This week, Kim looks at Fried Green Tomatoes, in order to study Core Events. This 1991 film was directed by Jon Avnet from a screenplay by Fannie Flagg and Carol Sobieski. It was based on the 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.
Content Warning: Just so you’re aware, both the novel and film include racial and cultural epithets.
This story is what I like to call “A Pillar of My Youth.” My grandma owned the VHS tape so growing up I watched many times. But I had never read the novel until this week and I have to say, it was an absolute delight. The novel is very much a mini plot and uses several different POV/Narrative Devices to tell the various threads, which is a lot of fun. It’s no surprise that the structure of the film is “tidier” and, while still lovely, doesn’t have the same richness as the novel. This is a recurring observation about the difference between novels and their adaptations. What I love is that the author of the novel was one of the screenwriters for the film. I am fascinated by the interpretation of the same story into different mediums, what things are changed and what is kept. To me it’s a case study in intention.
So enough preamble. This story jumps between two different time periods, both set near Birmingham, Alabama: The “present” (actually the mid 1980s) with the growing friendship between middle-aged Evelyn Couch and the elderly Ninny Threadgoode; and the “past” (the Depression-era and forward) with the relationship between Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison. The film presents Idgie and Ruth as best friends, whereas the novel is much clearer that they are lovers. In both versions, their lifelong commitment to each other is unmistakable.
For simplicity I am going to outline the BH, MB, EP according to the film version, but will be referring to the novel in my analysis of Core Events.
In the past, 16 year old Idgie Threadgoode is the youngest of nine children and a tomboy who runs wild. But when Idgie’s mother asks Ruth Jamison, a young friend from church, to befriend Idgie, Ruth must decide if she will persist despite Idgie’s refusals. Ruth joins Idgie in her adventures and wins her trust and her love. But when Ruth tells Idgie she has to leave at the end of the summer to get married, Idgie rejects her and returns to her previous lifestyle.
In the present, while visiting a family member at the nursing home, an unassertive Evelyn Couch meets Mrs. Threadgoode, a chatty elderly woman. At first, Evelyn merely humors Mrs. Threadgoode stories from her youth. But when Mrs. Threadgoode mentions her SIL Idgie Threadgoode was accused of murder, Evelyn is drawn in and begins visiting Mrs Threadgoode regularly.
In the past, Idgie helps a pregnant Ruth get away from her abusive husband, Frank Bennett. Later he comes to Whistlestop and tries to steal the baby and is killed–his body and vehicle go missing. But when the vehicle is found in the river, Idgie and Big George are arrested for the murder and stand trial. Things look hopeless until Reverend Scroggins lies on the stand as their alibi. The death is declared accidental and the case is thrown out.
In the present, Evelyn’s attempts to assert herself in the world fail and her self esteem is at an all time low. She visits Mrs. Threadgoode alone this time, who encourages her with good advice and stories of Idgie and Ruth’s strength. The next time Evelyn is blatantly dismissed and disrespected, she asserts herself successfully … six times with her truck into the VW bug that stole the parking spot she was waiting for.
In the past, Ruth falls ill and dies of cancer and her loss is mourned by all. This time, rather than running from her grief, Idgie stays in the community and continues to raise their son.
In the present, Evelyn uses her newfound confidence to make bold changes in her life. But when she learns that Mrs Threadgoode’s house has been demolished and she won’t be able to leave the nursing home as planned, Evelyn invites her to come and live with her and her husband instead.
While in Whistlestop, they see Ruth’s grave along with a fresh jar of honey and a note from “The Bee Charmer.” Idgie is alive and still devoted to Ruth.
Genre: Society? Crime?
I had some trouble nailing down the genre, but not because the story didn’t work. It’s that there are multiple layers. With past and present, multiple characters with external and internal arcs, aspects of Love, Society, Crime … it is tricky to say THIS is the global genre.
In the film, they used the introduction of the Crime story to create narrative drive, raising the question/intrigue with Mrs Threadgoode’s line, “How anyone could have thought she killed that man is beyond me.” So maybe it’s Crime?
