This week, I’m looking at Ragtime to continue my study of Point of View and Narrative Device. I’ll focus on the 1975 novel written by E. L. Doctorow, but we’ll also examine the 1981 film of the same name, directed by Miloš Forman from a screenplay by Michael Weller and Bo Goldman.
Content Warning: Just so you’re aware, both the novel and film include racial and cultural epithets.
I’ll start with a summary of the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff as they involve the main characters of the novel. Ragtime is the story of three families, and their stories overlap, eventually coming together in the ending payoff.
Mother finds a baby in the garden while Father is away, and the baby’s mother, Sarah, is found. But when the police want to take Sarah and the baby away, Mother must decide whether to take them into her home or not. Mother takes them in. Father wants to protest upon his return, but he relents.
Coalhouse Walker begins courting Sarah, and she soon agrees to marry him, but when Sarah is killed while seeking justice on his behalf, Coalhouse must decide whether to back down or seek justice through other means. Coalhouse blows up a fire station and promises further violence if his demands for justice are not satisfied.
Tateh and the Little Girl leave NYC and end up in Lawrence, MA, where the millworkers soon strike over cut wages, but when police attack women and children during children’s crusade, Tateh must decide whether to continue as a working man or find another way to support his daughter. When they arrive in Philadelphia, he makes a deal to create film books, which enables him and the Little Girl a comfortable living.
Mother prevails upon Father to allow Coalhouse to court Sarah, who eventually agrees to marry, but after Coalhouse’s revolt and pressure from the authorities make the family feel unsafe, they must decide whether to stay in New Rochelle or go elsewhere. Father suggests they go to Atlantic City, and they take Coalhouse’s son with them to stay at the beach, where they strike up a friendship with Baron Ashkenazy (Tateh) and the Little Girl.
Coalhouse, with the help of his supporters and Younger Brother, occupy JP Morgan’s library and threaten to blow it up if Conklin isn’t turned over and his car restored, but when Father meets with Coalhouse and convinces authorities to negotiate, Coalhouse must decide whether to surrender or not. He convinces the other young men to leave, and the police kill Coalhouse as he surrenders. Younger Brother drives to Mexico where he participates in the Mexican Revolution. After Father is killed on the Lusitania, Mother and Tateh are married, and they along with Little Girl, Little Boy, and Coalhouse’s son move to California.
I chose Ragtime before George Floyd’s murder because of the skillful use of narrative device and point of view. But I want to point out that it’s a story that is just as relevant now as when it was published in 1975. We need Society Stories, and this is a great example.
Society stories explore power relationships and the stories or lies tyrants tell to gain and maintain power. So we need access to different characters who represent levels within the hierarchy of the particular setting or domain of the story and their need for agency.
Especially in the Historical subgenre, we see power hierarchies playing out in several micro settings including political, professional, social, and family arenas. This dramatizes both the depth and breadth of the problem we want to unpack, how can we expose tyrants to gain agency? Objectively speaking, we all benefit when everyone can exercise their agency to express their unique gifts for the benefit of their communities. But tyrants or shadow agents seek to gain power by suppressing the agency of individuals or classes.
Society-Historical stories aren’t only about examining events of the past, though they may reference and involve real events and historical figures within the story. These stories allow us to see the power struggles of our own time through a different lens and may even suggest how we came to be where we are today. They tend to be more expansive than Political or Domestic Society stories and provide a view of the lives of the tyrants. If you’re curious about other examples, consider the novels Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, or the 2014 film Selma, written by Paul Webb and directed by Ava DuVernay.
Leslie– Point of View and Narrative Device
I’m continuing my study of POV and narrative device this season. As I’ve often said, if genre is what your story is about, the combination of your POV and narrative device is the way you deliver the story to your 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 is the content or substantive element of the way you deliver the story to your reader and answers the questions, who or what is the source of the story, when and where is that source located in relation to the events and characters of the story, who is the story for, and why is it being told? 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?
POV and Narrative Device give writers useful constraints to make decisions that support the story you want to tell. I explore how to choose your POV in a Bite Size episode. And I’ll go further in my Story Grid beat on POV coming out later this year.
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, Writership.com/POV.
What’s the narrative opportunity presented by the premise?
I start my analysis by looking at the opportunity presented by the premise. The premise is a concise statement about a specific character(s) in a setting with a problem, which is challenging in Ragtime because it’s a story with many settings and characters and operating on multiple levels of conflict.
The setting is the greater New York City area in the early 20th century before World War I, but a few scenes take us to Europe and Africa.
