Editor Roundtable: Jane Eyre

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This week, Kim pitched Jane Eyre as a great example of Framing Story Narrative Device. This 2011 adaptation of the 1847 gothic romance novel by Charlotte Brontë was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga from a screenplay by Moira Buffini.

The Story

  • Beginning Hook – Jane Eyre runs away from a great house, on foot and crying. She travels a long way and collapses on a doorstep where she is taken in by a parishioner and his two sisters. When asked her name, Jane flashes back to her tormented childhood. She answers with a false name (Jane Elliot) and refuses to give any details about her past and instead asks for help finding work. When St John informs her of a job teaching at a country schoolhouse she happily accepts, even though she is highly overqualified for the position.
  • Middle Build – After enduring a painful childhood, a grown Jane Eyre arrives at Thornfield Hall to begin her new position as a governess. She meets the owner, the surly Mr Rochester, who seems to enjoy verbally sparring with her.  After Jane saves Mr Rochester from a fire in his room, she endures much mystery, tension, and mixed signals, until Rochester reveals his true feelings and proposes to Jane who happily accepts. Then on the day of their wedding she finds out Rochester is already married and his wife Bertha, who suffers from mental illness, is the great mystery that lives at Thornfield Hall. Rochester begs Jane to live with him anyway even if they can’t be legally married, but she refuses and leaves in the night on foot.
  • Ending Payoff – Jane has been working at the country school house for some time when St John discovers her real name from a drawing and returns with news that a solicitor has been looking for her: her uncle has died and left her a great inheritance. She share the money with St John and his sisters. When St John announces he wants to marry Jane and make her a missionary wife, she refuses and returns to Thornfield where she finds it burned down from a fire set by Bertha. Rochester is alive, but is now blind due to his refusal to leave Thornfield until everyone was safely out. He couldn’t save Bertha who jumped from the rooftop. Jane returns to him and promises to never be parted from him again.

The Principle

Kim – A Narrative Device is the specific method used by the writer to convey what they want. It is the strategy by which information is delivered to the reader. The way a story is told, the means by which we access the story.  Often this involves the sequence in which events are delivered to the audience. (See Wikipedia page for Literary Devices.)

The information the audience learns first greatly impacts the way they experience the story (as does information that is withheld). All of this certainly attributes to narrative drive, which we discussed in detail last week in the film Get Out.

Thus leads to our current film, Jane Eyre, which an adaptation of the classic novel. This version of the film is told in a differently than the book, and it changes the experience of the story. The novel is told linearly, but the film version is told with a framing story.

Comparing them is an interesting exercise because both stories work. So if they both work, how the heck do you choose what device to use? We’ll talk about this. But first, let’s dig into the details of Jane Eyre.

BH – Begins at All is Lost moment/Dark Night of the Soul, jumps from past to present four times, overlapping her time at Moor House (St John and his sisters, beginning work at the country schoolhouse for girls) with her childhood (Aunt Reed and Lowood School), ends in the past with her arriving at Thornfield and Mrs. Fairfax showing her to her room.

MB – Linear in the past, beginning with her first day at Thornfield Hall, meeting Mr. Rochester, saving him from the fire, the arrival of Miss Ingram, the midpoint is the arrival of Richard Mason / his injury, Jane’s letter regarding her aunt, Mr Rochester’s proposal, the botched wedding, All is Lost moment when Jane learns the truth about Mr Rochester’s wife, at which time we return to the opening scene when Jane leaves Thornfield and wanders the moors in her Dark Night of the Soul.

EP – Returns to the present, Jane has been teaching at the school for a while, St John continues linearly to the end when she returns to Thornfield and to Rochester.

Scene list break down for film version

Compare to novel that is linear from childhood

BH – Jane’s childhood + Lowood School

MB – Thornfield Hall

EP – Other employment + Proposals

Even with the nonlinear storytelling, the events themselves are mostly laid out the same, but bringing that portion of the ending payoff to the beginning hook creates a very different feeling for the story and audience.