I picked Fried Green Tomatoes because when I revisited the story in my mind, it felt like Status and Society … Women’s or Historical. I wanted the stories I chose this season to come from the Esteem tank so I could look at the differences in how the Core Events played out. These two genres are definitely in play, even more so in the novel, but I don’t know that the Core Events I’ve found align with those genres specifically.
Kim – Core Events
About Core Events
I am examining Core Events this season, which is one of four elements in the Four Core Framework that make a genre what it is. The Core Need is represented by the Core Values, and as the protagonist pursues their need the values shift and evoke the Core Emotion in the reader. The Core Event is the peak moment of change and the height of the core emotion.
If you’re interested in learning more about Core Events, I encourage you to check out two new titles available from Story Grid Publishing: The Four Core Framework by Shawn Coyne that explains the fundamental elements for each of the twelve content genres; and Four Core Fiction, an anthology of twelve original short stories written by SGCE, one for each of the twelve content genres, globally edited by myself and Rebecca Monterusso.
About Today’s Story
So I’m going to talk about this a little differently today than I have previously this season. Normally I identify the genre upfront and then describe the Core Event in the story that exemplifies it. But today, since I am struggling to land on the genre, I’m going to explore my peak moment(s) of catharsis first and try to noodle closer to an answer on genre.
In the film, there are three moments that stood out to me as significant payoffs.
In the past, there is the moment when Idgie and Big George are on trial for Frank Bennett’s murder, and the Reverend Scroggins, whom Idgie loathes and harrasses regularly, takes the stand on their behalf and testifies that both Idgie and George were assisting at the 3-day church revival meeting at the time Frank Bennett was murder. His alibi is irrefutable and the judge calls the prosecutor to the stand and tells him he doesn’t have a case anymore, since they don’t even have a body. The declares Frank Bennett’s death accidental and throws out the case. Idgie and George are free. Idgie is amazed that the Reverend lied at all, but for her especially. He actually swore on a copy of Moby Dick but nonetheless expects to see Sister Idgie at church on Sunday.
This scene is a huge answer to the opening question … we know Idgie was arrested for the murder of Frank Bennett but we don’t know whether or not she’s convicted or how she gets out of it. The fact that the Reverend testified on her behalf is surprising and it’s a fun moment of poetic justice for all parties.
In the novel, the judge knows the Reverend is lying but his own daughter had been a victim of Frank Bennett’s, bearing a child by him and being left a neglected and ruined woman who died before her time, and so he doesn’t much care who killed him or why.
In a way, this scene feels like a Society Core Event, The Revolution Scene, where members of the ruling class are co-opted for the cause of the underclass. This is a big moment of the story and we feel relief and joy that Idgie and George are safe. But we still don’t know the truth about what happened to Frank Bennett. Did they just get away with murder? Or is it something else?
But then there’s the moment when Mrs Threadgoode tells Evelyn the truth about who killed Frank Bennett and what happened to the body … This is the final answer to the opening image and question raised about Idgie being arrested for murder of Frank Bennett … it was Sipsey in self-defense, witnessed by Smokey Lonesome. But Big George and Idgie knew that no one would believe them so they figured out how to get rid of the body and the car … hog boiling time. They BBQ’d Frank Bennett and served him to the investigator who was poking around. So that’s why Idgie HAD to stand trial for Frank’s murder, to keep Sipsey safe.
Now in the novel, Evelyn never learns who really killed Frank Bennett, and even Mrs Threadgoode doesn’t know. The reader finds out from the omniscient narrator in the past and specifically by following George’s son Artis, who unfortunately isn’t in the film at all. Still the main events are the same–Sipsey killed Frank Bennett to save Ruth’s baby, they ditched the car in the river and boiled his body like a hog.
This is the final answer to the question of “Who really killed Frank Bennett” and feels like the Crime Core Event, Unmasking the Criminal.
About Today’s Genre
So while this is most likely the Core Event of the Global Genre, it just doesn’t feel like what the story is really about. Fried Green Tomatoes, a Crime Story? But then when we look a little closer at the Four Core Framework of Crime, we see some interesting things.
