technology, the period appears to be mid-20th century. The unique stone streets, Catholic mass, shops, and most notably the accents tell us we are in a small town in Ireland. We can’t discern duration just from the opening, but based on character action and dialogue we learn the level of conflict is interpersonal and intrapersonal. As the BH continues to develop, we see larger conflict in the state of affairs for Irish people both in Ireland and in America, most notably the lack of opportunities for Eilis which prompts her move to America, and the hundreds of Irish men who built the tunnels and the bridges and now live on next to nothing–but after fifty years in America, they have no more connections to anyone back in Ireland.
Now any story would need to introduce these elements in its opening scenes and sequences, but Brooklyn makes distinct use of it because of the type of story it is: a milieu story. This word is often referred to in storytelling from Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, which stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. While every story is going to contain all four elements, Card posits that one will be the primary driver.
According to Wikipedia, milieu is the social environment, social context, sociocultural context or milieu refers to the immediate physical and social setting in which people live or in which something happens or develops. It includes the culture that the individual was educated or lives in, and the people and institutions with whom they interact.
A milieu story is a story of place. A character leaves one milieu and enters another where they struggle to fit in and often want to leave.
The clash of culture and social norms is a strong aspect of a milieu story. In something like Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, or the Chronicles of Narnia, this is fairly obvious and exaggerated. But it is still highly relevant in quieter and/or less fantastical stories. In Brooklyn, we see this in the stark contrast between Irish culture and American culture, and even Irish American and Italian American culture. I have been receiving an education about Irish culture from a client of mine, who is from Ireland originally and writing a novel that takes place in Ireland. She and I are studying the novel and screenplay of Brooklyn as a masterwork. I had seen the film before but it was fun to read the novel and watch the film anew with my newfound inklings of understanding.
Elements of Irish life and culture that have come up in our conversations are that everyone knows everyone and talks about everyone–watching people, checking up on people, reporting on the goings on, are all par for the course. A common phrase is the whole island is one big village.
- Example: Miss Kelly’s favoritism of some customers, scolding of others … the hierarchy of a small town.
- Example: Miss Kelly’s comment on Rose, “Mother’s are always being left behind in this country. But Rose, that’s it for her.”
- Example: on the boat, Georgina tells Eilis that sometimes it’s nice to talk to someone who doesn’t know your auntie. This is a set up for the ending when news of Eilis’s marriage travels back to Miss Kelly. This plays out a little different in the film than the book, but is still very similar and the spirit of it is the same. I personally like the film version better of that particular bit.
And yet people don’t “talk” about their feelings–not the way American’s do. And families in this time period (my client’s novel takes place in the mid 1960s) were not often openly affectionate.
- Example: when Rose is helping Eilis pack …
Rose: Is this really all that you own? Oh Eilis. I should have looked after you better.
Eilis: You bought most of the clothes in this case. That’s one of the reasons I’m going, ‘cause I can’t buy my own.
Rose: If it was just that, I’d spend every penny I had on you. Gladly. But I can’t buy you a future. I can’t buy you the kind of life you need.
Eilis: I know. But you’ll come see me there one day?
Eilis: And you’ll look after yourself?
Rose: You don’t have to worry about me.
Eilis: And I’ll come home to visit, won’t I? ‘Cause I couldn’t bear it if–
Rose: You haven’t packed your shoes yet. They take up a bit of room.
[Eilis nods and gets them. Puts them into the suitcase]
This is immediately followed by Eilis on the boat, with her mother and Rose standing with the crowd to see them off. Eilis’s mother can’t stand to watch her go and has to leave. Rose and Eilis blow each other a kiss before Rose turns to go after their mother. Not a dry eye in the house, I’m telling ya.
Once Eilis in America, we experience the new world through her eyes. Everything is so different and even though people are everywhere, she feels very much alone. But luckily for Eilis, she has present and adequate mentors in Father Flood, Mrs Kehoe, and her supervisor at work. This helps her to fight through her homesickness and settle in a bit more in her new life in America, which brings us the middle build where she’ll meet Tony.
