Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Stealing Plots

I previously wrote about “stealing” characters.  In that essay, I described several characters from popular fiction and how they might be seen as variations on the same character template.  I suggested that a writer can modify and reimagine existing characters to create new ones.  Actually, I think that is probably how most characters are born, even if the authors aren’t consciously aware of it.

Similarly, plots can be “stolen.”  Some have suggested that there are a very limited number of plots, so in a sense all writers are stealing from a small pool.  On the other hand, there is a lot more to a story than just the plot, so it may not matter.  Let me illustrate the idea with some examples.

A Christmas Carol is one of the most popular, and I think one of the best, ghost stories ever written.  Charles Dickens’ novella was first published in 1843.  The story has been adapted to the stage (including opera), many films, radio, television (my wife and I are fond of the 1984 version with George C. Scott as Scrooge), comic books, and numerous pastiches.

The plot is well known.  Ebenezer Scrooge begins as a miser.  On a certain Christmas Eve, he is confronted by the ghost of his former business partner and three spirits who represent Christmases past, present and future.  The visions they show him convince Scrooge that his single-minded pursuit of money has deprived him of life.  He awakes Christmas morning as a new man committed to relating to his fellow man and putting his money to use.

Let’s reverse Scrooge.  Make him an extremely generous person instead of a miser.  In that case, he might be something like George Bailey.  Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, was the generous man at the heart of It’s a Wonderful Life.  His dream is to travel the world.  Instead, he delays his dream again and again to help his neighbors, his brother, and eventually his own wife and children.  It comes to a head when a mistake by his uncle brings imminent ruin to the savings and loan George runs. Faced with ruin, George sees himself as an utter failure.  He contemplates suicide in hopes that his insurance policy will rescue his family from financial ruin.

At this point, he receives a spiritual visit like Ebenezer.  In this case it is a single spirit, an angel named Clarence.  Like the Christmas ghosts, Clarence shows George a vision.  This is also an inversion of Dickens’ tale.  Instead of showing him a history of missed opportunities and blindness to the needs of others, Clarence reveals an alternate world in which George and his generous acts did not exist.  His brother is dead.  His wife is a frightened spinster (it’s hard to believe Donna Reed would have been overlooked by the marriageable men of Bedford Falls even holed up in the library with her glasses on).  The people are mired in poverty because he hadn’t been there to fight for access to credit so they could build homes and businesses.  The town is under the thumb of the miserly landlord Mr. Potter, himself a type of unreformed Scrooge.

Like Scrooge, George is changed by his vision.  He sees that his life is worth something and that his sacrifices bought him a lot of love.  In the end, returned from his walk in the dark alternate universe, that love is displayed by a return of generosity from his many friends that saves him.

These beloved stories don’t have the same plot.  However, one is a variation or alteration of the plot of the other.  This plot archetype doesn’t have to be so serious.

Topper, either the book by Thorne Smith or the movie starring Cary Grant, is an example of this plot played for laughsCosmo Topper is a banker.  He is bored with his job.  He is somewhat alienated from his wife who clings to respectability.  He has money and status, even what might have been considered a good marriage in a time when such relationships were as much about business as love, but he has no fun and it is wearing on him.

The ghosts are a piece of work, too.  George and Marion Kerby are a wealthy couple who die in a car accident.  Instead of shuffling off to the afterlife, they find themselves stuck on earth.  They have never done something substantive, either good or bad, in their entirely frivolous lives.  They decide to fix the situation by helping their old friend Topper.

In this case, all the major characters are a type of Scrooge.  Topper has let his job, money, and status keep him from a life of fun and serious connection.  The Kerbys had so little meaningful connection to other people that they neither helped nor harmed another soul.  Even Topper’s wife Clara has sacrificed intimacy in her marriage to focus on social climbing.

So Topper is visited by spirits like Scrooge and Bailey.  Instead of taking a serious look at life, it is presents a screwball comedy.  The Kerbys drag Topper into all kind of risqué situations he would normally not get into.  Misunderstandings abound and Topper is embarrassed repeatedly.  The ghosts are have good intentions, but they are not very competent.  Topper feigns irritation at the hijinks, but in his heart is having a ball and doesn’t want the haunting to end.  Clara feels humiliated by all the trouble Topper is getting into, but fear of losing him to a wild life reminds her of how much she loves him.

Through a series of screwy events, the characters undergo a Scrooge-like change.  The Toppers loosen up and rekindle their love.  They discover that their intimacy as a couple is more important than jobs, wealth or status, though they don’t have to completely give up those things.  The Kerbys take responsibility for themselves and their actions.  They finally put Topper’s needs ahead of their own and do something substantively good, opening the doors of heaven.

You can probably see that these stories are related by more than similarities in plot.  They have a common theme.  All of these stories are about connecting to others in relationships.  Bailey is a little different from the others in that he starts out blind to all the good that has resulted from his seemingly humble touching of the lives of others.  Scrooge, the Toppers and the Kerbys are isolated for various reasons, mostly of their own making, and need to discover that relating to others is the main thing.