Essential Elements of Story

Even though I may be seen as a downer to those who like to treat these characters as if they are real people having responses to each other and to situations as though they are actually going through these events, this post is going to attempt to reveal the method every show (or film), including “Doc Martin,” uses if it expects to be successful. We are watching characters act in particular ways because they are being manipulated by the writers to achieve a specific reaction. Sure, they are supposed to be believable and appear as though they are people we could meet and become friends with. However, no matter how much we care about what their relationship with their mothers was like when they were children, or what their psychological circumstances are, we should somewhere keep in mind that we are engaging in the suspension of disbelief for the sake of enjoying a good story. By that I mean we are allowing ourselves to be drawn into the story of these characters for a certain length of time knowing they are symbolic figures and will not necessarily follow the likely path that would occur if they were operating in the real world.

A Handbook to Literature, basically the bible for understanding literary terminology, distinguishes story from plot. Significantly for our purposes, the Handbook states, “the plot lies in relations among episodes…it is, therefore, a guiding principle for the author and an ordering control for the reader….Since the plot consists of characters performing actions in incidents that comprise a ‘single, whole, and complete’ ACTION, this relation involves conflict between opposing forces. Without conflict, without opposition, plot does not exist…This opposition knits one INCIDENT to another and dictates the causal pattern that develops the struggle. This struggle…comes to a head in some incident — the CRISIS — that forms the turning point of the STORY and usually marks the moment of greatest SUSPENSE. In this climactic EPISODE the RISING ACTION comes to a termination and the FALLING ACTION begins; and as a result of this incident some DÉNOUEMENT or CATASTROPHE is bound to follow.”

The next comment it makes is most important: “Plot is, in this sense, an artificial rather than a natural ordering of events. Its function is to simplify life by imposing order thereon…Plot brings order out of life; it selects only one or two emotions out of a dozen, one or two conflicts out of hundreds, only one or two or three people out of thousands, and a half dozen EPISODES from possible millions. In this sense it focuses and clarifies life.”

Furthermore, the Handbook tells us: “The most effective incidents are those springing naturally from the given characters, the most effective plot, from this point of view is to translate CHARACTER into ACTION.”

Here we have the fundamentals of writing a strong plot that create the link between author (writer) and reader (viewer). All good stories contain these elements and we can certainly see how they work in each episode of “Doc Martin” as well as each series. Because DM has evolved into a story about the relationship woes between Martin and Louisa, which I think was inevitable and should have been obvious from the moment they portrayed them conflicting in S1E1, they have developed plots based on these conflicting characters. They are the primary players in the series and, for the most part, the other characters are important only insofar as they impact these two.

Another source I like to use is Robert McKee’s Story , a book written by a prominent teacher of screenwriting. I took his grueling seminar about ten years ago and so have many famous writers for screen, including Peter Jackson, William Goldman, Quincy Jones, Kirk Douglas, and many more. When I took his course in NYC, Faye Dunaway was also in attendance. For our purposes, his elucidation of story in his book that I want to quote is: “The grand difference between story and life is that in story we cast out the minutiae of daily existence in which human beings take actions expecting a certain enabling reaction from the world and, more or less, get what they expect. In story we concentrate on that moment, and only that moment, in which a character takes an action expecting a useful reaction from his world, but instead the effect of his action is to provoke forces of antagonism. The world of the character reacts differently than expected, more powerfully than expected, or both.”

Since probably my favorite episode is S6E1, I want to use it to illustrate the above elements. I will describe what I see as the plot points that are employed and note how the writers, et. al. select these scenes out of all the ones they could have chosen from Real life.

We can start at the very beginning. It’s Martin and Louisa’s wedding day, but we don’t know this immediately because the first scene is Martin doing a gynecological exam on the green grocer. But wait, we left off S5 with him and Louisa walking together hand in hand. What’s happened between that moment and this one? How much time has transpired? Martin treats this patient the way he typically has treated most patients in the past and she, somehow, doesn’t know it’s his wedding day. But, we have no objections once we find out that’s where he’s going next.

