You have zero interest in getting married unless it would help save a nice girl you met at a party from having to go back to Ukraine.
You work in the acquisitions department of a small independent book shop, but dread your nightly walks home through the park for reasons that are not entirely clear.
You told your homeroom teacher you were tardy because your judo class ran over, but in fact you heard a Hammond organ playing somewhere down the hall and had to investigate. You met a handsome, bookish stranger and sang a duet with him, but left without getting his name.
It’s your last year of high school and you cope with the stress of family life by pretending you’re the lead singer in a band called Belle & Sebastian.
You are quietly mesmerized by a patch of winter sunlight.
You were inspired when your sprightly friend let down her hair and danced at a concert, so much that you wrote about it in your diary for a month, but have never actually danced yourself.
You work in a nail salon, you’re always late to parties and you’ve crashed your car twice in the last month. You’re in love with a girl across town who doesn’t know your name. (Her name is Belle).
You once spent an entire day being inexplicably happy and have devoted the rest of your life to finding out why.
Right now you’re wearing a striped scarf, a woolen jacket, and argyle socks. You have a friend of the same sex who’s wearing a cashmere cardigan. You might or might not fancy them.
You once contemplated murdering a stranger who spoke to you on the subway.
You had a small outburst in the café when you realized how old you’re getting. You’re sixteen.
You missed the train and now you’re standing at the station all alone. But it’s late autumn and the world is lovely around you.
In 1995, Stuart Murdoch’s life did not seem to be moving anywhere fast. The twenty-seven-year old Scotsman had been suffering for upwards of six years from the effects of myalgic encephalomyelitis, better known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Because his condition made even playing on the piano an exhausting endeavor, he was unable to find work.
Living in Glasgow on public assistance, Murdoch joined “beat box,” a government program for the unemployed. He would later compare it to a “refugee camp for unemployed musicians.” The unemployed took a music training course and played music together. Once a month they were given access to a recording studio.
It was here that Murdoch first connected with the people who would form Belle & Sebastian; and it was here in the summer of 1996 that they recorded what are now widely regarded as two of the best albums of the 1990s, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister.
Though the beloved indie band has covered a range of genres in their nearly twenty-year career, from folk to shoegaze to chamber pop, and has stylistically referenced bands as disparate as The Left Banke and The Smiths, the elegiac wistfulness of If You’re Feeling Sinister has become their defining sound. Even after they gained renewed critical acclaim and an unprecedented level of public attention with The Life Pursuit (2006), a collection of irresistibly danceable power-pop anthems, critics and long-time fans rightly pointed to their earliest work as their magnum opus.
Writing and recording twenty songs in the space of a few weeks would be a career-worthy accomplishment for any band. But Belle & Sebastian went a step further, crafting songs that seem to have been whispered out of the ether, songs that don’t so much seem to have been written as captured.
Take, for example, the Satie-like simplicity of “Fox in the Snow.” With piano, guitar, violin, and vibraphone, the band conjures up a serenely autumnal world in which soft-hearted youth have fallen on hard times. For me the special gift of Belle & Sebastian, my all-time favorite band, has always been its ability to evoke the rhythms and changes of the seasons, using lyrics and music to engage the senses so fully that it really feels as though the listener is standing on a wintry street corner in Edinburgh.
Fox in the snow
Where do you go
To find something you can eat?
Cause the word out on the street is
You are starving
If the lyrics are precious, they’re also devastatingly effective, compressing whole years of hope and despair and angst into the space of a few verses. “Fox in the Snow” showcases what would become one of Belle & Sebastian’s hallmarks, their knack for writing realistic, sharply observed character sketches about people who are young and lost and very much in over their heads.
“I always wanted to write about normal people doing normal things,” he recallsin a Pitchfork documentary about the making of the album. “Because I wasn’t normal, I was out of the game. It was very attractive to me what normal people were doing.” So he set out to write songs about the “normal” folks he ran into in the streets and on the buses of Glasgow, though his own sly perceptiveness was always winking through, creating vividly eccentric figures who are instantly recognizable and yet somehow bigger than life: a track star who was driven to fame by the lure of getting to wear terry underwear; Hilary, who’s into S & M and Bible studies; Judy, who walks the streets dreaming of horses.
Of the ten songs on this album, the penultimate song, “Boy Done Wrong Again,” is the weakest, a slow sleeper that saps much of the energy from an otherwise rollicking back half. Like Tigermilk before it, the album begins in minimalistic fashion, with only the quiet plucking of strings to accompany Murdoch’s voice. But as “Stars of Track and Field” progresses, the rest of the band gradually joins in, adding new instrumentation (organ, trumpets) layer upon layer, building slowly and progressively to a powerful conclusion that promises good things to come. “Seeing Other People” is a near-perfect evocation of early morning and the ambivalence of two people trying to let go of each other but not being able to. “Me and the Major” explores the unbridgeable gaps between classes and generations with lyrics that are both spirited and resentful: “We’re the younger generation / We grew up fast / All the others did drugs / They’re taking it out on us.”