Everything in this Beginning Hook contributes to establishing the life values at stake–Eilis cannot get what she needs in Ireland and therefore going to America is her best chance at securing a bright future. We are in a Status story.
Because we are story nerds, we know that a Status story is about seeking to rise in social standing and gain success, but that the means will challenge the protagonist and force them to look inward at their moral code. What are they willing to do to obtain their original definition of success? Will they cross their moral lines? Will they change their definitions?
What I love about thinking through this, is that whichever way you come to know your genre–where the story begins or where it ends–you can find your way to the other side. When you know what your story is about, you can find the core event, and when you know that, you can suss out what the beginning of a Status story needs to do to pave the way for a satisfying ending.
The only other thing I want to mention today, is that while the film opens the morning that Eilis tells Miss Kelly that she’s “away to America”, the novel opens a bit further back, with the day that she gets her job with Miss Kelly … which hilariously enough, Eilis doesn’t even ask for, Miss Kelly just calls for her one day and decides that she will begin working on Sundays. Eilis decides it’s not worth arguing and could use the work anyway, so she goes along with it. This is another great set up for the final confrontation with Miss Kelly at the end, and another reason I love that moment in the film version so very much–where Eilis basically tells Miss Kelly where to shove it.
Valerie – Forces of Antagonism
There are so many things to love about this story. Yes, the acting is wonderful, but the storytelling—which is what we’re concerned with—is rock solid. Even if this isn’t your kind of story, I strongly recommend you take the time to study it because there are even more lessons to be learned here than we can cover in one episode.
I was talking to a writer the other day about crisis questions, and I explained that the choice the protagonist is faced with must constitute a dilemma. That is, it’s a choice between two things of equal value, it can’t be an easy choice, and there must be consequences to the decision (this is what helps escalate the stakes of the story). Since these questions happen at every unit of story, they’re going to vary in degree of intensity; a beat-level crisis isn’t going to be as big, or have as much impact on the story, as an act-level crisis. Brooklyn offers up an excellent example of an act-level crisis question. Eilis must choose between returning to her husband and new life in Brooklyn, or staying in Ireland and marrying Jim. Both are good men. Both clearly love her. All indications are that she’ll have a good life no matter which option she chooses. Because the choices are so equally balanced, it’s hard to know which decision she’ll make. That means, the narrative drive is really strong here. Nearly half the film is fueled by this one question, and it’s brilliant.
Ultimately, she chooses to return to America because she has a degree of autonomy there. If she were to stay in Ireland, she’d be at the mercy of societal expectations for the rest of her life.
This brings me to the topic of Forces of Antagonism, which is what I’m studying this season. If you recall, antagonists can be external, internal or societal. I’d been hunting for an example of a societal villain and I think I found one, which we’ll study next week, but Brooklyn is also a fantastic example, as is Brokeback Mountain.
My hypothesis, when it comes to society as a Force of Antagonism, is that various characters in a story represent different societal beliefs. Therefore, the societal antagonist is expressing itself through certain characters. Let me give some examples.
In the beginning hook, we see Eilis in her hometown in County Wexford. Irish society dictates certain things and has a certain perspective about who she is and what she’s worth. It’s conspiring to keep her in that position. She’s not able to secure full time work, even though she’s intelligent and hard-working. In the part time job she does have, her boss, Miss Kelly, is domineering and downright mean. At the dance, where young people go to find future spouses (because getting married is an expectation society has), Eilis is ignored. So, Nettles Kelly, the boys at the dance and the (offstage) employers of County Wexford, are the channels through which the societal antagonist operates.
Eilis’s sister, Rose, wants a better life for her and so arranges for her to go to America. Eilis hasn’t escaped the Irish antagonist however, because for the remainder of the beginning hook, she’s painfully homesick.