- The Core Need is Safety
- The Core Value is Justice and Injustice
- The Core Emotion is Intrigue (which I personally like referring to as fascination)
- And the Core Event is Exposure of the Criminal
When I look at the various threads of this story, especially in the novel, I am struck by how many involve being arrested, going to jail/prison, and even being executed. The themes of Injustice are everywhere. But it doesn’t “feel” like a Crime story, it feels like it’s about Love and Family and Friendship. It’s as though the author used the external aspects of Crime as an armature to weave her cast of characters around, highlighting the various levels of society and the injustice that they face and how love and friendship can help us overcome them.
Now Evelyn’s arc in the story goes much deeper in the novel and there is a significant Core Event moment when she attends a Black church service by herself and experiences a profound moment of emotional healing—her worldview about herself, her city, and the Black community changes. As someone who belongs to a rowdy multi racial church, I found it especially enjoyable. In Virgin’s Promise terms she is able to “give up what kept her stuck” and reorder her kingdom for the better.
Fried Green Tomatoes is another story that was chosen before the season began, but in light of recent events, reading, watching, and studying it has shown me so many relevant lessons about standing up for others who the system doesn’t protect.
Valerie – Framing/Nested story structure
I’m going to take a break from my look at the act structure this week because Fried Green Tomatoes is a kind of story-within-a-story, so it gives me an opportunity to look at the structure of a framing story and a nested story. We’ve seen this set up lots of times; The Bridges of Madison County, The Princess Bride and dozens of others. In what I’ve studied so far, this approach either really works, or it really doesn’t.
Writing a story with multiple storylines is tricky because the writer has to maintain the readers’ (or viewers’) interest in each story. She’s got to develop empathy for multiple protagonists, and create narrative drive that is so strong, readers won’t mind leaving one story to pick up another. It’s not an easy thing to do so what usually happens is that readers get irritated. Just as they’re getting into one story, the narrative switches to something else. And then, just as they’re getting into the new narrative, everything flips back to the first story.
By the way, the same issue can come into play when a writer chooses to use extensive flashbacks – especially if the flashbacks are primarily exposition.
So, what’s the solution? I’ve been studying this a lot lately and thinking about it, and talking to Leslie about it because she’s my editor for my current work-in-progress which has multiple storylines as well as a nested story. To be honest, I don’t have the definitive answer yet but I have a strategy and it’s this: there needs to be a tight connection between nested story and the framing story, and a tight connection between storylines. One storyline needs to inform the other. That could be a literal connection (for example, a character from the past reappears in the present) or a thematic connection (for example, multiple protagonists dealing with the same issue in different ways). Otherwise, the framing story becomes an expendable device.
If we think about The Bridges of Madison County, all the present-day bits with Francesca’s adult children can be removed and it doesn’t negatively impact the love story (in fact, it might make the movie better).
I’ve been asking myself, “What’s the connection between Evelyn’s story and Idgie’s story?” Yes, obviously Evelyn is listening as Ninny recounts Idgie’s story, and Evelyn takes on the “Towanda” call when she beats down the wall in her house. But Idgie isn’t a mentor to Evelyn, Ninny is the mentor.
Idgie and Evelyn are dealing with completely different issues; Idgie’s dealing with societal issues, Evelyn is in a marriage love story/maturation plot.
If anything, Evelyn’s story is more like Ruth’s (both are marriage love stories), but Ed isn’t anything like Frank. Ed might be blind to Evelyn’s needs and the state of their marriage, and he’s definitely stuck in his ways, but he’s not abusive. Frank is a monster. Ruth never becomes independent, she’s always frail and relying on others to help her. Evelyn eventually steps into her own.
Looking at the movie alone (this might play out very differently in the book), we could break the two storylines apart and create separate films from them, and neither would suffer. Idgie and Ruth’s story is complete. Ninny isn’t even in that story so removing her from it doesn’t change things at all. In the film, Evelyn’s story is thin, but it’s there. It’s meeting Ninny that helps her come into her own, not Idgie’s story. It would make more sense if Jessica Tandy’s character introduced herself as Ms. Threadgoode and then in the end, we discovered that she is Idgie. She then could be helping two women find their voices; she would be the linking element.
