25 June 2013

The Doctor Diaries III.7: “42”

What shape is your story?

I have written before about narrative structure. Narrative structure is the short of shape that a story takes: it begins with an exposition in which the characters, setting, and situation are laid out. Then the conflict is introduced, and tension starts to build. At some point, the tension is resolved at the “crisis,” and then the narrative eases back down to a conclusion. The simplest visual representation is Freytag's pyramid:
Another way to think about this is to reveal the screenplay's “Three-Act Structure”:
Now, this episode has essentially the same plot as “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” but with a compressed narrative arc, so we can talk about what effect that has. The basic storyline breaks down like this:

Act I/Exposition: The story opens with a limited number of humans trapped on a space ship/space station in a near-fatal situation near a celestial body. In one, it's a black hole. In the other, it's the sun.

Act II/Rising Action: As the danger increases, the human die off one by one. The Doctor prepares to sacrifice himself to hold off evil, nearly dies, and comes through at the last minute. In Impossible Planet/Satan Pit I'd say the midpoint is when the Doctor jumps, and everyone thinks he's dead. In 42, it's when he's possessed by the sun creature.

Act III/Climax and Falling Action. Only the Doctor, his companion, and three people are left, one of whom is actually the enemy. In each, someone else beside the Doctor takes out that last enemy, at great emotional cost to herself, and “equilibrium is restored.”

So, the same story. But “42” takes place in one episode while the other story took up two. Doesn't that mean every element of the story receives half the time in “42”?

Nope. Basically what it means is that the tension part of “42” is disproportionately longer than it is in the the other story, with less time spent on Rising Action and Falling Action. Acts I and III are significantly shorter than Act II, in other words.

 I have not timed this. It is an instinctive response.

Do you think I'm right?


Dominic Christison said...

Thanks, Sorina! This is one episode that sticks out for me - I like especially how they can open the door locks or whatever by answering pub quiz style questions!

I agree with your gut answer on the timing of the tension vs. resolution parts of thew story. It got me thinking more generally about what is an ideal time for an episode or completed story to run. Is 42 minutes ideal, or if you had 60 would that give you more wiggle room, not so much for more action but for more depth or character insights?

Go too small, and you of necessity make the story somewhat more "fluffy", like the 21 minute "Office" episodes (which I really like by the way). Or maybe it's a cultural thing? If George Eliot was directing "42", would it be a 3 hour epic??


Iambic Admonit said...

Well said! I love " If George Eliot was directing '42', would it be a 3 hour epic??" Probably. And if Peter Jackson were directing it, it would be a three MOVIE epic, with lots of middle-school humour. So let's thank our stars he isn't. :)

Are you up for another midnight Hobbit this year?