Monday, November 7, 2016

Morality From Structure, Take 1

While writing the post on Michael Moorcock's Three Day Novel, I discovered that Moorcock had said that "morality and structure are very closely linked".  At first blush, I wondered how morality might arise from amoral structure.

How quickly we forget our old friends.

The five act structure is an old favorite of mine, and is among the first lessons I learned in lit crit and in writing.  I explained it during the Puppy of the Month Book Club's October reading of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber.

The five act structure is a storytelling device that developed out of Classical Greek and Elizabethan English drama.  It divides a story into seven parts: an introduction, inciting action, rising action, the turning point, falling action, resolution, and denouement.  The introduction establishes characters and setting.  The inciting action is the event that creates the story's problem.  The rising action describes the events leading to the turning point, where the main character makes a decision that gives him the means to solve the problem.  The falling action whisks the characters towards the resolution, where the plans created by the turning point succeed or fail.  Afterward, the denouement tells of the repercussions from the resolution and reveals secrets if needed.  These parts are also placed at certain points in narrative space.  The turning point is always at the center of the story, with the inciting action and resolution at equidistant points from the center.  This means that a story's rising action will be as long as the falling action, and the same with the introduction and the denouement.  Analyses of dramatic works with narrative problems often show that the turning point was moved out of the center, creating too much or too little rising or falling action, breaking the proportions of the story.  Or, in the case of Save the Cat dramatic structures, no turning point exists at all.  The story is active, driven by the characters' choices, instead of passively relying on the current of events to carry characters along to the conclusion.
Stripping it down to its basics, the hero makes a choice to solve a problem, then he makes a choice on how to solve the problem, and then, in the resolution, we see if his choices worked.  The story in five act structure stems from the hero's choices.

Now, morality can be described as the evaluation of choices against a code of conduct, be it Biblical, C. S. Lewis's Tao, or some other system.  The five act structure, with its emphasis on choice, becomes a vehicle for examining those choices.  Discussions from morality flow out of the structure naturally, as the resolution itself is an evaluation of the hero's choices.  Drama arises out of the question "did the hero make the right choice?".  The five act structure itself, however, is not the code of conduct, as, being amoral, it cannot make a moral judgement.

It must also be noted that stories may and do use other structures, whether it is Moorcock's "six days to save the world" or Save the Cat's three act structure.  The three act structure has become the most common structure of the day. Wikipedia explains it as such:
In this structure, a film's plot is set up within the first twenty to thirty minutes. Then the main character protagonist experiences a 'plot point' that provides a goal to achieve. About half the movie's running time focuses on the character's struggle to achieve this goal. This second act is the 'Confrontation' period. Field also refers to the 'Midpoint', a more subtle turning point in the plot that happens at approximately page 60 (of a 120-page screenplay). This turning point is often an apparently devastating reversal of the main character's fortune. The final third (the third act) of the film depicts a climactic struggle by the protagonist to finally achieve (or not achieve) his or her goal and the aftermath of this struggle.
The three act structure is more passive than the five act, relying on external events driving the hero's fortunes to provide the drama as opposed to the hero's choices.  Moral examination does not readily flow out of the three act structure. That strumpet Fortune is a fickle goddess, bestowing favor on whim and not worth.

It is no accident that the rise of grey goo accompanied the rise of three act structure. 

That Moorcock is right about morality flowing from structure was never in doubt.   Morality arises from the choices made by the hero.  However, the structures that rely on choice as the story's engine are better equipped for the investigation than others.

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