We still don’t know where Louisa is or how long it’s been since we last saw them together. However, that’s about to become clearer once Martin changes his clothes and gets into the taxi. Wait…where is he going in a taxi looking so serious? Why isn’t he driving his Lexus? Don’t ask. Just suspend your disbelief some more because he’s greeted by the crew once he steps out of the taxi and we are more interested in knowing that he is at the church to be married to Louisa. Now we see JH for the first time in S6 and we can tell that he’s older, probably 5-6 months old. If we bother to think about it, we can now say it’s been about 4 months since we left them walking away from the Castle.

Once again Louisa is not there, and the likelihood is that her delay is meant to remind us of the aborted wedding plans from S3. There’s a little suspense while we wait for her to appear. In that period, we may notice that Ruth and baby James are the only family members in attendance. If it’s been 4 months since the last series, Louisa’s mother Elinor would have been back from any trip she took and could have been invited to the wedding. Why isn’t she there? Well, my view is that reintroducing her in this series only brings in plot points they don’t want or need. Besides, later in the series we hear Martin say his family consists of his wife, his son, and Ruth. They are neatly packaged in this first episode as such and it never occurs to us to wonder where Elinor is. In real life, there would probably be much more difficulty keeping her out of the picture. After all, Louisa had made peace with Elinor by the end of S5 and accepted her mother’s need to head off on more adventures. Why wouldn’t she want her mother at her wedding? However, it’s only at the end of S6 that Louisa decides to visit her mother in Spain and mentions her again. Have they spoken during the past few months? Has Louisa sought Elinor’s advice or sympathy while dealing with Martin and his mother? That’s not important to this plot and not included.

Louisa does show up, claiming that her hair delayed her (a funny excuse that could be a reference to how much brides fuss about their hair). The wedding proceeds without Elinor, but with humorous comments by the vicar and the usual missteps, and the reception that follows is filled with the many secondary characters behaving in ways we’ve come to expect and enjoy. Penhale makes a speech that is laudatory but gets interrupted by Bert, who wants the event to move along. Bert has already sampled the food and found it deficient, and Morwenna has been used as a link between Martin and Louisa and led us to the dancing scene. Meanwhile, Chippy Miller has approached Martin with a medical problem while Martin is admiring Louisa and possibly marveling at/internalizing having Louisa as a wife. Would a patient do this at a real wedding. I hope not! But it happens here because it’s part of the plot of the show to have patients come up to ask Martin for advice at the oddest times. It also prompts Martin to seek out Louisa and suggest leaving.

At this moment, the music begins and everyone expects them to dance. They have their dance, with a few minor glitches, and decide to slip out to avoid any shenanigans by Bert. Somehow most of the guests don’t notice they are leaving, and they make it outside with the baby in hand. However, again somehow the important characters are out there before they show up and are ready to encourage them to spend a night at a lodge. Ruth is sure she can handle the baby for one night, their bags have been secretly packed, and they are whisked off with Bert driving. No mess, no fuss. Martin didn’t have a car to worry about anyway and no one gives it another thought.

Along the route to the lodge they pass the man they will later encounter in the woods. Here he is holding some animal over his shoulder and follows the car with his eyes as it passes him. They, too, see him, and he may give them a few misgivings because of his inhospitable appearance. We also see a horse that figures in a later scene. (At night when they hear someone yelling in the woods, they don’t think of him and, when they come upon his caravan, they don’t appear to recognize him, or him them.)  Perhaps they originally set this up so that they would remember each other and then ditched it. Primarily, though, the effect is to let us know that where they are going is isolated and wild. They don’t mention any of this to each other so we have no idea what they’re thinking; we can only use their faces as a guide and Louisa looks a little uncomfortable.

