What Stories Want

Over on his blog, my friend (and probably yours, that guy gets around!) Morgue has been reviewing Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode by episode. I have been enjoying his posts because Morgue’s perspective on drama is very different from mine. He plugs directly into an emotional reality that I mostly infer from narrative structures. I mean, I feel emotions, but I’m not savvy as to how they’re generated or manipulated by a film or TV unless it’s using Spielbergian structural ploys. Morgue also has a far better eye for the politically difficult item – I had never fully realised how demonic Xander was, and I wonder whether his habit of forming relationships with them is an unconscious echo of his own nature. When Morgue gets up to Anya, I’m sure he’ll tell me.

Morgue has one little habit that I’d like to just dwell on briefly, because it’s a habit I see all the time in all kinds of places, but because Morgue is engaged in a serious and, frankly, long, piece of criticism on a single topic it has become more and more apparent to me as time passes. It’s this phrase:

The police always serve as an intrusive presence in Buffy, breaking the logic of the story world and dragging the whole narrative towards collapse. They don’t respect the rules of story, and they can tear apart the whole structure of the show if they are provoked. [Emphasis Added]

This concept is couched in different ways in different posts, but it’s ubiquitous. What it tells me is that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is right at the same kind of tipping point as a Whodunit in terms of stylisation versus realism. In a realist, say, “Kitchen Sink Drama”, you don’t need to talk about the logic or rules that determine story shapes, and in a hyper-stylised genre such as, say, Dragonball Z, the story logic has so completely replaced realism that there’s almost no way to reference it in thinking about the show.

Most fiction glides somewhere between and one of the great skills of particularly genre fiction is hiding the guide-wires so that things feel realistic, so you get your “Hard Fantasy” movement, whose tenets essentially claim that they eschew the usual guiding principals of fantasy fiction in constructing stories. Along those lines, Joe Abercrombie tries to disguise his books’ basically cathartic hero-wins-in-the-end structures and symmetries with brutality and grimy prose; of course, they subvert some tropes, and are terrifically well written… but at the end, the good guys do more-or-less “win” and everything more-0r-less ends as well as it can, given the start. What we can take from Morgue’s continual referencing of the genre rules and story formulae in play is that Buffy’s uncomfortably positioned because of what Morgue describes as its commitment to “real emotions”. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t get really emotional about characters unless they seem, simply, real; and that’s an inherent problem in genre fiction.

What we need to do is try and peel back Buffy‘s surface and try and understand why the skeleton looks as it does, and we have some precedents for this exercise. Aristotle’s Poetics is the foundation text of criticism in the West because it tries to do this for the highly stylised dramatic form of Tragedy. Aristotle asks all the big questions, why is the drama shaped in a particular way, what are the best topics for it, what are the key steps, and so on. More recently, we have the various members of the Detection Club trying to codify how and why their genre works, as chronicled elsewhere in this blog. Their overt goal was to retain a semblance of realism, so that completely impractical puzzle solutions wouldn’t be allowed, within the confines of ensuring that there were satisfactory answers to the core questions of motive, means, and opportunity. The so-called “Hardboiled” school and their attempt to bring reality was in some senses an ironic difference. In the case of Buffy, my working theory for some time has been that it is driven by myth as metaphor. This construction is the mechanism behind Morgue’s “logic of the story world”.

Morgue’s repeated assertion about the police is that they are a logic-bomb, who do not obey the rules Buffy does and who do not understand the world that she inhabits. The question to ask is in what grants them this power, what is the deeper logic of the police in Sunnydale? I think the answer lies in the structure of “The Slayer”. As originally conceived, Buffy was the damsel-turned-heroine who could turn the tables in the dark alley. In practice however, Buffy is supernatural law enforcement. She patrols, she keeps the peace, she beats information out of skeezy bartenders. She’s definitely the cop-on-the-edge, whose understanding superior is continually covering for her, until he too loses his job in covering her ass from authority; in the pilot it’s suggested they call the police, and Buffy says they wouldn’t know what to do – there is a literal substitution of Buffy for the police. When the police arrive on the scene, they supplant her mythological role, hence the disruption. Like Shakespeare killing Mercutio, Whedon must eliminate the police, or at least use them sparingly; lest they overshadow and supplant the hero by fulfilling their core story functions.

We could similarly peel-back the demands for rationality from the Golden Age of Detection. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was written at the close of the Great War, which was essentially a senseless slaughter of millions. In that cultural context, you could argue that detective stories are a way of reclaiming the rationality of death. Death is sad, but it has a purpose, and a reason. Quite aside from purgation and political conservatism as convincingly argued by Knight and Cawelti, the Great Detective renders mortality intelligible: this person died because that other person had some very specific and strong reason, and they did it with great purpose and fore-thought. It didn’t simply rain from the sky for no reason anyone could understand. Hard-boiled detectives are responding to a crisis of masculinity, rather than the senselessness of the Great War and the following Influenza Epidemic.

It’s very easy to recognise a story structure and accept its tenets without necessarily understanding how or why those tenets were structured as they were. Let’s take a brief look at the comparison between Buffy and successor/derivative shows to try and understand why there are such huge differences in the treatment of police.

Regular law enforcement are interested in the same cases as the Winchesters, and the brothers frequently step into the roles of official agencies to enable the access to victims they require. It is even occasionally through police intervention that the police learn of an appropriate crime. The brothers do have brushes with law enforcement, most notably Hendricks, but in the case of the Winchesters there is another parallel development taking place: over the first five seasons the brothers are more and more explicitly positioned as monstrous themselves. The police’s inability to handle the Winchesters becomes an exact replica of their inability to handle all the other monsters. The police are therefore far more symbiotic with the Winchesters, because they reinforce other story strategies rather than raise the spectre of replacing the show’s protagonists.

In Grimm, Nick, the titular character, is himself a police officer, completing the trajectory indicated by Buffy. His role as a “Grimm”, which is to say, the policemen of the supernatural world is re-translated out of metaphor into the premise of the show. Of course, what differentiates Nick from the other Grimms we hear about in the first season (where my interest petered out) is that he is unusual in allying with the monsters. He is guided through his world by Monroe, forming a completely symbiotic relationship of information and protection. In a sense, the show is driven by optimism that in fact a community can become self-policing and those who act outside of the communal good can be rehabilitated. The emphasis here has been completely inverted from Buffy’s starting point in much the same way as later seasons of Buffy and Angel elevated the monstrous world into a complex grey zone, structurally obviating the need for a Slayer.

While this sortie into Urban Fantasy has hopefully expanded and clarified how we might think about the story drivers in Buffy, the real point here is that Buffy is just an example of digging into why story formulae work the way they do. It is incredibly easy to start to think in terms of stories as having a kind of agency – it would be pretty common to talk in a spy film about the necessity of betrayal as if that were not itself an ideological construction that needed to be interrogate on a kind of meta-story level. Similarly, the necessity of two attractive people finding love in a Romantic Comedy is a firm story rule, and we need to think about why that rule is an attractive basis for a storytelling tradition rather than simply point out that the rule has been successfully applied. The whole point of genre accretion and definition is to allow these meta-analyses of stories, from Buffy to the Mysterious Affair at Styles to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to Maid in Manhattan. The real message is that stories don’t want anything – we want things that we think stories will provide.

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