American society is also an antagonist because it’s a foreign world to her. She doesn’t know how to behave or what to do. Through characters like her colleague and the waiter, her department-store job, and the general lifestyle of New York, America is (for lack of a better word) attacking Eilis. Obviously, this isn’t a full-on assault or anything like that, but it is a Force of Antagonism that is pushing against the protagonist. Even Tony represents an aspect of the societal antagonist. When he offhandedly mentions that he doesn’t want their children to be Yankees fans, he’s giving voice to society’s expectations of young women like Eilis. That is, that they all want to, and must, get married and have children.
Tony remarks that Eilis is amenable and that is absolutely true. It’s her primary characteristic. As a protagonist, she’s an underdog. She has little to no power in Ireland or when she first arrives in America. She goes along with everything everyone wants for her until the midpoint when she tells Tony not to talk about their children. It’s a small victory and short-lived, but it’s a start. A few minutes later, he convinces her to marry him and her hesitation suggests that she’s not quite ready for it, but she does it anyway.
When Eilis returns to Ireland after her sister’s death, the societal antagonist goes into overdrive. It wants her to stay and do what’s expected of her. It expresses itself through her mother Mary (who tells her to delay her return to America and encourages the other antagonists), her best friend Nancy (who sets her up on a blind date), Jim (who falls in love with her and offers her a viable option for staying), the boss at Davis’s mill (who offers her Rose’s old job), and even the old woman at the church (who congratulates her on the happy union with Jim). Then, there’s Nettles Kelly. She’s one of the few overt external antagonists in the film and of course, she does what villains do; she attacks on the external plane through blackmail.
This is the all is lost moment which is naturally followed by the epiphany. If Nettles Kelly tells the town that Eilis is married, it’s game over. The epiphany is when Eilis realizes that she needs to be less amenable. She needs to speak up and confront the antagonist. The most interesting part of the scene is when Eilis asks what Miss Kelly plans to do with the information. The truth is, she doesn’t know. The others in town don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing either because they are mouthpieces for a bigger, more powerful, antagonist. It’s at this point when Eilis makes her ending payoff climactic decision. She is no longer amenable. She books passage back to America for the following day. She comes clean with her mother (which pretty much puts an end to that relationship) and with Jim (which breaks his heart).
So, by the end of the story Eilis has claimed victory over the antagonist by choosing the adventure of a new life in America.There’s a whole character study to be done with Eilis and the rest of the cast, but if I did that here, the podcast would be two hours long. So, Leslie and I have decided to add it to our episode list for UP, the un-podcast we’re starting up and if you’re interested in hearing that you can sign up through my inner circle or Leslie’s Captain’s Blog.
Anne – Scene Types
There are so many good things to say about this film that I struggled a bit with where to start, but I finally decided that I’d return to a story principle I haven’t touched on in a while: scene types.
Scene type operates at a level below principles like genre and the other Editor’s Six Core Questions. Most of the scene types I’ve discovered so far are transferable to almost any genre.
That’s because scene type is choice the writer makes based on how many characters are present, in what kind of surroundings, doing what. When you strip a scene down with those questions, you find that there is a finite number of combinations available. For instance, you can have solo, two-character, small group, large group, or crowd. You can place the action indoors or outdoors. The characters might be moving or static. They might be talking, working, playing, interacting in various ways with strangers, friends, lovers, family, enemies, or the environment.
So it’s not surprising that when you start watching for scene types, the book or movie you’re analyzing can begin to seem unoriginal or bare. You’ve seen them all before.
There are a few tricks for innovating:
- Bring in unexpected elements.
- Only reuse a scene types in a way that escalates tension and drives the character to choice points.
- Don’t repeat the same scene type too many times in a row.
- Reuse a scene type to subtly mirror or echo a theme or idea at key points like the in and the out of your story.
Brooklyn does all of these things well.
I was especially struck by the film’s use of the meal scene, and I’ll come to that in a moment, but as I went through it a second time I noticed a wonderful and clearly intentional mirroring of scene types that served the story really well.
I’m going to highlight a handful of really notable repeated scene types and talk a little about how this film uses them consciously to build Eilis’s clear Status Sentimental arc.
- Religious service. This scene type can be used to show a lot about the relationship between characters and their everyday culture as well as at key life moments.