Let’s consider how changes to the structure affects the story, as captured in the Six Core Questions:

  1. Genre – Love Story vs Status Story? Both seem to exist in each but perhaps the global comes through slightly differently due to the order of scenes?
  2. Conventions & Obligatory Scenes – see above re genre.
  3. POV/Narrative Device – This is a dramatic change, consider 1st vs 3rd person and suspense vs mystery vs dramatic irony…Anne will talk more about this momentarily.
  4. Wants & Needs – same because both genres are still in play.
  5. Controlling Idea & Theme – If global and supporting genre swap, the theme statement certainly shifts (aka the meaning the audience takes away will come through differently). Love prevails when, Success prevails when.
  6. BH / MB / EP – Certainly different.

It’s interesting to consider the two different mediums as well as the two different time periods they were written. Both seem to contribute to the writer’s intentions with the story, what they aim to do and how the devices and means they use to accomplish it.

Anne, tell us more about what we can learn by looking at the film version to the novel…

Anne – How does changing the structure affect the point of view?

Full disclosure here: I love this story, I’m a fan of the 19th century novel in general, and I’m ordinarily opposed to these kinds of cinematic adaptations that have to squeeze so much into a two hour capsule.

That said, I can appreciate this adaptation for its sheer visual beauty and for the filmmakers’ hard decisions about what to focus on and what to discard. Yes, they discarded or seriously shorthanded a lot of key ideas and moments in the novel, but that’s the job of an adapter. Studying films adapted from novels that you know well is an excellent way to understand the huge differences between a novel and a screenplay, and to make conscious choices about how you want to write either one.

The novel is narrated linearly and in the first person–in fact, its original published title was Jane Eyre, An Autobiography–whereas, as Kim has said, the movie begins at Jane’s All Is Lost Moment and then moves backward and forward in time. This choice on the part of the screenwriter had a couple of interesting effects that I think every story writer should think about.

The first is the effect it had on point of view. It’s hard to imagine the first person narrator, Jane, telling her story in that non-linear fashion. In a sense, it would require a kind lying or withholding, because of course the first person narrator must know what happened and how she came to be alone and starving in a rainstorm on the Yorkshire moor. Not telling us would have felt coy or sly. We would know that she knows what happened, and we would feel like we were being strung along with artificial suspense.

That device can work in light, comedic, or ironic stories, where the first person narrator simply says, “Hang on. To explain how I came to be clinging to a spar in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I have to take you back to the beginning.” But in a serious dramatic piece, cast in a more or less natural reality, you probably can’t get away with being that arch.

The second effect of the nonlinear narrative device also has to do with narrative drive. When Rochester proposes to Jane and she accepts, two thirds of the way through the movie, we get a powerful dose of two narrative drives at once. It took me a minute to sort through this, but let me give it a shot.

On the one hand, there’s dramatic irony. That’s pretty straightforward. We already know that Jane’s all is lost moment is still to come, and she doesn’t know it yet at this point in her timeline. It hasn’t happened yet for her, but we know it’s going to because we’ve seen her future.

On the other hand–and this is the curious effect–the movie’s narrator, that rather distant third-person view of Jane and her life that doesn’t exist in the novel, is almost like a meta-character, some other person who knows the whole story–the beginning, the middle and the end. WE have no idea yet how Jane gets from the happy marriage proposal to being alone on the moor. She doesn’t even suspect that it’s going to happen. But this narrator knows it all.

And in a curious way, that narrator–that meta-character–creates mystery.

Why is this important? Because although this is a love story and therefore technically an external genre story, it is very internal, very slow moving, very intensely emotional. There isn’t a great deal of external action. The mystery set up by making the all is lost moment the opening scene adds drive to a story that in its own day did just fine on suspense alone, but which might be difficult for modern audiences to sit through.

Examining the Principle from Other Perspectives

Jarie – The first thing Leslie and I wanted to look at is what the heck is a framing story. The simplest way to define it is as follows:

A framing story is a story set within a story, narrative, or movie, told by the main or the supporting character.

Pretty simple yet in the case of Jane Eyre, especially this version, it’s muddle because of how the director and writer chose to tell the story, which deviates from the original books linear presentation. Leslie will talk more about that later.

The classical way a framing story works is that a narrator is recounting a story from the past. The best modern example would be The Princess Bride in which the grandfather is telling his grandson about the growing love between Buttercup and Westley. It’s easy to see the framing story in The Princess Bride since it’s of the classical form — a narrator telling a story from the past to someone.