Ragtime is a complex story with lots of characters, but Coalhouse Walker is the most central. His life touches all others to a greater or lesser extent, and every character has an interest in the way his story plays out. Other characters include people of color like Sarah and her baby, who have almost no agency when the story begins, and working class white people like Conklin, the fire chief in New Rochelle. Hopeful yet poor immigrants are represented by Tateh. Middle class women are represented by Mother, and property and business owners are represented by Father. Public officials are represented by Whitman, the New York DA, and men with extreme wealth and power are represented by J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford.
Society stories require a large internal or external canvas to allow for multiple levels of conflict including the personal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal. In Ragtime, we have both. We’re looking at a large external canvas that includes the greater New York City area, but also events from other parts of the world that affect or are affected by the events in New Rochelle. But the external events don’t tell the whole story, so we need to see the internal thoughts and conflicts that drive the external actions, for example, of Mother and Tateh, but also characters like Whitman the DA and JP Morgan.
Historical fiction, like fantasy or science fiction, requires significantly more context and worldbuilding to acclimate the reader to the relevant but unfamiliar aspects of the setting. This is particularly true when demonstrating different cultures within society.
To cover this much territory, it’s hard to imagine any POV other than some form of omniscience, which is exactly what Doctorow chose.
What’s the POV?
Again, I’m focusing on the novel, and its POV is Editorial Omniscient. This POV is the most expansive and provides the most freedom for the writer, but is difficult to manage because it has no built-in constraints.
In editorial omniscient, the narrator has access to the words, actions, sensations, and thoughts of all the characters to tell the story. Unlike neutral omniscience, the reader can be addressed directly. In Ragtime, this often happens when the narrator reveals the source of particular information, like how they know about Little Brother’s involvement with Coalhouse because of the diary Little Brother kept.
What’s the narrative device?
The narrator is anonymous, but first person singular and plural references suggest that the narrator could be the Little Boy alone or with the Little Girl.
The Little Boy is a precocious child who is aware of a lot more than the adults are willing to acknowledge, and the implication is that he cannot trust the stories adults tell so he seeks to learn the truth. He is also the source of the only true mystical experience Houdini ever had, when the boy tells the escapologist to “Warn the Duke.” The Little Boy has access to more information than the average young person.
The narrator seems to be both within and outside the story, though it’s clear from references to time that the events of the story took place in the distant past relative to the telling. The form appears to be spoken, like an oral history. Doctorow doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue, which I thought might be challenging, but it turns out to be very accessible.
Who is the story for? Generally for members of underrepresented classes, but if we look at the people who gain agency in this story, it is people like Coalhouse who saves the men who helped him, but also people like Mother and Tateh and Younger Brother. People who seek to fulfill their own potential and inspire and ally with members of other underrepresented classes. They are susceptible to inspiration and capable of inspiring others in turn.
I identify the message that someone like the Little Boy might want to tell this way: Tyrants beat back revolutions by co-opting revolutionary leaders to identify with the false stories tyrants tell, but individuals can gain power by claiming and sharing their own stories.
How well does it work?
Reading the novel and watching the film version of this story are a great example of the way the narrative device impacts the telling of the same basic story. Trying to squeeze a novel with the expansive scope of Ragtime into one hundred fifty minutes of film is an ambitious goal, and the film is solid. But so much of the point of the story is lost in translation because the narrative device and POV of the film (what Friedman calls the camera), cannot deliver the experience of the novel.
The novel from the anonymous narrator’s perspective, with the curated details selected, delivers on the expansive promise of the premise. But don’t take my word for it. Read this story for yourself.
Valerie – Beginning, Middle, End
Ragtime is a wide, sweeping story with multiple storylines—and multiple layers—so, as is often the case here on the podcast, I’ve got to limit the scope of my study. Otherwise, we’ll be here all day. This is the kind of story we could spend an entire season on!
For today, I’ll focus on Coalhouse Walker and the structure of his story, specifically in the movie.
In the beginning hook of the film, there’s actually very little of Coalhouse. We get snippets of him, but we don’t really know who he is or what impact he’ll have on the story generally. Thematically, that works extremely well. In Ragtime, we see a white man get away with murder and a black man get shot for wanting to be treated with common decency. So the first 45 minutes of the film is about establishing society as it is. For society, Coalhouse is barely noticeable. He’s hardly in the film because he barely registers on their radar, that is, until he walks up to Mother and Father’s house and rings the doorbell.
That action, ringing the doorbell, is the inciting incident of the middle build of Coalhouse’s storyline.
As I’ve mentioned in the previous episodes this season, Shawn recently introduced a way to break the middle build down into two parts which we call Middle Build One (MB1) and Middle Build Two (MB2).