Of course, they make it to the lodge where they have no phone reception and shouldn’t need it if the night goes as planned. Needless to say, it doesn’t, and Martin decides to head out to find a phone they can use. The reality is that they actually would have had trouble getting phone reception out there (or in town for that matter), but wouldn’t he have been better off retracing the route Bert used to bring them to the lodge? That’s what most people would do, but for this plot they need him to head into the woods. It turns out they spend the entire night in the woods, entering it and exiting it during daylight. (The nights in Cornwall are shorter than in some other places, but that would still mean spending at least 6 hours in the dark.) Do we care how long they’ve been in the woods? Not really.

Once they enter the woods, Martin and Louisa begin to disagree. She thinks he’s going the wrong way and he’s sure he knows what he’s doing. They have a confrontation with the horse that leads to Louisa making fun of Martin. But the CONFLICT between them reaches its height when they arrive at the brook and Louisa refuses to walk across it. In my opinion it is at this point where a CRISIS develops. Even though Martin suggests that he carry Louisa across, they have a heated argument over how their honeymoon plans had been determined and by the time they reach the other side of the water, Louisa’s anger level is raised to a point that she tells Martin he never understands anything and she says, “you’re right, this was a mistake.” She appears to mean spending the night at the lodge, but we could also consider her to be making a remark about getting married at all. Nevertheless, their encounter with the caravan owner brings them together by motivating them to defend each other to him and by using the plot device of having them work together to tend to the damage to the man’s carotid artery that was caused by broken glass from the awning falling on him. The dénouement has been reached, catastrophe averted, and all ends rather harmoniously as they walk up the dirt road pushing the man in a wheelbarrow.

We don’t know how they got the wheelbarrow, how they made it to the road, and when the sun arose, and we don’t need to know. We also don’t know what transpires between the time they hail the truck that fortuitously appears on the road at that moment and when they are back in their house. It’s not important for the plot. The episode ends with more of the typical mayhem during which the kitchen is once again filled with the main characters of the story plus the appearance of a patient at a most unpropitious time accompanied by the barking dog. We know, however, that their marriage is on a good footing at this point because they find a moment to speak to each other quietly and decide together what they plan to do next.

We could be tempted to fill in the gaps, and often that is exactly what fan fiction does, but for the purposes of the show, they are left open and should be. As McKee writes: “The substance of story is the gap that splits open between what a human being expects to happened when he takes an action and what really does happen; the rift between expectation and result, probability and necessity. To build a scene, we constantly break open these breaches in reality.” In addition, he states, “the source of the energy in story… [is]…the gap. The audience empathizes with the character, vicariously seeking his desire. It more or less expects the world to react the way the character expects. When the gap opens for character, it opens for the audience. This is the ‘Oh, my God!’ moment, the ‘Oh, no!’ or ‘Oh yes!’ you’ve experienced again and again in well-crafted stories.”

There’s nothing better than getting taken away by the plot of a story in which you identify with the characters and empathize with them. My goal in writing this post is not to diminish that in any way. However, I struggle with going too far and developing detailed backstories for our protagonists. Much of what we see on our screens was never meant to be taken to that extent. In fact, if we get too deep into concocting childhood events that may have led to one or another behavior as an adult, I think we may suck all the enjoyment out of simply going along with the story. We wouldn’t want that to happen!

Originally posted 2015-08-16 14:40:02.

12 thoughts on “Essential Elements of Story

  1. Santa Traugott

    Shoot. I had a lengthy reply written and hit the wrong button, and it disappeared. It’s late now and I’ll try again in the morning.

  2. Santa Traugott

    Thanks for writing this. There is much to digest, and some things I am not sure that I fully understand, but here are some thoughts, first on the creative process itself.

    There is a funny site called Tropes of Doc Martin. From the Wikipedia definition of trope: “The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.” I wonder whether somewhere there exists a written library of such tropes, such that when authors need a plot device, they can turn to a shelf and pluck one off. Probably these devices are just part of the zeitgeist, and always available to a perceptive writer.

    Where do plots themselves come from? Does someone sit down, examine a list of plot types and say to themselves, well now I’m going to tell a Quest story? I think that these basic plot themes are more likely themes in general culture, which recur over and over. The choice of plot depends on which happens to resonate most with the writer. Then, because certain basic plot themes recur over and over, a good writer (or reader) has some intuitive understanding of what has to happen and in what order.
    I wonder if, while the basic elements of plot construction and moving a story along can be taught, the choice of theme comes not from formal instruction (i.e., this is what has to happen in a Quest story) but are chosen from the writer’s own creative source, plus probably a guess as to what would resonate most commercially.

