Monday, January 24, 2011

A Smooth Criminal as Storyteller, and the Wild Nerd Yonder

Two cellos enter.  One girl leaves.

This is how you tell a story:  conventions?  Demonstrated (dueling banjos) and broken (um, BLACK cellos and leather jackets).  Expectations?  Set up (close-up shots of the bow and bridge and strings of the cello, as well as a gilded grand ballroom) and subverted (again, BLACK cellos, plus overturned chairs and gritty fistfight, and Michael freaking Jackson).

Simple formula:  know the conventions, then break them.  USE details as formal devices, don't just throw them in just to be details.

It has been a long time since I read a good book that used music as a storytelling device, and did it well.  Many YA books use clubs or bands or scenes to flesh out their settings, or give their characters some heft or motivation, but as a formal device?  As a musician, I think that is a tricky thing to pull off.  You can't just add music and say it automatically influences and develops the narrative.  Heck, there are even plenty of music videos that don't manage to jibe the soundtrack to the visual (that is purely my sense, with no evidence to back it up).

Recently, however, I read last year's well-loved Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, and I found myself appreciating the role Barrett's band played as a formal device shaping the narrative.

Halpern doesn't just throw Barrett's band into the mix to give Jessie something to do, or her friends something out of their reach to glom on to, but to show the development of Jessie's character, and to give her an outlet for growth.  The band literally reflects Jessie's adolescence, and her [SPOILER] violent destruction of Van's drum kit mirrors the emotional climax of both Jessie's story, as well as Barrett's (and maybe Van's, if any of us care enough to add him [which I don't, as he reminds me too much of my own HS drama]).

The point being, Halpern didn't use a conventional detail (high school punk band) in a way you would expect, and definitely didn't use it simply to add more detail to the story.  Yes, the band provided details about each character that would have been boring as crap if they had just been told us, but more than that, it provided a narrative structure, a formal device that actually worked within the story to turn it into more than just the sum of its parts.

Now if only it had had dueling Michael Jackson cellos...

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