We’ve got relationships between two sets of women, but they’re very different relationships.
While there could be a clear link between the storylines in the novel, it’s been lost here in the film and there could be any number of reasons for that. My guess, based on all the stories we’ve studied so far here on the show, is that the book has more story than the filmmakers could fit into two hours. The four lead actors are all fabulous and I’m happy to watch their performance but as novelists all we’ve got to work with is words on a page and our reader’s imagination. So I’ve got to set the actors aside.
If there isn’t anything literally or thematically linking the two stories, then each story has to be so compelling, we can’t wait to find out what happens next. We’re definitely asking ourselves what happened to Frank. We want to know if he’s dead or alive. If he’s dead, who killed him and why haven’t they found a body? If he’s alive, what happened to make him go away, and stay away? These are certainly compelling questions but they don’t kick in until the midpoint, and they’re answered by the end of the middle build. So, in the end, they carry 25% of the story.
We do wonder if Evelyn will step into her power, and if so, how Ed will react to it. But because there isn’t time to fully explore her story, when she does step out, it happens in a series of quick scenes. Ninny tells her to get hormone replacement therapy and get a job. So she does and that’s about it. It’s kind of a shame because there’s a whole, rich story to be told there.
When we studied Center Stage, I noticed the same thing. Maureen’s story was good, but it could have been an entire movie – in fact, that’s what Black Swan was about.
This isn’t meant to be a harsh criticism of Fried Green Tomatoes. What I’m doing when I’m studying all these stories, regardless of which principle I’m looking at, is trying to see if there’s a common thread across the stories—I’m looking for trends. What I’m trying to do is see what happens when stories are constructed a certain way, or when a principle is used in a particular way. When does a technique work really well, and when doesn’t it work well?
And when it comes to stories with these framing devices, I’m seeing a trend. If we’re to make them work, the framing story and the global story have got to be connected somehow, and the connection has to be integral to the story.
Leslie – Point of View and Narrative Device
I’m continuing my study of POV and narrative device this season. If genre is what your story is about, POV and ND are how you deliver it to the reader or viewer. That’s why I firmly believe that your POV and narrative device choice is the most important decision you make after the global genre.
The narrative device or situation answers these questions: who or what is telling the story and to whom, when and where are they telling the story, and why are they telling the story? POV is the technical element, which tells us whether it’s first or third-person, for example. It answers the question, how do we create the effect of the narrative device? These two elements of story perspective must be in sync or your story can be undermined.
What’s more, POV and Narrative Device give you valuable constraints to make decisions about what to include in your scenes and how—not at random or based on a whim, but to support and enhance your story. I explore this in my upcoming Story Grid beat on POV as well as my Bite Size episode on choosing your POV.
My bite size episode on choosing your POV can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here. If you have questions about POV and Narrative Device, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment here, get in touch through the Guild, or submit your question through my site, here.
What’s the narrative opportunity presented by the premise?
I start my analysis by asking about the opportunity presented by the premise. A story’s premise describes a specific character(s) in a setting with a problem.
Here we have two primary stories in the novel and film with many smaller subplots.
Evelyn Couch is a middle class, middle-aged homemaker living in Alabama in the 1980s who is trying to save her unsatisfying marriage. Her real challenge is that she’s trying to derive all her meaning from her marriage.
Idgie Threadgoode is a young woman living in a small town in Alabama who lost her beloved brother when she was young and struggles in an environment of poverty and violence where she doesn’t fit the mold of a typical Southern woman. She finds meaning in playing the role of trickster in her relationships with the people in her community.
What these two characters have in common is that they are women living in the same part of the world and struggling with meaning. Evelyn is sheltered and lacks experience, and Idgie endures several traumatic experiences. Two primary differences are their circumstances (Evelyn leads a safe and comfortable but unsatisfying life in the late twentieth century, and Idgie lives a life of hardship in the time between World Wars I and II) and how they seek and find meaning in an environment where they are treated as if they don’t matter.