The entire middle build is the hero’s journey through the extraordinary world. So during MB1, our hero is a fish out of water. He doesn’t really know how this place works, or who anyone is. He has only the skills, knowledge and beliefs that he’s brought with him from the ordinary world. The middle build belongs to the villain because it’s the villain’s home turf. He’s got the upper hand because he knows exactly how things work. Remember, in a society story, society is the primary antagonist but of course, society is represented by a number of characters in the story. We saw this with Brooklyn, Mrs. Doubtfire, Brokeback Mountain and other stories we’ve studied here on the podcast, and it’s exactly the case with Ragtime.
MB1 is the calm before the storm, and it builds in intensity to the midpoint shift (aka the midpoint climax or point of no return). The inciting incident of MB1, as I said, is when Coalhouse rings the doorbell. Father acts as the threshold guardian and he does not allow Coalhouse to enter. Instead, he’s told to wait around back where he meets the maid who he is able to get past. This scene is an excellent example of exposition as ammunition. In one minute, we discover that Coalhouse is the baby’s father, and since he’s clearly thrilled by the idea, we can infer the details of the beginning hook of his story, and it goes something like this:
BH Inciting Incident: Coalhouse is a piano player, picking up jobs here and there. It’s not much, but he’s getting by. Then he meets Sarah and they start a relationship.
BH Turning Point: Sarah tells Coalhouse that she’s pregnant.
BH Crisis: Does Coalhouse abandon Sarah and the child, or provide for them?
BH Climax: Coalhouse looks for steady work. He doesn’t care what it is, as long as it provides a regular income. He secures a job with a band.
BH Resolution: Coalhouse earns enough money to care for Sarah and the baby.
This could have been dramatized, but thematically it works better the way it is. Coalhouse is invisible to white society until he walks up and knocks on their door.
The turning point of MB1 is when the antagonist targets the protagonist. This is when the firefighters block Coalhouse’s car and deny him passage, stating that it’s a toll road (which of course is a lie). The turning point of MB1 is an opportunity for the antagonist to see a glimpse of the protagonist’s gift; to see what the protagonist is really made of. Conklin (the fire chief) assumes that Coalhouse will quietly accept the treatment that he’s given. He assumes that Coalhouse’s object of desire in this scene is to avoid conflict. Oh, how wrong he is! Coalhouse’s gift is that he is steadfast. Once he sets his mind to something, he locks on and won’t let go. He knows he’s in the right and he will not let this action slide. He’s done nothing wrong. His car should be cleaned, repaired and returned.
The crisis of course is whether Coalhouse will let it go, or seek justice. The general question here is always will the protagonist comply with the antagonist’s demands, or will he defy them? To really make this scene pop, try looking at it from the villain’s point of view. He’s seen the hero’s gift so here, in the MB1 crisis question, the villain is testing the hero to evaluate the level of threat he poses. The villain wants to know who he’s dealing with. You’ll remember that in Gatsby, the character Gatsby offers Nick a “side job” for a little extra cash. Nick declines and reiterates that inviting Daisy to tea is simply a friendly favour. So, Gatsby has seen Nick’s gift (of being a nice guy) and has determined that he’s not much of a threat; he’s someone Gatsby can use to further his own goals.
Here in Ragtime, society (the primary villain) is evaluating Coalhouse. Just how much of a threat is he? The fire chief, the police officer and Father (all white men) all tell Coalhouse to clean up the mess himself and let it go. Father and the cop seem to be giving Coalhouse what they consider to be friendly advice; they believe they’re trying to help him. What society learns is that Coalhouse will not be silent. Unlike Nick, who can be manipulated, Coalhouse poses a serious threat to the antagonist.
The scene-level climax was that Coalhouse decided to fight the injustice that he suffered because of the firefighters’ behaviour. The act level crisis (or, the crisis of MB1) is that Coalhouse continues to try to right the wrong. He seeks legal advice, from a barrister of colour, and is told again that he should just let it slide because all-in-all, this problem isn’t as serious as those he’s working on for other clients (who are dealing with primal issues like hunger and illness).
Coalhouse won’t relent, and in the resolution of MB1, Sarah speaks up on his behalf and is severely beaten and dies. Her death is the midpoint shift and marks the transition into Middle Build Two (MB2).
MB2 is known as the All Is Lost part of the story. It’s chaos. If MB1 is the calm before the storm, MB2 is the storm. The important thing to remember here is that when the hero plunges into chaos, the entire story and everyone in it also plunges into chaos.
MB2 kicks off with an event that is random and unexpected by both the hero and the villain, and they both respond in ways that counterbalance one another. In Ragtime, MB2 begins with the gang’s attack on the firehouse. The gang shoots the firefighters but Conklin, the person they were after, wasn’t among them. The firefighters weren’t expecting to be attacked, and the gang weren’t expecting to miss their mark.