    It sounds like I’m denigrating the formal teaching of literature which is the last thing I mean to do. I think writers and other creators (and certainly me, as a reader) are much helped by having a formal structure in which to think about what they’re doing, or reading, and certainly not all elements of story-construction reside internally in a writer and just need to be brought to consciousness in some formal way. Much remains to be taught. If it were that simple, we’d all have options or advances from publishers and producers.

    You say: “We could be tempted to fill in the gaps, and often that is exactly what fan fiction does, but for the purposes of the show, they are left open and should be. “ I think that’s the reason why most fan fiction feels a bit flat to me – there are no gaps. We are privy to the inmost thoughts of each of the characters, and every detail is carefully attended to, to make sure that nothing happens that can’t be explained. I wonder if it’s not the gaps themselves that help to draw us in, as in “what in the world is going on here – I need to keep reading, or watching, to figure this out.”

    I particularly like your point about things happening that don’t really need an explanation, even though we all understand that in real life, these details would be filled in, e.g., Elinor at the wedding. Here’s another one about which there’s been a lot of discussion: what happened to Martin’s doctor’s bag and the defibrillator which he left on the steps when he went back in the house to propose to Louisa? When he walks out the next day, we don’t see them. Discussion of this usually winds up as, he must have gone back to the surgery because certainly the defibrillator needs to be charged, and there are patients there, etc., and he came back later. Of course this would likely happen in real life (at least he would have brought the bags inside and been seen carrying them back). But the writer wants to underline the deeply impulsive and passionate nature of the moment, which we are to assume, carries them through to the bedroom. The next morning, the writers want us to see Martin, the man and not the doctor, striding away, for once happy and unencumbered with baggage. We’re not meant to be worrying about loose ends here. This is clearly a director’s choice and not a continuity error.

    Similarly, many have pointed out that Louisa, sedated for her operation, would likely not remember Martin’s “better husband” plea to her. I don’t believe we’re meant to think that realistically about the scene. In a drama with only so many minutes, everything has to have a point and contribute to the story line, and there’s no reason at all for that speech to be included if she isn’t meant to hear it. The audience already knows that Martin wants to change. It adds so much to the poignancy (and the irony) of the story, if Louisa, having heard his plea, feels that she can no longer be swayed by promises, which are now too little, too late. And it also gives her a rationale for rethinking, in S7, her decision to leave him.

    And nothing reveals this lack of concern about details irrelevant to the movement of the plot more charmingly than the revolving cast of babies, who do not really resemble each other. It’s like they’re saying, this isn’t real, this isn’t their real baby, let’s just not worry about minor details about whether this is the same baby, and move along.

    The series’ writers play with storytelling conventions in an interesting way. They are always letting us know, I think, that they are telling us a story and we’re not in real life. They consciously play with the fairy-tale theme, as in the first scene of S3. The scene at the Castle which ends S5, burlesques Romeo and Juliet.

    All of the characters are painted with broad brushes, their weaknesses and strengths exaggerated. It’s like looking at a painting and saying, but it doesn’t look like that in real life. Of course it doesn’t. You’re meant to be looking at an abstraction which conveys more meaning and sense and crucially, feeling, than if you treated all details equally.

    Last, I do take your point about too much psychologizing, and that the writers probably didn’t mean for their characters to be analyzed in so much depth. But I also think that, unless you have a pretty well fleshed-out backstory, you can’t really develop the character and have his actions follow naturally from his character. So you have to know at least, what this character would and would not do, following from your understanding of his/her history. Otherwise, the actions the character takes would be disjointed and feel wrong and arbitrary. Wardrobe, makeup, set design – all take cognizance of this as well, or should. But they only explicitly let us in on the elements of the backstory that are going to be relevant to plot developments to come – as when they must have decided, after S2 was picked up, that they had to give us some clues about Martin, and introduced his dreadful parents.