- Opening scene: Eilis, her mean boss Mrs Kelly, and her coworker attend Latin Mass on a dark and cold morning. Eilis is bored and sleepy. Mrs Kelly gives her the side-eye.
- Midpoint: Rose’s funeral. Mary, the mother, sits in church alone on another dark day.
- Just before the global crisis: The wedding of Eilis’s friend Nancy. The church is bright and full of light on a beautiful summer day. This scene also takes the standard love story trope where the courting couple witnesses the wedding of two friends and thinks about wanting to be married themselves. The filmmakers innovated it in this instance because we know that Eilis is already married, so instead of seeming romantic, the scene builds up still more tension around whether she’s going to honor that vow.
- Protagonist doing their job. This scene type is used to show the character’s skill or lack of it, and their relationship to the economy and structures of power in the form of the boss.
- In the opening, Eilis works in a crowded retail workplace–the local general store in her Irish town. Customers crowd in. She is patient, silent, and shy with them. She has a horrible boss.
- When Eilis is new in Brooklyn, we see her at her new job–again in a crowded retail workplace, but now instead of a small town general store, she’s in a fancy Brooklyn department store. She’s still silent and shy, but this is now a bigger problem for her. She can’t succeed with her existing skills set. Her supervisor here is much more of an ally, and gives her some advice she can use to become more successful.
- Much later, near the midpoint shift, Eilis is at her Brooklyn department store job, but now she’s at ease and natural. She converses easily with a customer. She’s much more successful. Note too that their conversation serves to reveal the passage of time: winter is over and it’s now spring.
- Meal scenes. This scene type is usually used to show character by how each one speaks, eats, and interacts. It can demonstrate family relationships or class positions, and often brings in an outsider to highlight idiosyncracies of the family.
- In the opening scenes we see Eilis and her family eating at home. We have a weak but kind mother, and two sisters who are close. It shows us the ordinary life that Eilis will be leaving behind. It’s remarkably similar to the pivotal dinner table scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, where the protagonist’s future is discussed and the family comes to terms with the fact that the protagonist is determined to leave home.
- There are seven Boarding House Meal scenes interspersed throughout the first two acts (of the four-act structure). The young women boarders are like siblings under the motherly eye of Mrs Kehoe. At first the “family” is much more sophisticated than the outsider, Eilis. Each unique personality around the table contributes naturally to the viewer’s understanding of the life and times, and helps set up what’s coming next. With each of the seven subsequent recurrences of the Boarding House Meal scene, Eilis is shown becoming more sophisticated, more at home in her new world, and more accepted by the others. These are markers of her rising success
- Meal scene of discomfort or “family dinner with an outsider.” There are two. In the first, Eilis goes to Tony’s house for dinner. Here we have a particular subtype where the outsider is the love interest, meeting the lover’s family for the first time. The meal is a rite of passage for the outsider. In this case, Eilis proves that she knows how to eat spaghetti, and passes the family’s test. I think every story of romance between lovers from two different ethnic or cultural groups has this scene.
In this scene type there’s almost always one family member, in this case the kid brother, who blurts out some uncomfortable truth for comic effect or to build tension. Here it’s used for comic effect.
- In the second, Eilis goes to tea with at the fancy home of her new love interest Jim Farrell and his parents, as the story nears its global crisis. It echoes the scene with Tony’s family, but instead of an ethnic or cultural difference, there’s a significant class difference. Eilis would never have passed muster with these parents before going to America, but now she’s sophisticated and well-dressed and poised. Of course, the intimacy of meeting the family here ratchets up the tension because we know she’s already married. The question of how much longer she can lie by omission is heavy in the air.
- Dance or ballroom scene. This scene type establishes the social hierarchy and tells us a lot about the economic background of the characters as well as their attractiveness or openness to flirtation and romance. It uses music, clothing and dancing styles to tell us about the world of the story.
- Early in the beginning hook, Eilis goes to the parish dance with Nancy in their small Irish town. She’s a wallflower, uninterested in the local boys. After all, she’s leaving for America soon.
