Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
James Bond, as Ian Fleming envisioned him.
Note: In this and a the two previous posts, I summarize and comment upon essays concerning horror fiction that appear in Gender, Language, and Myth, edited by Glenwood Irons (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). Although some of the claims in these essays seem far-fetched (to me, at least), others appear to have some validity and even some practical application. In any case, readers of Chillers and Thrillers are likely to find that these synopses offer unusual takes on the theory and practice of writing horror fiction.
According to Umberto Eco, Ian Fleming used nine plot elements to structure every one of his James Bond novels. The only real difference between any two of the books was the order in which their author presented these elements: “The scheme is invariable in the sense that all the elements are always present in every novel. . . . That the moves always be in the same sequence is not imperative” (161).
Eco’s analysis posits three recurring characters: Bond himself, the villain whom Bond defeats, and the woman whom Bond seduces. Some of the elements of Fleming’s plots themselves contain alternative possibilities of development, so that the nine can be presented with some variety that is additional to that which is supplied by Fleming’s changing the order of their presentation from one novel to the next.
Using letters of the alphabet, Eco lists “the invariable scheme” as consisting of:
A M. . . gives a task to Bond.“The invariable scheme” that Eco detects in Fleming’s fiction represents a formula.
B Villain. . . appears to Bond (perhaps in vicarious forms).
C Bond. . . gives a first check to Villain or Villain gives first check to Bond.
D Woman . . . shows herself to Bond.
E Bond takes Woman (possesses her or begins her seduction).
F Villain captures Bond (with or without Woman, or at different moments).
G Villain tortures Bon (with or without Woman).
H Bond beats Villain (kills him, or kills his representative or helps at their killing).
I Bond, convalescing, enjoys Woman, whom he then loses (“Narrative Structures in Fleming,” 161).
Eco’s analysis of Fleming’s plot structure allows him to summarize the plots of various novels simply by referring to the elements by the letters with which he designates them, in the order in which these elements appear in any of the novelist’s works. For example, Eco says,
A minute detailing of the ten novels under consideration might yield several examples of a set scheme we might call ABCDEFGHI (for example, Dr. No), but often there are inversions and variations . . . For example, Goldfinger presents a different scheme, BCDAECDFGHEHI, where it is possible to notice repeated moves: two encounters and three games played with the Villain, two seductions and three encounters with women, a first flight of the Villain after his defeat and his ensuing death, and so on (161).
Likewise, the length at which Fleming treats any of the elements of his plot are apt to differ from one novel to the next. In From Russia with Love, for example, Eco discerns both “a long prologue in Russia. . . [and] a long interlude in which Kerim and Krilenku appear and the latter is defeated” (161-162) among shorter treatments of other elements.
Additionally, to further vary the typical elements, Fleming sometimes includes several “side issues” in his books, Eco observes. In Diamonds Are Forever, Fleming includes such “side issues” as a “long, curious prologue that introduces one to diamond-smuggling in South Africa”; a “detailed journey by air” during which, “in the background two vicarious Villains” appear and there is an “imperceptible duel between hunters and prey”; a “meeting with Felix Leiter, who brings Bond up to date about the Spangs”; a “long interval at Saratoga at the races,” where. “to help Leiter, Bond, in fact, ‘damages’ the Spangs”; “appearances of vicarious Villains in the mud bath and punishment of the treacherous jockey, anticipating symbolically the torturing of Bond; the whole Saratoga episode” and Bond’s decision “to go to Las Vegas” followed by a “detailed description of the district”; and numerous other such incidents, all while the standard elements are in play (162-165).
Despite such “inversions and variations” and such “side issues,” however, “the true and original story remains immutable,” Eco argues, “and suspense is stabilized curiously on the basis of a sequence of events that are entirely predetermined” (165). Each plot, in essence, Eco contends, “may be summarized as follows”:
Bond is sent to a given place to avert a ‘science-fiction’ plan by a monstrous individual of uncertain origin and definitely not English who, making use of his organizational or productive activity, not only earns money but [also] helps the cause of the enemies of the West. In facing this monstrous being, Bond meets a woman who is dominated by him and frees her from her past, establishing with her an erotic relationship interrupted by capture by the Villain and by torture. But Bond defeats the Villain, who dies horribly, and rests from his great efforts in the arms of the woman, though he is destined to lose her (165).Fleming’s technique works, despite its limitations and predictability, Eco suggests, for the same reason that a game or an athletic competition works” “The reader finds himself immersed in a game of which he knows the pieces [Bond, the Villain, and the Woman] and the rules [the nine plot elements]--and perhaps the outcome--and draws pleasure simply from following the minimal variations by which the victor realizes his objective” (166).
Eco’s analysis of Fleming’s plot structure has application for horror writers who employ the plot elements that, in a previous post, I identify as typical for one standard horror storyline, in which--
In previous posts, including “The Calm Before the Storm,” I advance the claim that the general formula for the horror story consists of these phases:
- There is a period of normality, or everydayness.
- A bizarre incident occurs.
- The initial bizarre incidents gives rise to a series of additional bizarre incidents.
- The protagonist learns the cause of these incidents.
- The protagonist uses his or her newfound knowledge to end the incidents.
Eco’s analysis of Fleming’s structure and the “inversions and variations” that James Bond’s creator interjects into his own nine-element scheme suggests ways by which horror writers can expand, rearrange, lengthen, and strengthen their own basic formula. For example, rather than the traditional 12345 organization, the horror story formula’s plot elements might be arranged as 1234512345. Although an arrangement of 451231345 is somewhat unusual, it is not impossible. Stephen King’s novel It has, in fact, a similar structure. After battling a protean monster as children, the protagonists (except one, who commits suicide) return to the hometown of their childhood, as adults, to take on the entity again, hoping, this time, to destroy it forever. The complete story is thus made up of these two smaller stories. Beowulf consists of three stories: the hero’s slaying of Grendel, his slaying of Grendel’s mother, and his slaying of the dragon that also slays him and thus takes the form of 1234512512345.