The gang continues to attack, demanding that Coalhouse’s car be cleaned, repaired and returned.
I put the turning point of MB2 at the scene where Booker T. Washington visits Coalhouse at the J.P. Morgan building. Up to this point, Coalhouse believed he was fighting the same cause as Washington and while that may have been true at the outset, Coalhouse’s actions have actually set their cause for just treatment back; he hasn’t advanced it. He’d expected Washington’s admiration and support, but instead Washington reprimands him, and says that really, the best he can do at this point is to speak on Coalhouse’s behalf so that his execution is swift and painless.
The crisis, climax and resolution of this scene is also, in my opinion, the crisis, climax and resolution of MB2. Will Coalhouse listen to Booker T. Washington, or continue to seek justice through violence? There’s some terrific acting in this scene. It’s really worth your time to break this scene down beat-by-beat. I’ve talked in the past about the pros and cons of each of the different forms of storytelling. Our episode on Baby Driver is probably the most recent. In prose, writers can take the reader right inside the head of the character. We can reveal what our characters are thinking and feeling. Visual storytelling, like films and television, don’t have that option. As students of story then, we’ve got to pay close attention to the actors because often, the crisis (especially at the scene level) can only be seen through the acting.
Coalhouse decides to stay on his chosen path. This MB2 climax is when the hero commits, absolutely, to the challenge. It’s essential that he act willingly and Coalhouse certainly does.
The resolution of MB2 then is when Coalhouse prepares to really go to war with authorities, who of course, represent society.
I know that’s a lot of information for the middle build of Coalhouse’s story. This is a story that lends itself to multiple readings and deep analysis.
Just before I finish, I want to say this: we’re recording this episode on June 1, 2020. If anyone ever doubted the power of story, the importance of storytelling, and the responsibility that we, as storytellers have, read Ragtime and think about it in the context of what is currently unfolding in the United States. Then challenge yourself to find other novels that speak to society in an equally profound way. Of course not all stories need to be this heavy! There are times when we simply want to escape into a romance or cozy mystery or something like the James Herriot stories (which I adore). Those too are powerful. They have the power to uplift our spirits, renew our faith in humanity, make us laugh and generally feel good. That’s just as important.
Kim – Core Event of Society
About Core Events
I am studying Core Events this season. 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–core need, core value, core emotion, and core event–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.
Every story genre has these four core elements that make it what it is. The universal human need (or core need) is represented by global life values (core values) at stake. The protagonist’s (or luminary agent’s) pursuit of their object of desire leads to shifts in the core need along the spectrum, which evokes the core emotion–the particular experience and flavor of catharsis the reader is seeking when they choose the story. These elements exist across the spine of the story but culminate at their peak in the Core Event, where the protagonist has the most to gain and the most to lose. This big change moment is the climax of the EP and the global story, where the reader’s expectations for the genre experience are satisfied.
About Today’s Genre – Society’s Four Core Framework
The primary question of Society genre is what do we do in the face of tyranny? Do we go along with it or do we stand against it?
In The Four Core Framework, Shawn identifies the Core Need of Society as a specific flavor of the Esteem tank: Recognition. When I read this, it brought the conflict of a Society story into sharper focus for me. The tyrant refuses to recognize the underclass–the underclass are under-represented and therefore not seen, not acknowledged, not recognized. Seeing the story this way gives me fresh context for the Core Event, when the protagonist(s) either gain or lose this recognition.
The Core Value at stake for Society is Impotence and Power. When we think of these terms in context of the Core Need, it is the power to achieve recognition, or impotence to achieve recognition. If someone is in a position of power they can say, “Listen to me. See me. Hear what I have to say. Take my experience seriously.” But when they are a member of an underrepresented group within the society, they don’t have that power. They are powerless to be seen and heard.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr said it plainly: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
The tyranny, with the power to ignore those they choose not to care about, also will often have power over core needs: life, safety, justice, freedom, love, etc.
The Society-Historical subgenre will feature forces of antagonism particular to the place and time the story is set. One could say this about all stories, but the historical context is very specific and important.
When Recognition and Power/Impotence are gained/lost, we may experience a variety of Core Emotions: from intrigue, to triumph, to righteous indignation. Also, consider how the Four Core Framework of your internal genre will pair with your Society story to maximize satisfaction and catharsis.