- In Brooklyn, but using an identical church parish hall setting, Eilis’s more glamorous boarding housemates help doll her up in the restroom. She’s no longer a wallflower. She takes a quick dancing lesson from one man, which attracts the attention of Tony, who is the first big complication of the middle build, and they spend the evening dancing together. Eilis is coming out of her shell now in a big way.
- Near the global crisis, Eilis is now a sophisticated New Yorker, and is back in Ireland at Nancy’s wedding reception. She slow dances with Jim Farrel, who is openly courting her and thinking of marriage.
- Packing for a trip. Why show a character putting clothes into a suitcase? It could be pure shoe-leather, but it can show character through neatness or messiness, forethought, quality of clothes, and style of packing.
- The early scene of Eilis neatly packing everything she owns with room to spare in a her one suitcase cements the simple life she’s led. It also provides in interesting backdrop for the two-person conversation between her and her sister, instead of just having them talking in a room.
- The mirroring of this scene isn’t the expected unpacking, or even Eilis packing to go home to Ireland, but simply packing that same suitcase again in her room in Ireland, getting ready to leave again for America, this time alone but resolved and clear in her mind.
- Strangers on a ship. This scene type could also be on a train, an airplane, or some other mode of shared transportation. It uses people getting from point A to point B to actually develop character and story. In Brooklyn, this scene type is used to bookend the whole story, but instead of leaving and returning, it shows us Eilis leaving and then leaving again, this time for good.
- In the first one, a more sophisticated traveler offers her some advice about going to America.
- In the second one, at the very end, Eilis herself is the sophisticated traveler talking to a frightened younger Irish woman. She improves on the advice she received. She has surpassed the sophistication of the traveler who seemed so glamorous long ago.
- Arrival alone in a new place/new life. Though only really used once, this scene type is worth noting for the way the filmmakers innovated on it. We’ve seen it in other immigration stories, but here Eilis passes through immigration without any particular hitch. There is no shot of the Statue of Liberty, no huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It signals that this is NOT going to be primarily about the hardships and struggles of the new immigrant, but about a character’s inner growth.
- At the turn from act one to act 2, there’s a soup kitchen scene. It took me a minute to recognize as a large party scene. The guests are old and indigent Irish men who have come for a free Christmas dinner, rather than the wealthy Singapore elites we saw in Crazy Rich Asians, but it has the same dynamic, allowing two characters to talk about other people in the room. Here, Father Flood delivers a whole load of exposition, a history lesson about the Irish in America, and yet because of the scene type, it feels perfectly natural. It’s also incredibly moving.
- Makeover scene. There are three:
- Eilis’s temporary shipboard friend helps her find a more grown up look and help her get through immigration.
- Eilis’s new friends from the boarding house put some lipstick on her, giving her more confidence to dance with a stranger, which leads to her meeting Tony.
- Eilis’s supervisor helps her find the right bathing suit for her beach date with Tony, boosting her confidence.
- Two-person conversations. This is a broad category of scene types that you will find in just about every story. Two characters speaking to each other can and should deliver exposition, characterization, and internal and interpersonal conflict. In talking to each other, characters lie or tell the truth, reveal or conceal important story information and emotions. Here are some of the variations Brooklyn uses.
- By phone. There are two long-distance phone calls. The physical separation of the two speakers, and problems on the line, build tension. Characters are able to conceal emotions because they can’t see each other’s faces (while we, the audience or reader, can typically see them both).
- In a restaurant. Restaurants and other quiet public places put constraints on the characters’ behavior and speech. Breaking those constraints can create a scene. There is always the sense of “other people watching and listening.”
- On public transit: similar constraints to a restaurant, with an even more pronounced limit: if the conversation is uncomfortable, nobody can leave till the bus or train stops.
- Outdoors in a beautiful landscape. The open air gives characters the freedom to say and do what they wouldn’t if others were around, to be more natural. Their relationship to nature, weather, or perhaps a physical challenge might be highlighted.
