Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Excavating a Genre 3 - Picaresques, Road Movies and Quests

(This series starts with Part 1 - The Book List), and Part 2 - Looking at Theme with Understood Betsy.)

Many of the stories I listed at the beginning of this are very episodic.  This is true of a lot of children's fiction, and even of the early grown up fiction that influenced so much of children's publishing.

"Episodic" is a kind of plot structure, and I think it's important to this "genre" I'm trying to uncover.  But to identify it, I need to take a step sideways and look at similar genres with similar structures.

Anna and the Picaresque

In college, one of my professors, when he read the novel I was writing as my graduate school entry submission, got all excited and told me the story was a "picaresque."

Later on, I came to learn what a Picaresque really was -- it was a popular kind of story in Spain about a wandering "Picaro" -- basically a trickster/adventurer.  Often very loosely plotted.  And I've heard the term applied to all sorts of books from Don Quixote to Puss In Boots.

And yes, The Adventure of Anna The Great is that kind of story.  It's about a girl who dresses as a boy, takes her sword and her horse and sets out to find adventure.

But at the time, I didn't realize he was using the term to describe the swashbuckling side of the story, or the character.  What he talked about was more the structure of the story.

This was before it was finished -- and before the connecting plot was clear -- so what he saw was a series of episodes.  What I would describe as a "road movie."

On Roads and Buddies and Quests

A Road Movie is a popular genre in Hollywood. It actually has two kinds of story -- the journey story or the relationship story. (I.e. the Buddy Movie -- but one that takes place in a car.) 

The difference between the "journey" and "relationship" type stories is important, though: The relationship or Buddy story is usually about what happens inside the car.

That is, you stick two characters inside a car and trap them there for the distance of the plot, and things boil over and they become better friends or learn things about themselves.  Everything outside the car is really just a catalyst for this relationship.

The non-relationship Road Picture, though, is about what happens outside the car.  As with the story of the lone Picaro traveling from town to town, it usually has a single hero, or a team of characters whose relationship is reasonably settled.  Or just a relationship that develops, but not so excitingly as to overshadow what goes on outside the car.

And now that I think about it, there is a third type of story -- which is a hybrid of the two.  I think of it as the Wizard of Oz model, but I suppose it's really a variety of the classic Quest story.

This kind of road story begins with a lone hero who travels along and acquires companions, who each have a quest or two of their own.

I think, though, that Quest stories tend to lean in one direction or other when it comes to whether they are a relationship story or a journey story.  They are more often about the Quest -- which is "outside the car" -- but not always. Sometimes the quest is just a MacGuffin, and it's all about the bonding among the characters.  I would say a good example of this is many of the "Male Bonding" comedies about a bunch of friends who head out on the road.

(I want to pause to point out here that I'm not talking about character development here -- and I'm not talking about the difference between "character driven" and "plot driven."  A quest story can be totally character driven, and have amazing and deep character development. And, frankly, a buddy story can be strictly by the beats and still be totally plot driven.  What I'm talking about is the structure of the plot itself.  Regardless of characterization, what drives the plot?)

But to get back to "outside the car" stories: A lot of classic television drama fell into this model -- from Maverick to Route 66, to The Fugitive to Kung Fu.  An itinerant hero travelling from town to town, experiencing an episode at every town he meets.  Of course, the "episodic" nature of this kind of story is ideal for a TV show, but it shows up in movies and books as well.

The focus of these kinds of Road Stories is often a series of encounters in which we, and the hero, learn about something new and unknown.  And the hero may make a difference to that new and strange situation (in classic Wandering Hero style - slays the monster and moves on) OR the hero may learn and be changed by the wisdom or example of the strange folk he encounters.

And that takes us back to Understood Betsy and the whole concept of being faced with new and strange things and coping with them and learning from them.

And that, I think, is where the Picaresque and the Road Movie fit perfectly with the Orphan on a Train sort of children's story.  These are stories about life -- in all its variations -- outside the car.  Out in the real world.

Next time I'll talk more about a couple of these stories, which provide great examples of variations on this structure and this focus on the world out there.

See you in the funny papers.

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