Another great example is James Cameron’s Titanic where Rose is narrating the story of her voyage on the Titanic and her romance with Jack all while in the real world adventures are hunting for the Titanic. In that case, both stories are self-contained and the embedded story (Rose and Jack’s romance) does not need the treasure seeking story and vis-a-versa.

The importance of the framing story or narrative is to give context or a history of how the character got to where they find themselves. Critical to the framing story structure is that the characters are far enough away from the recounting to provide perspective into the main story or that the stories don’t require each other to make sense.

Flashback would not be considered a framing narrative since it’s meant to fill in snippets of background that are needed to understand a specific detail. Usually, the flashback is a beat or a scene that cannot stand on its own or rather it does not last past the beat or scene it’s embedded in.

The framing story is a complete story arc, similar to a subplot, but again, told from a distance as to not intermingle with the main story. It’s this “recounting around the campfire” that makes the framing story not required to tell the recounted story. In other words, you don’t need the frame to tell the embedded story (e.g. recounted one). If you do need the framing story, then it’s probably not a classical framing story but rather a nonlinear method of storytelling. Leslie has more of that below.

Leslie – Full disclosure: For me, Mr. Darcy will always be Colin Firth, and Mr. Rochester will always be Toby Stephens. That said, I’ve come to appreciate this adaptation for what it is, though I didn’t warm to it right away.  

First I want to share a few observations. This adaptation seems to require familiarity with the book or prior adaptations that are linear. It feels more like a short story that consists of running from Thornfield, dwelling in and near Moor House, and returning to Thornfield Hall. We’re given backstory by way of explanation, to provide context, but the middle build is not happening in the story’s present.

Many significant details from the original novel are missing. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting and considering why the writer would make these choices. We’re given a taste of Jane’s experiences at Lowood, Thornfield Hall, and with the Rivers family, but key facts are missing, particularly about Grace Poole (which goes a long way to explain some of the strange things in the home) and the fact that St John and his sisters are Jane’s cousins.

About the topic at hand, nonlinear storytelling is self-explanatory; the writer reveals the story events out of order. But why might we choose to use this structure? Humans have a preference for linear storytelling, and moving events around has a jarring effect on the reader, pulling them out of the dream of the narrative. This technique requires master craft skills to keep the reader engaged while taking them in different directions. The writer is not presenting the typical cause and effect relationship (demonstrated by the controlling idea/theme) of a more conventional narrative, but presenting some alternate relationship between the story events, usually some logical argument. We need a pretty good reason to choose it, something that outweighs the downside and delivers a satisfying reading experience.

Murder mysteries are classic examples of the use of interwoven linear and nonlinear stories. Often times the line of the investigation unfolds chronologically, but the detective puts together the story of the crime and whodunnit in a nonlinear fashion, as the clues arise.

In other genres, nonlinear storytelling shifts the reader’s focus from what’s happening (that is, the cause and effect) to something else, revealing something of storytelling itself. It tends to be more allegorical, as if the writer wants us to stay awake for clues that she’s planted to bring us to a specific conclusion. John Gardner sums up the basic difference between linear and nonlinear plotting as exploration versus demonstration.

I thought about why the screenwriter might structure it this way, before checking with secondary sources. Strange as it sounds, it suggests to me the message that Jane got lucky. It just so happens that Mr. Rochester turned out to be a decent guy (though a lot of the evidence about why that’s the case is missing from this film), but given all that happened (his dishonesty and willingness to jeopardize her legal standing as his wife), she might have been better off dismissing the ghostly voice that called to her and taking her chances by staying at the village school. In other words, a cautionary tale that ends positively. That’s just one possibility that occurred to me—and I could be totally wrong about it.

From an interview with screenwriter Moira Buffini, she was going for the gothic thriller angle, rather than a love story. She casts the story in a different light, staying true to the spirit of the original, despite not having the screentime to include the details I mentioned above. Buffini also needed to solve the problem of some of the original story structure that played well in the 1840s, but wouldn’t in a two-hour film.

We do see nonlinear stories more often these days than in the past, and I wondered why that might be. Changes in narrative method generally reflect the way we see and think about the world. For example, storytelling has changed significantly since films and television were introduced, and as a result, readers are less tolerant of showing and demand more telling than was found in 19th century novels. Similarly, it’s thought that the rise in nonlinear storytelling is a reflection of the “live, real-time nature” of life in the early 21st century.