In terms of pure atmosphere, the next two songs are probably the album’s high point. “Like Dylan in the Movies” recalls Murdoch’s experience of having to walk through Kelvingrove Park, a shady Glasgow park. The combination of guitar, strings, and xylophone powerfully evokes a sense of the year ending, of autumn, and twilight. “Dylan” is followed by the wintry and underrated “Fox in the Snow.” The placement of these two songs on the album, and their musical kinship, seem to suggest that one is a continuation of the other. It’s worth listening to the two back to back.
“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is a light rocker about a naïve young man. Musically it’s as good as anything on the album, but the lyrics are achingly, almost embarrassingly sentimental. “I always cry at endings,” Murdoch sings, and then, as if already regretting this exercise in vulnerability, adds in the next verse, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant to say at all.”
However, the shortcomings of this song are more than offset by the eerie brilliance of the one following. If You’re Feeling Sinister’s title track is also the album’s standout, with a backing track of children playing and enigmatic lyrics that have been variously explained as a satire of organized religion and the final thoughts of two people preparing to kill themselves.
Finally, “Mayfly” is a jangly guitar ballad in the style of The Byrds, while “Judy and the Dream of Horses” closes the album in high spirits with an almost pure distillation of pop craftsmanship.
Not satisfied with the production quality of the original recording, Belle & Sebastian recorded a live performance in 2005 for All Tomorrow’s Parties. It’s worth hearing just to assess the differences between the two recordings—in 1995, the band was young and unproven, while in 2005 it was one of the most successful indie rock bands in the world. But the original is the reason for their breakout success, and it remains the better version of their best album.
A good story, whether in the form of a song, novel, TV series, or movie, should give the illusion that you’re experiencing something new and unprecedented. There’s a moment near the end of the story where the heroes find themselves in a unique situation facing extraordinary challenges, and the hair on the back of our necks stands on end because we know we’re witnessing the culmination of a series of choices, and if any of those choices had been different, this moment would never happened.
It’s thrilling. It gives us a rush because we know life is like that. There’s a grandeur that invests even the smallest moments because we have a dim appreciation of what it took to get here.
The following are three of my favorite storytelling moments across all media, moments where a protagonist revealed his or her true quality and the brilliance of the narrative mechanisms on display were like nothing I had seen before.
. “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo”: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
With all the computer-effects wizardry and operatic spectacle of the later films, it can be easy to forget the promise of Peter Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The genius of the first movie (and, to a lesser extent, The Two Towers) is that they somehow married the scale of an epic fantasy story with the intimacy of a small character drama. This was never more apparent than in the under-stated denouement of Fellowship, in which human warrior Boromir dies protecting two Hobbits after nearly betraying Ring-bearer Frodo Baggins. Frodo makes his escape by boat, thinking to finish the journey alone. But his gardener Sam Gamgee has other plans, and it’s in showing how the two of them end up together that the films have one of their best moments.
The Death of Krishna: The Mahabharata (1989)
The ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, the longest poem ever written (two million words in 17 volumes), has a cast so large and a story so convoluted it rivals the Lord of the Rings, featuring demons, gods, weird monsters, vengeful reincarnations, and a magical weapon with the destructive capacity to annihilate an entire planet. But the narrative thread holding the story together (and keeping it from buckling under its own weight) is the conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas, two halves of one family who are determined to exterminate each other.
Hovering in the background of this out-of-control family quarrel is the mysterious figure of Krishna, who for much of the story seems to be just another member of the family (albeit one who is revered by all parties), but who reveals himself, in the poem’s most famous set piece, to be more than they had ever guessed. Naturally the question arises, “If you are a god, why can’t you stop this massacre?”
Peter Brooks’ five-hour 1989 film The Mahabharata plays up the more enigmatic aspects of Krishna’s character, suggesting that perhaps there’s a more sinister agenda behind his ostensible attempts at peace-making. But the film’s best moment comes at the end when Krishna, wounded and dying, reveals that he’s just as confused and vulnerable as anyone else in the story. A young boy asks him, “Krishna, tell me quickly: why all your tricks and your bad directions?” Krishna responds with his last words: “I fought against terrible powers, and I did what I could.”
“One Day More”: Les Miserables (the Musical)
Victor Hugo’s sprawling, relentlessly poetic 1,400 page novel Les Miserables, which tells the story of an 1832 student uprising in Paris, boasts some of the most brilliant character arcs in literature. (The culmination of the longstanding feud between Javert, the police inspector, and Jean Valjean, the criminal-turned-mayor whom he has hunted for twenty years, deserves its own place on this list).