So we have a milieu mini-plot story designed to show how a wide range of character types find meaning in the South across time. There’s an opportunity to find an innovative way to connect the two women and let the life of one inspire the life of the other.
What’s the POV?
The book includes four distinct narratives:
- First person written articles from the Weems Weekly by Dot Weems covering events in Whistle Stop, Alabama beginning in 1929
- Omniscient narration revealing Evelyn’s story
- Ninny tells Idgie’s story to Evelyn in a first-person, “I as witness” perspective. This takes the form of a spoken delivery
- Omniscient narration of other events from Whistle Stop
The film includes just two: Ninny telling Idgie’s story nested within Evelyn’s story.
What’s the Narrative Device?
We have a story within a story for the film and multiple stories within a story in the novel. To get to the bottom of the narrative device, we need to think about who is telling Evelyn’s story? In other words, who is pulling all of these stories together? I think it’s meant to be someone very much like the author, Fannie Flagg, who received a box of pictures and clippings that provide details for a wide variety of experiences within specific place.
How is the story structured?
In the film we have episodes from Idgie’s life as told by Ninny to Evelyn possibly because Ninny is bored and lonely. It makes sense that Ninny entices Evelyn with a hint about muder. (Think Serial podcast before podcasts were invented.) And that is what pulls the reader in too.
The idea seems to be to tempt readers or viewers with what they want then give them what they need. They want a cozy murder mystery set in the South, like we have here; or they want an exciting science fiction Action story as in Passengers; or they want a science fiction crime noir story as in Blade Runner. In other words, readers want to escape their current reality. But it may be that what they need, which we can discover in the analysis—and what we all need from time to time—is a story to help us find meaning in our own lives and current situation, just like the characters in stories like the ones I’ve mentioned here who face a crisis of meaning that rises to the level of life and death.
Why the extra layer of artifice in Fried Green Tomatoes? In other words, why do we need Evelyn’s story as a lens thorough which to observe Idgie’s story? I think Evelyn is a character designed to help late-twentieth century women relate to Idgie more easily. When a character’s experience is so different from your own, the experience can feel inaccessible. Idgie is a rebellious character who refuses to conform to anyone’s expectations. Evelyn helps the reader see what they have in common with Idgie so they can learn to rebel in a way that is authentic to them.
How well does it work?
The narrative device and POV seem to work pretty well in the film and the novel. The film has issues with the potential bait and switch with Ninny’s identity, but that’s not a big problem. The narrative device feels a bit “affected” and clever. That may be the result of viewing it outside what I view as its time. But I also think the discovery of Frank Bennett’s truck appears to be more central to the story than it is. That hook is an important external event, but it’s not what the story is about. This primary element of narrative drive isn’t as vital to the story as it might seem.
Along those lines, in 2020, this story feels condescending. The idea that women can find meaning outside of roles and relationships that were conventional in the 1980s is not as revelatory now. Who knows? Maybe that’s because the middle-aged women of the 80s had Towanda. It doesn’t mean the same to me as it would my mother, who loves this film and can watch it over and over.
I see this with Worldview-Education stories of a certain type. It seems to be what Passengers and Blade Runner have in common with Fried Green Tomatoes. These stories speak to a very specific audience in subtext so well that readers or viewers become enthusiastic fans. But if you’re not in that specific group, you don’t necessarily pick up the subtext in the same way, and the story isn’t as satisfying. There is nothing wrong with that, but it’s a little different from writing a story that endures across a wide audience.
Shawn Coyne talked about this recently in a Story Grid Guild Q&A when he referred to personal masterworks. These are stories that work for us personally but don’t necessarily work universally, across time and culture. These stories help us figure out where we’ve been stuck and how to move on. He said we have a duty to analyze these stories for ourselves because the process of writing requires a high level of self-awareness. But if your goal is to write a story that endures and works beyond a specific audience, you’ll want to find a masterwork that does both.
If you’re interested in milieu stories that are set in the American South I recommend Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Joe by Larry Brown, and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. Also, check out this list of great stories set in the American South.