Closing Thoughts

Anne – Leslie’s insights into how much of the novel was elided for the movie brings me to thoughts that I haven’t fully pinned down yet. They have to do with what a novel is. I don’t have a solid definition, but one thing it is NOT is a movie.

We’ve struggled with this difference on the podcast, because most of us, and most of our listeners, are novelists. Yes, there’s a lot in common between the two forms, and all Story Grid principles apply to them both, and sometimes I think we all wonder whether the written form is just dying a slow death because movies and shows are so much easier.

But I wanted to call attention to Episode 82 of The Allusionist Podcast (a podcast about language), which looks into the unique healing powers of reading a novel.

“When you’re feeling unwell, what’s the book you read to make yourself feel better? And why does it work? In this episode, a clinical psychologist explains why she sometimes prescribes novel-reading to her patients–how attachment to characters in a story can take them out of OCD behaviors.”

She’s specific about reading rather than watching TV or movies because of the role that active participation plays in reading. The reader controls the speed of unfolding, and the act of imagining and connecting with characters is cognitively different from any other form. Reading is more soothing and paradoxically more actively demanding, and therefore more healing for people with anxiety or obsessive thoughts. This episode really helped me think about why written stories are still important. As we move into Season 4 of our podcast, I plan to really look into novels are FOR, and how movies, as wonderful as they are, are not equivalent.

Kim – So full disclosure … I hadn’t realized the difference between the narrative devices of a framing story and a story that opens out of order! Narrative devices have been a blur for me and I don’t have a really clear idea in my head of the options and the distinct nuance between them. So thank you Jarie and Leslie for clarifying all of that for me and everyone.

My experience with Jane Eyre — I saw the film first. I had never read the book. I absolutely loved the film, and after I couldn’t wait to read the book. The book was very different and absolutely wonderful.

I love the sense of mystery and pacing I got from the film, and I love the drawn out ending of the novel, where Mr. Rochester recovers some of his sight, enough to see the blue of Jane’s dress and his child’s face. (so much crying!) Once I read the book, Jane Eyre became my favorite love story (even more than Pride & Prejudice!). These two characters, Jane and Rochester, just seize me in such a visceral way and I can’t shake them. (Also, they are featured in another of my all time favorite books, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, which I highly recommend.)

I love the film and the book for exactly what they are–two different ways to tell the same story…but! whatever way you choose will inherently change the story. This is fascinating to me. You can take the same characters and events (mostly) and the order in which you tell them fundamentally changes the story (aka pattern of meaning derived by the audience).

Determining the “how to tell it” with my own novel (narrative device, POV, where to open, etc) was very tricky because there were so many options, and each seemed valid. But each option made for a very different story. So it came down to me deciding what kind of story I wanted to tell, and what kind of story I didn’t want to tell. Either answer would have been okay, as long as I mean it.

So same goes for you. Look at what’s possible for your story. What are “all the ways you could tell it”? Look at pros and cons of each. And ultimately, connect with what matters most: why you are telling this story in the first place and what matters most to you about it. Find those things and let them be your guide. Your why for your story–the heart of what really matters to you–is like your first genre: everything else will stem from this.

Remember creative limits are good for us, they help us generate better ideas and make decisions. And they help us get to done, which is always a win. 🙂

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question was from Joanne, who asked whether a particular scene in Marvel’s Dr. Strange might contain the Speech in Praise of the Villain convention. You can hear Anne’s answer in the episode.

If you have a question about Framing stories, narrative devices, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by going to storygrid.com/resources, clicking on Editor Roundtable Podcast, and leaving us a voice message.

Join us next time when Anne challenges us to to examine the 2010 Christopher Nolan science fiction heist drama Inception for another nonlinear narrative device: nested stories. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Comments (2)
Author Leslie Watts

2 Comments

Fred Rege says:

Great discussion as always! The best example of the framing device? Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, IMHO 🙂

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Leslie Watts says:

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Fred! Thanks for letting us know. Story Grid editor Maya Rushing Walker has submitted a Story Grid edition of Frankenstein. Stay tuned!

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