It's not the story
November 14, 2010
Yesterday I sat in one of the hundreds of movie theaters showing the HD broadcast of Levine conducting Donizetti’s opera “Don Pasquale” and witnessed a fabulous love story.
No, not the story of “Don Pasquale” which is idiotic.
Many opera’s are built on stories that don’t stand up to much scrutiny. They often feel like the melodramatic inventions of teenagers embarking on their first NaNoWriMo adventure. This story opens in the living room of a seventy year old bachelor who has decided to teach his nephew a lesson. His nephew has fallen in love and refuses to marry the woman that his uncle has chosen for him. So his uncle has decided to get married himself and disown the nephew and kick him out of his house.
Why did he have to get married to rid himself of his nephew? Don’t ask.
So the old man gets his doctor to find a bride for him and the doctor does. He arranges for the old man to marry his sister. His sister, by the way, is—you guessed it—the woman that the nephew wants to marry for love.
At this point the set up would work equally well in a comedy or a tragedy. Donnizetti chose comedy and so hilarity and further farfetchedness ensued.
We don’t go to the opera for the stories being told. We go for the music and for the performers. In this production the four leads were brilliant. The old man, his nephew, the doctor, and the bride were perfect. During the intermissions at these performances the movie audiences get to see interviews with the actors and they are as charming and engaging off stage as they were on stage.
That’s not to let you off the hook. You should still strive to tell a good story—you just shouldn’t worry whether or not it’s been told already. Your story will be yours. What makes it special is you and how you tell it.
Last year I wrote a book about Cocoa programming even though Aaron Hillegass has written the book that is and will be the best selling book on that topic. Aaron has been teaching people how to write Cocoa programs longer than anyone. He’s smart, engaging, and the nicest guy you’d ever want to know. His book is detailed, comprehensive, and is in its third edition.
How dare I write a book on the same topic.
I knew I had a different story to tell. I could take the same cast of characters and come up with a completely different story arc and come up with a book that people would enjoy. I looked around and saw many stories in the same genre and convinced the publisher I was working for at the time to launch a series of Mac books. Now here it is a year later and there are many more stories to tell about those same characters.
As you write your book you’ll have moments of hesitation when you hear that someone else is working on the same idea as you. Maybe they’re writing a book. Maybe they’re writing a blog. It doesn’t matter. It’s not the story; it’s the way you tell it.
In the final scene of “Don Pasquale” the old man and the doctor come into the garden to catch the old man’s wife meeting her secret lover. How did the old man learn of the meeting? He found a letter that his wife deliberately left for him to find so they could trap him. The scene opens and soon the woman is singing a duet with the nephew as they confirm their love for each other.
Wait, what’s that? Why it’s the doctor and the old man arriving loud enough that the duo hear them and the nephew has time to hide in the fountain in plain site of the audience but hidden from the old man by a shawl that covers all of the nephew except an arm he keeps visible so that the audience remembers he’s there.
The old man wants out of his marriage. The doctor says that there’s a way. The old man has to let his nephew marry the love of his life. The old man says yes—immediately. Bring his nephew and his bride and they can get married right away. The nephew appears out of the fountain and the bride is revealed to really be the woman the nephew wanted to marry. The doctor explains to the old man that he’s been tricked into marriage and out of a lot of money to teach him a lesson.
The old man pauses a moment and says “o.k.”, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Do you believe me know? It’s not the story; it’s the way you tell it. “Don Pasquale” is told as an opera with beautiful music. It’s not the story itself that carries the piece.
What if someone has written the story you want to tell much better than you ever could? We’ll talk about that on Tuesday. Oh, and what about the fabulous love story? I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.