- Walking together. In the landscape, this might highlight a physical challenge or a difference in fitness that reveals character. In a city setting, it offers information about the milieu. In general, it breaks up the monotony of just talking in a room.
- Boss and employee conversation. This scene type is a special case of the Two Person Conversation In a Room, and it can do a lot of work. The relationship between a subordinate and their superior can show power dynamics, strengths and weaknesses in both characters, and relative economic status. It can be a great way to deliver exposition, too, but don’t use it for that purpose alone.
Brooklyn uses this scene type at least four times: First when Eilis tells Mrs Kelly that she’s leaving for America. Eilis is submissive and Mrs Kelly proves her awfulness by exploiting that.
Next, the department store supervisor in Brooklyn treats her a little better and offers her advice that will improve her success.
Then, back in Ireland, Eilis is doing a little temporary bookkeeping, and rather than being lectured or corrected, she’s the star, and the employer is courting her to stay. It shows how far she’s come, and ratchets up the tension of whether she will return to Brooklyn or stay in Ireland.
Finally, though Eilis isn’t her employee anymore, mean Mrs Kelly summons her as if she is, and uses her old judgmental tactics to try to blackmail and intimidate Eilis. It’s the global turning point complication, forcing Eilis to make her choice.
- Epistolary: Reading a letter. A montage of several letters from home that Eilis reads in various locations. The impressive thing about this use of the epistolary device in a film is that does triple duty: it gives us both her sister’s and her mother’s voices so that we remember both of them, subtly signaling that we’ll be seeing them again; it reveals how very homesick Eilis is while also reminding us of how narrow Eilis’s life at home in Ireland was, and why she left. We’ll see this epistolary scene type repeated several more times.
- Classroom scene. This scene type only occurs once in the film, but I wanted to call it out because it’s a good way to show that a character is studious, as in this case, or a goof-off, or has some other characteristic related to intelligence and to determination. Here, Eilis is the only woman in the room and is beginning to find her place. We saw a very similar scene in Hidden Figures, where Mary Jackson, the Janelle Monae character, is the only African American AND the only woman in her engineering class.
- Conversation in a car. Similar to the conversation on public transit or in a restaurant, this traps one person in an uncomfortable situation that they can’t easily get away from, and might force them to face a challenge or obstacle.
The lesson from Brooklyn is to choose your scene types consciously. Never have a meal scene just because real people would be eating at this point in the story. Use the tensions inherent in people dining together to move the protagonist towards a choice or to bring out conflict. Ideally both.
Never show people riding in a car (or a carriage, or a space ship) merely because they need to get from point A to point B. Close your characters in a moving vehicle to raise tension and deliver bad news that someone can’t get out of hearing.
If you can get two people out of a room and into the street or out in nature to have that conversation they need to have, do it. Use motion to show relative fitness of characters. Use the landscape or cityscape they pass through to build your world and establish your time-frame and culture. Throw two or more unlikely characters together to bring out new information, the way this film did when it put Eilis in a room with her mentor and a hundred indigent Irish immigrant man.
If you’re stuck in a scene, trying changing the scene type and see if something new comes out. I took a close look at scene types in our episodes on Passengers and The Girl on the Train, and I have a Fundamental Fridays post detailing a few of the most common ones.
Leslie – POV and Narrative Device
I’m focusing on POV and narrative device, which answers the question, how do I deliver my story to the reader?
POV tells you whether your story is first person, third person limited, or omniscient, and whether it’s written in past or present tense. But the narrative device or situation specifies who or what is conveying the story, to whom, when, from where, in what form, and why. I explore these topics in my Bite Size episode on choosing your POV. That episode can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here.
I’ve mentioned how my study of POV and Narrative Device confirms the importance of these decisions and how they create useful constraints to support the telling of a story. The further I explore, the more I realize there is no single best Narrative Device and POV choice for a particular story, but some are much stronger than others. Discovering patterns in masterworks help us identify these “better choices” so we can write better stories.