    Enough, and more than enough. Thanks again for the post.

  3. Post author

    First I want to say that I did not know about the Tropes of Doc Martin website until you mentioned it here. I noticed that there are tropes for Jurassic Park and other films too. It’s kind of an odd thing to put together, but we all have our predilections.

    I don’t know if there is a list for writers to choose from, but writers are generally aware of a host of them, e.g the damsel in distress sort of thing. I definitely do not think there is a formula that writers should follow or are making an effort to follow. The derivation of much of what’s in A Handbook to Literature is Aristotle, who seems to have been among the first to have closely analyzed the stories he saw and determined their significant components. There’s a long history of looking at what makes great literature great and how to study it. Of course, the established characteristics then lead writers to transgress them and manipulate them, and we have to keep modifying our understanding of the most effective ingredients. It’s like knowing how to bake a cake and then adding more of this, and a little of that, until you have your own version of the original. Still the main ingredients must be used or the cake will be a flop.

    To the best of my knowledge, the ideas that writers come up with are generated by their personal experiences, various things they read or interact with, and sometimes just having good imaginations and creative thoughts. It’s what they do once they have the ideas that constructs a good story/plot. They spend a lot of time honing the incidents they want to use in a show, for example. One writer may come up with several incidents, then another writer or editor reads those and reframes them or suggests others instead, and this process goes on until they strongly believe they’ve come up with the best incidents of the lot and the best order to put them in. What to keep in and what to leave out is often the most difficult part of the decision-making because you may have to throw out an incident that you just love simply because, after you give it enough thought, it just doesn’t work well, or as well as a different incident. Many writers go through hours of work only to decide the path they were following leads the wrong way and they have to start over.

    I think you’ve chosen a good example when you mention the babies and our acceptance of them even when there are marked differences in features among them. We are aware they are placeholders and stand for “the baby.” In some shows we have come to accept substitutions for older characters too. Many actors have played Dr. Who over the years and no one objects much. Viewers are supposed to accept that the new doctor is a new incarnation of the previous one.

    I agree entirely that major characters in shows usually have well developed backstories, just not to the extent that we’ve taken it at times. We were having fun and passing the time by speculating what someone with the character traits we know of could be dealing with psychologically and taking educated guesses as to how that person might behave. We cannot be sure that they meant Martin to have Asperger’s exactly, and they tease us with that on occasion, or be certain that all of his personality traits were intentionally supposed to demonstrate any specific disorder. Similarly, we can’t say for sure what sort of influences on Louisa may have led to her behavior. Those are more of the gaps they deliberately do not fill in. Ambiguity is purposeful and enriches the story, as you know I’ve argued previously.

    On the subject of ambiguity, I think there can be a variety of views about that speech Martin makes to Louisa in the operating room, and it’s purposely planned that way. You think she had to have heard it, that he wouldn’t have made it unless she was intended to remember it. I think there’s every possibility that it fits into the same category as many of their conversations, i.e. they are curtailed by circumstances and often misinterpreted by one of them the next day. There’s certainly a chance that Louisa remembers some of what he said, but her disjointed remarks make her appear quite stuporous and, therefore, could mean she was in no shape to grasp what he was telling her. One thing she knows for sure is that he came after her and she thanks him for that the next day. Does she remember that he was coming after her before he knew she had an AVM? We don’t know.

    My enjoyment comes from analyzing what they’ve put in the plot rather than what they could have put in it. I still closely relate to the characters and their trials, and I can’t help wondering why the writers, et. al. made some of the choices they made. I have had enough of Mrs. T, but there she is in S7. Selina Cadell is great in the role, but by the end of S6 I felt the character had devolved into a caricature that I had grown tired of. They also have brought her husband Clive back. The only thing that occurs to me is that everyone is back in case this is the last series. We’ll see.

