The narrative of illness

So, yesterday I was felled by illness. The night before, I lay wake hour after hour, aching and uncomfortable with stomach pangs. As the day went on, I felt worse, with hot and cold flushes, more pangs, total exhaustion, and I crept back into my bed for much of the day for further fretful sleeplessness. Even one of usual salves – watching one of the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies – failed, as I just couldn’t concentrate. Inevitably, feverish thoughts roved to whether I had the dreaded swine flu.

Today, the day began with some queasiness, but as time has gone on I feel immeasurably better – I’m chipper, punning and have a renewed bounce in my step. Whatever battle my body was fighting, it reached some low points but it eventually won.

Which is what made me think of the parallel with narrative. Kurt Vonnegut said all stories boil down to ‘Man in a hole’: “Somebody gets into trouble and gets out of it. People never get tired of this.” Legions of Hollywood screenwriters (eg Blake Snyder, whose Save the Cat! book is quite interesting – and I’ve only just discovered he died a few weeks ago; or Christopher Vogler, who applies Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ analysis of myth to blockbuster movies) have made a career out of amplifying Vonnegut’s summary into detailed scene plans for film scripts. Everyone knows there are only three, seven, 20 or 36 plots (or eight, nine, 37, 69…) – or just one, really.

All of life is full of these little mini-dramas, overcoming challenges, confronting enemies, battling illness. It’s no bloody wonder we like stories so much – especially the ones where we win.

4 thoughts on “The narrative of illness

  1. Must a story always have an arc? Does there need to be a purpose and a conclusion? I don’t think so. An eighth, twenty-first or thirty-sixth story might be ‘monotony’, where the author showcases their writing style by detailing events of no consequence. There is still a character who still has actions, but his actions go nowhere and mean nothing.

    This is possibly more common in student films than in literature, but Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York is a good example in print: 13 chapters describing the tediously ordinary existence of New Yorkers, moving on the basis of mundane motivations and all of it beautifully written.

  2. Absolutely – I don’t think an arc is a necessity. I loved A Rebours by J-K Huysmans, where bugger all happens – he basically describes the character’s soft furnishings and inner maunderings for a few hundred pages. A lot of Hollywood is boilerplate nonsense. Though I do suspect stories with an arc have a comforting value of their own. That’s what I tell myself when I enjoy Dan Brown, anyway.

  3. qv Heller’s “Something Happened” – 550 pages of nothing whatsoever happening except a middle-aged man’s angst, until an actual life-shattering event occurs in the last couple of pages. I love it dearly.

    Arthouse films are much more willing to mill around pointing the camera at pretty things than literature, probably because they exist in a visual medium: given it takes a thousand words to tell a picture, it’s harder to write about nothing than to look at it.

  4. Oh absolutely, I love story arcs. I tried reading ‘Ivanhoe’ recently and quickly gave up, as after fifteen pages Sir Walter was still obsessively discussing the detail of a minor character’s clothing. Two paragraphs on the belt alone. Good grief.

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