(I focus primarily on the novel. The film is very similar, but I spent more time with the novel, and the filmmakers chose a different point of view. It’s still from Eilis’s perspective [mostly], but I identify it as what Norman Friedman calls “Dramatic Mode,” which isn’t surprising because it’s a film. We see what Eilis does and says, but we don’t have access to her internal experience except through outward expression.)
I begin my inquiry by looking at the narrative problem presented by the premise.
What’s the narrative problem presented by the premise of Brooklyn?
What’s the premise? A young Irish woman in the early 1950s seeks opportunity in Brooklyn, a very different world, where she has no family. (The global genre is Status, but the plot is surely labyrinth, which may be a feature of milieu stories.)
The narrative problem presented by this premise is its focus on milieu. These stories rely on “blank” characters that are representative of the place and time and that readers can easily see themselves in. The protagonist and POV characters observe and reflect mundane existence in the setting or arena for the reader.
Readers won’t forgive a meandering experience just because we’re looking at a story that focuses on the environment. I think the quiet nature of a story like this means you must be all the more disciplined in terms of structure and your technical choices because it’s easy to go get off track. The writer can fall in love with the literal action and details—what’s happening on the surface—and miss what needs to happen beneath. Those surface details need to serve the bigger message of the story
The milieu focus plus a subtle global internal genre like Status means the story is quiet, a slice of life. We need a high resolution lens for a story like this, otherwise we would miss the meaning of what’s happening.. These are the types of stories that Colm Tóibín writes. (If you want to write this type of story, I also recommend The Master. Incidentally, you might also look at The Ambassadors and other books by Henry James.)
Point of View
Which POV choice makes sense, given the challenge of the premise? Which one will give us the high resolution lens needed to reveal the meaning in the story?
Selective omniscience. This narration comes directly from the mind of the POV character. Similar to first person point of view, but without the character’s self-conscious telling to achieve a certain purpose. It’s as if we’re spying on the character’s internal experience and thoughts. This POV was employed in “Waters of Versailles,” my third story pick for this season. Comparing the two stories demonstrates the range of tone this POV choice allows, which is dependent on the character and how deeply into the character’s mind the writer chooses to dramatize, among other qualities.
With this POV we have access to the character’s thoughts, emotions, sensations, but we’re locked into their perspective. (This is one clue that shows the film is working with a different narrative device. We’re shown scenes where Eilis isn’t present.) This POV allows us to see clearly the difference between what a character thinks and feels and what they say and do. We learn how they act on their conclusions without commentary meant for an audience (which isn’t the case with an editorial or neutral omniscient narrator). This is useful in a milieu story because it dramatizes the unseen aspects of the setting and culture operating within the characters.
What’s the narrative device? The narrative device or situation tells us who is speaking/writing/thinking, to or for whom, when, from what vantage point, and why. With Selective Omniscience, the narrative device is the mind of the POV character. In the “Waters of Versailles” episode, I mentioned that selective omniscience is a covert narration, which means the narrating entity isn’t revealed to the reader, but I would modify that to say that the narrating entity doesn’t address or speak to the reader, but the form of narration is revealed through the details.
Who is conveying the story? The mind of Eilis, which also tells us the “where” because she is the protagonist at the center of the story (as opposed to a narrator or other character on the periphery of or outside the story).
When? The novel is written in past tense but creates the effect of immediacy, so it feels as if it’s written in present tense. The text includes references to Eilis’s perspective that suggest the events she’s discussing are in the recent past. In the novel, during quiet moments, Eilis considers events that have unfolded, and that’s what the narrative feels like, a replay of her day to help her make sense of her experience and make decisions.
Why? The quality of the narrative feels like a mind engaged in making sense of something to make a decision. Status stories are about moments of crisis and decision. Of course, all stories include moments of crisis and decision, but that’s not necessarily what they are about. Status stories zero in on the question, what are we willing to sacrifice for success?
What’s the controlling idea? In other words, what’s the lesson the POV character might take from reviewing the events of the story? Generally speaking, I would say this: Success results when we honor our moral code, realizing we can never know if we’ve made the right decision.
