17 October, 2021

Eight Lessons in Plot from "The Sound of Music"

May is National Short Story Month and this year also happens to be the month John Barth turns eighty-two. If connecting The Sound of Music with either of these events seems dubious, I promise it’s not. A novelist and short story writer known for his metafictive and postmodern works, Barth is also known for his essays on writing theory, and as a theorist, Barth is interested in both sides of the narrative field; that is, in the ways postmodern theory influences contemporary fiction as well as a deep and abiding knowledge of how stories are traditionally built. One of my favorite of Barth’s essays is “Incremental Perturbation: How to Know If You’ve Got a Plot or Not.” It examines in pyrotechnic fashion the mechanisms by which action creates structure and meaning. You can find the essay in Creating Fiction: Instruction and insights from the teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, (edited by Julie Chekoway, Story Press,1999).

First and foremost, Barth advocates for dramaturgy—and dramaturgy, as he defines it is “the management of plot and action, the architecture of story.” In Barth’s definition, plot is a system of events carefully chosen and ordered, mindfully paced, and resolved in a way that satisfies. Add to this, he advises, Aristotle’s stipulation that dramatic action be “whole” and “of a certain magnitude,” two qualities that, as we’ll see, are integral to this definition of plot.

Yet knowing if you have a plot is not always clear. So how do you know, Barth asks? “By never again reading your own stories or anybody else’s—or watching any stage or screen or television play—innocently, but always with a third eye monitoring how the author does it.” Stories exist all around us in highly digestible form, and as Barth says, can be used to build an understanding of how it’s done.

Which brings us to the The Sound of Music—a film that may not immediately spring to mind when considering something as lofty as architecture of story, yet I came away from my last viewing newly aware of the lessons it offers. As entertainment, Rodgers and Hammerstein might not be your cup of tea, yet nearly fifty years after its release, when Pauline Kael called the film a “sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat,\” (a quip that cost her a post at McCall’s), the film is revered for its music, as well as what I’d argue is a well-formed plot. So with Barth’s essay in mind, here are its dramaturgical principles as demonstrated by The Sound of Music:

1. The story begins after the beginning.
As the film begins, we find Maria already at odds with the expectations of the Order—distractible, perennially late, undisciplined. As Barth states, “the dramaturgical beginning need not be…the chronological beginning.” What is most important is “dramatic effect, not linear chronology.” The effect of this in media res opening demonstrates what Barth calls a sufficiently “voltaged” ground situation; that is, the story commences with a character and situation already in conflict.

2. A dramatic vehicle launches the action.
“And then one day…” This time-honored narrative formula illustrates the arrival of the all-important dramatic vehicle. The dramatic vehicle is not the conflict, but rather a set of circumstances that arises from the already-unstable situation. In The Sound of Music, that event is of course Fraulein Maria’s assignment to care for the von Trapp children, wherein she encounters a snappish disciplinarian, and a passel of unruly charges. And the frictions that follow launch the ascending action of the plot.

3. Each character wants something.
All the characters, from Maria, to the Captain and the children, to the relatively minor character of Max Detweiler, want something very specific. To borrow a term from Robert Olen Butler, each character has a “yearning,” a desire for something, anything, large or small, that drives them. Without a character who yearns, a narrative will lack an essential aspect of dramaturgy. In The Sound of Music, Maria yearns for purpose. The Captain wants a governess for his children. The children want Maria as their nanny. The Baroness Schraeder wants the Captain. All these dovetailing desires define character while supplying the action. For more on yearning, see Robert Olen Butler’s essay in his collected lectures, From Where You Dream (Grove Press, 2005).