  4. Amy

    OK, I found the post about S6E1 (after reading through a few others where it is mentioned more in passing than in depth)!
    I loved this episode also, but perhaps for different reasons. I will say up front that I am a romantic and that I found this episode one of the most romantic of the entire series (meaning in the American sense, not in the sense of the sixth season). Why? Because despite the obstacles, the arguments, the blood and mud and smoke, Martin and Louisa worked as a team from beginning to end. From the wedding scenes through the scenes with the caravan owner, they both were working really hard to communicate. Even their conflict in the woods was romantic—her making fun of him, him carrying her through the water, her helping him when he fell down the hill. I really felt that the writers were setting us up for a final season when M & L would struggle but be happy. Instead, things got ugly. I think, as I’ve said before, they could have continued these themes without tearing the couple apart.

    And I thought the exchange they had over Louisa not telling Martin what she wanted for a wedding and honeymoon but rather guessing at what he would want was so true to so many relationships. We want our partner to read our minds rather than telling him/her what we want, and then we are disappointed when they can’t read our minds. Who knows what Martin would have said if Louisa had said she wanted a big wedding and long honeymoon? But at least he would have known what she wanted. It’s just too bad that there was never any follow-up to that exchange throughout season 6 or even season 7.

  5. Post author

    I can see how you might look at the episode as generally having them work together, but I am always trying to keep in mind that as a dramedy, the comedy takes a prominent position. Uppermost is their inability to communicate. With that in mind, everything that happens relates to that. From Martin’s first glance at Louisa when she has to indicate he should walk down the aisle, to the wedding band exchange, the stay at the lodge, the walk in the woods, etc., etc., they are either on different wavelengths or interrupted.

    I do agree that ultimately they end up in sync with each other and the episode ends with every indication that S6 would be filled with the kind of marital strife that is typical of many couples. I have also argued that there was no need to tear them apart in the manner that S6 followed. But that was the decision that was made and S7 kind of bent over backwards in an effort to revive the humor, although Martin and Louisa’s relationship remained strained.

    I would have preferred more of the kind of humor we saw in E1 too.

  6. Amy

    Yes, the dramatic tension and the comedy came from their continuing struggle to communicate. I wasn’t suggesting that all was peaches and cream. But in this episode usually it was dealt with gently or with humor by the two of them, except when Louisa had her outburst after crossing the stream. Martin even made a joke! That’s what I meant by saying that there could still be conflict without it being so destructive.

    All couples miscommunicate and bicker, and it can easily be played for both drama and comedy. Look at the Honeymooners or I Love Lucy or more current shows like Modern Family and Blackish. Too bad the DM writers didn’t take that path.

  7. Post author

    You need to read my post titled “Is Reconciliation Boring?” I actually mentioned some of the same TV shows. You’ll see that I agree with you. Also, I wrote about the first 3 episodes of S6 and how they conformed to the typical episodes from previous series, whereas thereafter they decided to head in a downward direction and remove much of the humor. There has been much speculation on this site about the possible rationale for handling S6 like this, and some readers think taking ME to his lowest point was justifiable. As with everything, arguments can be made on both sides. I’m with you on this though. The show originated as a dramedy with emphasis on comedy. Taking it much more into the drama genre just didn’t make sense to me, and is still hard for me to explain. The only way I can come close to understanding it is that they felt they had to try new things. Major depression came as a result of the reappearance of his haemophobia and his mother, and the added stress of being married with a child, but sending him into such a tailspin was a significant change in tone that didn’t work for me.

  8. Post author

    Another thing I should mention is that I wrote a long post on S6E1 and its funny scenes. I hope you’ve read that too.

  9. Amy

    OK, I will look for that one.

    It didn’t work for me either (the darkness of the tone), and it seemed completely contrary to the earlier seasons. I’d have been happy to have the whole series end after S6E1. But I would have missed the characters so I guess I am glad it didn’t.

  10. Post author

    The post is titled “S6 E1 and its funny scenes” and was posted on Nov. 16, 2013. I think you have to write it just as I did here, with a space between the series and episode numbers, or it may not come up. You may also be able to find it by searching the month and year.

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