The musical Les Miserables takes all this plot and condenses it into a lyrical and at times devastating two-and-a-half-hour saga of war, vengeance, grace, redemption, and romance. The entire last half of the story functions as a series of climaxes. And while the tear-inducing lament of Marius on re-visiting the barricades where his friends met their grisly end is probably the emotional high point of the play, in terms of sheer narrative power, praise is owed to the entire sequence where Marius, Cosette, Eponine, and their love triangle is introduced, and especially the song “One Day More,” which takes the emotional journeys of ALL the characters, crystallizes them into a few simple verses and chorus, and reveals that in spite of their many conflicts, our heroes (and villains) have far more in common than they would ever admit.
The second pinch point, which again reminds the hero of the antagonistic forces
and the second plot point, the final injection of new information into the story that gives the book a kind of forward momentum as it speeds towards the end.
Brooks even tells us at what percentage of the way through the book each of these pivots needs to make its appearance.
The first plot point occurs 25 percent of the way through the story;
the first pinch point occurs 3/8ths of the way through the story;
the midpoint occurs at the midpoint;
the second pinch point occurs 5/8ths of the way through the story;
and the second plot point occurs 75 percent of the way through the story.
Interestingly, in Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling lands four of these five pivots on the exact page they need to be on according to Brooks’ model of story structure (he excludes the prologue as not being part of the main plot). C. S. Plocher on the Write like Rowling website gives us a rundown:
Harry boards the Hogwarts Express on page 90 of the 259-page plot;
He gets his first glimpse of Snape (and, even more crucially, Quirrell’s turban) on page 126;
He realizes who has the Philosopher’s Stone at the end of chapter 9, exactly halfway through the book;
He catches Snape with a bloody leg 5/8ths of the way through the book.
The only exception is the final plot point (Harry realizing that Dumbledore has departed for London and the stone is going to be stolen), which is 25 pages later than it would normally be because Rowling is setting up a seven-volume fantasy series and has a lot of world-building to do. (Moreover, I would argue that the true second pinch point in the first novel is the scene with the unicorn in the Forbidden Forest).
So if I made it my goal to write a 300-page book:
the first plot point would occur on or around page 60;
the first pinch point would occur on page 113;
the mid-point would occur on page 150;
the second pinch point would occur on page 188;
and the final plot point would occur on page 225 (or perhaps a bit later in a story of this scope).
I have this crazy dream to write a novel according to a strict formula. In the past I always thought I could free-wheel it; but I’m realizing, I really love formulaic writing. It’s so structured. I love following the rules. I love learning the science and craft of storytelling.
It’s been a good month. An emotional month. I quit my job today to pursue my career as a writer. I’m probably going to spend the next month finishing my first book. I’ve been studying for the driver’s exam, because I somehow made it to 27 without knowing how to drive. I met Bishop N. T. Wright. I made some great relationships on Twitter and really challenged myself to use social media for all it’s worth.
I haven’t been watching a lot of movies because it’s Lent, but I did sneak in a few. These were some of my favorites:
A sad black-and-white movie about an old man with a drinking problem and his world-weary son, who are taking a trip to Nebraska to claim the million dollars the man thinks he’s won. Lovely and powerful and haunting.
The first film in the French New Wave movement, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was a breath of fresh air. The cinematography, encompassing the picturesque sweep of Paris streets and the idleness of a pair of lovers casually chatting, is breath-taking.
True Detective (2014)
The entire first season, from start to finish. A great fix for anyone who’s still suffering from the end of Breaking Bad. The writing and directing is electrifying, and at times genius. Woody Harrelson is effective as a blustery Louisiana detective, while Matthew McConaughey creates a character for the ages.
It’s been a much better month in terms of books, because I HAVE A KINDLE NOW AND I CAN READ ALL THE TIME!
This month I read, or began reading:
– Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction by Larry Brooks
– The Mahabharata (a modern adaptation in two volumes) by Ramesh Menon
– The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters,by Christopher Vogler (haha, can you tell that I’m writing a book?)
– Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, by Peter Ackroyd
– Jesus & the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright
– Girl At the End of the World, by Elizabeth Esther
Excluding Elizabeth’s book, which I’ve already written about at length, my favorite of these was the Mahabharata. It’s an ancient story of family and war and sex and betrayal, gods and goddesses and demons and monsters, that reads like a great Shakespearean tragedy. I’ll have more to say about this. I want to write a post about my eleven favorite stories ever, and this is definitely one of them.
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Music that I’ve been falling in love with? The Silver Seas, Elbow, The Handsome Family, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Alessi’s Ark, Club 8, Elizabeth & the Catapult
Growing up I know we were encouraged to take everything we read in the Scriptures at face value. But it’s been fascinating, as I’ve gotten older, to look at the Bible from a more literary perspective. Continue reading →