4. There are successive complications of the conflict.
Yearning alone does not a story make, but place an obstacle in the way of a character’s desire, and conflict will ensue. Maria encounters numerous obstacles, such as her friction with the Captain, and later on, the dilemma of whether to lead a cloistered life or a secular one. For the Captain, it is Maria’s spontaneity, and her love of music—the very thing he’s forbidden in the house since his wife’s death. Even the minor characters, like Baroness Schraeder and Max Detweiler—the music impresario seeking “just one” great act—encounter forces that threaten their yearning. As Barth notes, these complications, or “perturbations,” as he calls them, do not so much succeed one another as emerge from one another, “each paving the way for the next,” the sure sign of a well-formed plot.

5. The action contains the right amount of complications.
Traditional dramatic action moves in what’s sometimes called “Freytag’s Triangle,” a ramp-shaped model that represents the gradual movement of action to a high point from which it subsequently descends. Yet narrative action is often more nuanced. Plots can develop in a series of plateaus, like steps. As Barth states, too few increments can result in a less-than-whole plot, while too many can weigh a story down. The “increments” must be of a correct quantity, moving toward the story’s climax while at the same time delaying it, and in the end yielding a series of actions that renders the story “whole.” In recapping the general events of TSOM, we find this kind of plateau-shaped movement. Life as Maria knows it is upended when she becomes governess in the von Trapp household. The action plateaus slightly as she comes to know the children, but rises with the gathering tension of her relationship with the Captain—and the arrival of Baroness Schraeder. At the story’s mid-point, Maria flees the household after the Baroness suggests the Captain is in love with her. This conflict resolves with Maria and the Captain’s marriage, but then quickly ramps up again when they return from their honeymoon to find the Captain has been ordered to serve in Hitler’s navy. The Captain refuses, and this event leads to the dramatic high point. The family decides to flee Austria, and is pursued by the Nazis. There’s plenty of dramatic action in The Sound of Music, but it’s worth heeding Barth’s note that dramatic action needn’t be “dramatic,” that is, exclusively outward in nature or melodramatic; it need only to put pressure on a ground situation, complicate the conflict, and move the story up the narrative ramp.

6. We don’t know everything.
We never learn of events related to the Captain’s first wife, only that she died, and that afterward, in his grief he banished music and singing from the household. We don’t know why Maria chose to be a postulant in the Order, only that as a child she would “look over the wall to see the Sisters.” Nor do we know how or why Maria comes to have a love of music. Yet the story stands easily without these background details. Why? Because the action serves the principal narrative concern, the relationship between Maria, the Captain, and his children. It’s interesting to note that Aristotle’s condition that the action be “whole” can be compromised by too much information. What makes a story feel complete is not comprehensive detail but integrity of shape: a string of related events presented without extraneous detail or puzzling omissions.

7. The climax reveals the story’s purpose.
Without some kind of resolution, wherein this string of events is shown to have meaning, all the yearning, obstacles, and incremental perturbations are for naught. Will Captain von Trapp avoid serving in the Third Reich? Will the von Trapp family escape the Nazis? The action answers these but more importantly, the love story that occupies the second act lays the ground for events in the third. As Hitler’s forces advance over Austria, Maria’s role in the story becomes clear. Her music, and the family’s new identity as vocal performers, is integral to their escape. And here is where Aristotle’s condition that a story be “of a certain magnitude,” comes into play. That escape, which arises from an organically developed series of events, reveals why Maria’s arrival at the von Trapps is a story worth telling.

8. The story ends before the end.
The final shot, of the von Trapps hiking over the crest of the mountain, tells us all we need to know. Yet it doesn’t reveal what happens later—exactly where in Switzerland the family ends up, or if they ever return to Austria. The conclusion demonstrates what Barth calls “equilibrium complexified,” or, a state in which events reach a new, different kind of stability.

These points taken together illustrate Barth’s central thesis: no matter the story, it needs dramaturgy to be whole—conflict that arises organically from character and situation. A writer of fiction could do worse than watch The Sound of Music for what it can teach about character, plot and structure. Though if the film is not on your list, not to worry. As Barth advises, you can employ that examining “third eye” to pretty much any story you encounter.

—Lauren Alwan

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