How well does it work?
The film with its different narrative device and POV show us that this story can be told well from more than one perspective. I enjoyed both forms, but I missed Eilis’s uncensored commentary in the film. That along with more events and the way the story is framed (the book begins earlier in Eilis’s life than the film, but also ends sooner) provide context that help the reader navigate the milieu. So while the film does a great job with the visual and auditory input we don’t get in the novel, the experience isn’t as rich, in my opinion. If you enjoy the film, I encourage you to luxuriate in the novel. But keep your tissues handy.
I could list lots of examples of details Tóibín includes dictated by his POV and Narrative Device choices that make the story so wonderful, but one category of details we need in a Status story that is particularly well handled here are the things characters say and do that indicate where they are (or believe they are) in the social hierarchy relative to others. Eilis’s observations deliver these details in a way that doesn’t feel like exposition. The characters don’t realize what they expose about themselves about who they are that we can see clearly if we’re paying attention. This I think is why we don’t notice that the supporting characters are types or representatives, rather than fully developed characters.
Final Thoughts and Takeaways for Writers
We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft.
Valerie: What I find really interesting about this, and what we need to remember as writers, is that society as an antagonist, works through the characters. So, when we’re designing our cast we need to think about which aspects of society are pushing against the protagonist and which characters will represent each of those aspects.
Anne: Dare to tear into a movie or book that you enjoy and identify some scene types, even if it means seeing the gears under the smooth surface. Then add a scene type column to your spreadsheet for any work you’re editing and track yours. If you see too many of the same scene type, try rewriting some of them in a different setting, with a different number of characters, possibly doing different things.
Leslie: My main takeaway is the importance of reviewing masterworks for POV and Narrative Device choice. Yes, in addition to masterworks for your global genre, I encourage you to find one or more for your POV and Narrative Device. That means reading deeply and widely, inside and outside your genre. In particular, pay attention to the way the global choices are expressed at the micro level. Having a solid example or two of the effect you want to achieve will serve you well.
Kim: My takeaway is two-fold. First, setting is a powerful way to establish life values at stake for your story, and strangely character action and dialogue are a great way to establish setting. And secondly, when leveling up your craft, it’s okay to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. This storytelling thing is a lifelong adventure.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Jeanne on Twitter.
The Hero’s journey is predicated on the hero coming out of the ordeal successful, hence the reward or ultimate boon. But in modern stories, that rarely seems to be the case. Could the “reward” be switched for “all is lost” in those cases? Or are these 2 distinct moments? I’d love to hear your experienced editors’ opinion on this. Love the podcast! It’s always full of valuable insights.
Anne: Interesting question. I think Jeanne is touching on what feels like a fundamental difference between external genre stories—notably the Action genre, which is the Heroic Journey in its most archetypal form—and stories that have a stronger internal genre, as most modern stories tend to have.
The all is lost moment in any story is when the protagonist is forced to change or die. Death isn’t always literal. Accept reality or fail. Sacrifice something or be damned. The reward in a modern story with a strong internal genre arises from that inner shift at the all is lost moment.
So for instance, in today’s story, Eilis is driven by her own conflicting desires and the needs and wants of others to a point near damnation, where she’s keeping her marriage a secret and encouraging the attention of another man. We could say her all is lost moment is when Miss Kelly, the nasty shopkeeper, threatens to reveal her secret. She digs deep and finds her integrity, and declares her new married name.
The boon, reward, or gift is bittersweet because it’s an internal genre story. It’s a sadder woman but wiser who returns to Brooklyn with her integrity restored and her marriage intact, but she has broken Jim’s heart and left her mother alone, and she has to live with that.
Something is always lost or sacrificed in the gaining of the reward, it’s just that in more modern internal genre stories, the reward itself is internal to the protagonist.
I hope this helps. Thanks for a thoughtful question.
If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.
Join us next time as Valerie tackles the 1993 comedy Mrs Doutbfire in her quest to suss out Forces of Antagonism. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?