The Core Event of Society is The Revolution Scene, when the hero’s gift is expressed and power changes hands. This is a distinct shift from one segment of society to the other, but depending on the story may be from the tyranny to the underclass or the underclass to the tyranny. This event can take many forms but will always include a revelation of truth where hypocrisy is exposed, either of the true nature of the tyrant or the co-opted member of the underclass, this leads to a revelatory shift in power from one segment of society to the other.
About Today’s Story – The Revolution Fails
After exhausting his legal options, and then his raid on firehouses, Coalhouse Walker Jr and his men use explosives to take the historical library hostage. His demands: that his model T car to be returned in pristine condition and Fireman Conklin to be delivered into his justice.
Coalhouse Walker strikes a deal so his men can escape and he’ll stay behind, promising to turn himself in. The model T car is delivered and the men escape. Father tries to convince Walker that his case still has a chance–he could still receive recognition for the injustice dealt to him by the firehouse, even if Walker himself will also face justice for his crimes.
Walker means to blow the library and sends Father running out of the building, but then changes his mind and emerges in surrender, exiting the building unarmed with his hands up. The Police Commissioner gives the order to shoot. Walker is shot dead on the steps of the library (Status-Tragic)–the promise of recognition for his injustice was simply a ruse to lure him out so he could be killed. Father gasps in shock and plays witness to the hypocrisy (Worldview-Disillusionment).
I mentioned last week that I’ve noticed that my understanding of the Core Event is best represented by two scenes. This week that second scene is the following resolution scene: we see Shaw–who murdered a man in cold bold in a room full of witnesses–being released to fanfare from the asylum. Evelyn Nesbit–who lied on the stand for money–is dancing the tango on stage. This only further highlights the hypocrisy of society and the injustice that Coalhouse Walker Jr received.
One sweet redeeming moment was Mother leaving Father with her son and Sarah and Coalhouse’s child. She joins the Jewish filmmaker and his daughter to start a new life as a beautiful blended family. But still, everyone else in the story goes on with their lives … but not Sarah and not Coalhouse Walker Jr.
In this particular story, I think the Core Emotion of the internal genre seemed to be at play more for me, at least in and following the Core Event. The tragic ending and resounding hypocrisy left me heartbroken. This will eventually give way to righteous indignation, but the loss that comes from disillusionment is what struck me the most.
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: Well, I didn’t learn it today, but Ragtime has really driven the home the importance of stories, and the responsibility we have as storytellers.
Kim: For me, today’s story is an example of the power of the Global Resolution scene to capitalize on the Core Event. This is a place where you can highlight the Core Value change that occurred and double down on the Core Emotion, leaving a lasting impression on your reader.
Leslie: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to say that every story I read and watch confirms my conclusion that choosing the most appropriate POV and narrative device for your story is vital. The difference between a story that’s pretty good and one that is excellent often comes down to the choice of POV and narrative device and how well they are executed. Here’s the thing. The film received nominations from the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Writer’s Guild of America, but it still pales in comparison to the novel.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Briaunna Mariah on Twitter. Briaunna writes:
What can you suggest for first time novel writers who don’t have Shawn guiding them? What if I think my novel fits the conventions/guides of Story Grid, should I trust that I’m on the right track? Thank you! #lovingthepodcast
Valerie: Hi Briaunna. I’m assuming that you’re a fellow story nerd, and that you’re interested in leveling up your craft and becoming the best writer you can be. That’s the kind of people we attract here at Story Grid.
So, working from that premise, there are a few things you can do here. First, I’d read Shawn’s book (The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know) and exhaust all the free resources that Story Grid has to offer (the podcasts and the Fundamental Fridays posts). Study masterworks in the genre that you’re writing in to make sure your book is in line with the conventions and obligatory scenes, and other genre-specific elements. If you’ve already done these things, you’re ready for the next level.
Remember, writing a novel is a skill that can be learned. And like all other skills, you’ve got to take the time to study and you’ve got to find a mentor—and by mentor, I mean someone who has demonstrated by example that they have a skill in this area. I’ve been where you are now and I chose Shawn as my mentor.
Believe me when I tell you that there’s lots to learn here. You can certainly learn some of it on your own, but I guarantee that it will take a lot longer, and you’ll misinterpret things. There are concepts I thought I understood when I studied on my own, but when I started to study with Shawn I realized that I was completely off track. That’s why I actively sought other story nerds to study with, and that’s how this podcast began.
So therefore, my absolute best recommendation is to invest both time and money in your writing career. Study the method so that you know whether you’re on the right track; don’t trust or hope. Get involved with the Story Grid courses (you can find a full list at www.storygrid.com/university/), join the Story Grid Guild (www.storygrid.com/guild) or hire a Story Grid Certified Editor to teach you how the method works.
Join us next time when Kim will look at 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes, based on the 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?
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