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: The key takeaway for me is to really think about what story we want to tell. We all have a tendency to want to cram too much into our stories and often when that happens, we don’t do any of the storylines justice. So, if we want to use a framing story in the telling of our narrative, we’ve got to make sure that it’s part of the overall story. We’ve got to make sure that the reader would miss it if it were gone.
Leslie: My key takeaway is that we want to innovate narrative device and POV choices, but we want to avoid being too clever. In the same way that purple prose draws too much attention to itself, a narrative device can break the implied contract you have with your reader. Fried Green Tomatoes comes close to crossing that line by relying on who killed Frank Bennett to provide narrative drive.
Kim: My takeaway today is fascination with miniplot stories told through multiple narrative devices to create a uniquely rich reading experience. The Global Genre and Core Event are less overt than I expected but the controlling idea/theme seems to resonate even more deeply. How is that possible? This is definitely something I enjoy and I intend to keep studying.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Krista Adams on Story Grid Guild. Krista writes:
In my self-directed meandering way of trying to absorb/assimilate as much Story Grid content as possible on my way to dream job of being a SGCE, I actually landed at Stephen Pressfield’s site where he has two short companion pieces called Make Your Hero Suffer. He says that your protagonist should embody the theme and uses Gatsby as an example…but maybe the Roundtable could look more deeply into how theme and protagonist are intertwined and offer other examples from your studies? For extra credit, I’d also love to hear more about how you all see the villain’s role in determining theme. (This might all fall under the rubric of forces of antagonism…which means I should go back and relisten to the podcasts! With pleasure!)
Leslie: Thanks for the great question! Yes, Steven Pressfield says that the protagonist should embody the theme. Why is that? How does that work? Also where does the antagonist come in?
The controlling idea, in Story Grid parlance, is a concise expression of the protagonist’s journey in a cause-and-effect statement, and the theme is what the story is about. If the protagonist doesn’t embody the theme, then you might consider whether the protagonist is the right character for the story, or if the theme identified is not an accurate summing up of the story.
Life is random and chaotic, and if stories are too, they aren’t that useful to us. The controlling idea/theme is the primary lesson or kernel of knowledge the writer offers and the reader receives. If the suffering inflicted on the protagonist is random and isn’t on theme, there’s no lesson. “Life is random, and it sucks until you die” isn’t much of a theme. Few people are going to read that book or recommend it to their friends because it doesn’t offer any nourishment.
At a basic level great stories pit two forces against each other—the protagonist and the antagonist—who represent the theme and its opposite. If the protagonist prevails, and they get what they need, we want to understand why and how so we can do that when we face similar problems. If the antagonist prevails, we want to understand why and how so we can avoid the actions that lead to failure. We’re talking about prescriptive and cautionary tales. But we don’t want this to be on the nose. We want to absorb the lesson through the experience, through subtext. When the protagonist embodies the theme and the antagonist embodies the anti-theme, we absorb the prescriptive or cautionary lesson more easily and without resistance to what’s good for us.
Here are a few examples:
The Great Gatsby: We succumb to disillusionment when we learn a shocking, dark truth that we cannot yet metabolize. Both Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby believe the best about certain people, so the suffering inflicted upon them comes in the form of external antagonists, including Daisy, who already know the dark truth and are looking out for number one. Nick and Gatsby are unable to see the truth, so their story serves as a cautionary tale.
It’s a Wonderful Life: No person is a failure who has friends. George Bailey believes he’s a failure because he never left Bedford Falls and never did anything that he would consider great. He learns that it is a great thing to have a be a friend to others in the community. The type of suffering inflicted on George by the writer is that he has a wealth of everything except the things he associates with success. The external antagonist, Mr. Potter, stands for the proposition that friends don’t matter, only wealth and property.
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”: Love survives when life partners are willing to sacrifice what they want for a little grace. Grant believes that love means he has to make up for his infidelity by being present with Fiona. The type of suffering he experiences is that he’s thwarted from spending time with her because of dementia. He learns that he must be willing to make the sacrifice she needs not the one he’s most comfortable with.
Hope that helps! Thanks again for your question!
Join us next time when Valerie will look at the Three-Act Structure in the 2014 film The Imitation Game. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?