Bucks County Writers Workshop

Bucks County Writers Workshop


or Deconstructing The Dick and Jane Hamlet to Examine Narrative Pull

by Jeanette de Richemond

"I shall stab Uncle Claudius," says Hamlet. "What fun it will be to stab him through the curtain."
See Hamlet draw his sword. See Hamlet stab.
Stab, Hamlet, stab.
See Uncle Claudius's blood. See Uncle Claudius's blood gush.
Gush, blood, gush.
See Uncle Claudius fall. How funny he looks stabbed.
Ha, ha, ha.
But it is not Uncle Claudius.

Who did Hamlet stab? Where is Uncle Claudius? Why does Hamlet want to stab Claudius? What will Hamlet do next? Dick and Jane (with some inspiration from Shakespeare) created a strong narrative pull in this scene. Every writer wants to create pull, the action that moves the reader through the narrative. Let's look at how to create pull by examining Dick and Jane's version of Hamlet.

In writing, the action is a sequence of events. An "action unit" or a pared-down sequence of events may be "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." A more interesting sequence shows a causal connection between events or two action units. Let's examine The Dick and Jane Hamlet.

"I am your father," says the ghost. "I was a good king. Uncle Claudius is a bad king. He gave me poison. Would you like poison?"
"Oh, no," says Hamlet. "I would not like poison."
"Will you avenge me, Hamlet?" asks the ghost.
"Oh, yes," says Hamlet. "I will avenge you."
We see that there is a casual connection between the uncle's assassination of Hamlet's father and Hamlet's attack on the uncle.

By combining three action units, you create an episode, which includes an exposition, a complication, and a resolution. A simple example is the familiar plot formula: "Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl." Most romantic comedies can be reduced to this sequence. On the other hand, we can look at the secondary story line in Hamlet as a variant in which "Boy meets girl. Boy rejects girl. Girl drowns." Or as Dick and Jane put it, "Glub, glub," says Ophelia.

To create a story line, episodes can be organized in three ways:
1) the sequence of events as ordered in the narrative. Don's story, "To Be Announced," is an example of organizing action in this way. In the first chapter, we attend the funeral of the best friend. In the third chapter, we visit a radio show with both friends when they were young.
2) the action as it happened in actual chronological sequence. Jules' story, "Dead Peasants Insurance" took us through a series of events as they occurred.
3) the story's cause and effect structure. Let's see what Hamlet's up to. Cause: Claudius kills Hamlet's father. And then what happens? What are the effects of these action units?
See Hamlet's mother drink poison.
See Hamlet stab Uncle Claudius.
See everybody wounded and bleeding and dying and dead.

The story is only part of the plot. E.M. Forster originally introduced these terms in Aspects of the Novel. Story and plot are not synonyms. The story is the chronological sequence of events. When we analyze a story, we look at chronological span and the coherence of the action sequence. The basic question concerning story structure is: What happens next? Hamlet's father dies. Hamlet's uncle dies. Hamlet's mother dies. Hamlet dies. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hits on Broadway.

Plot adds more dimensions to the story as plot is the logical and casual structure of a story. The basic question concerning plot structure is: Why does this happen? One formula for plot structure is A does X because B does Y. Hamlet kills Claudius because Claudius killed his father and married his mother (and don't forget, "Hamlet loves his mother a little too much," according to Dick.)

In plotting a story, you might work out the story's time line so all of the main events (and action units) are situated for sequence and extension. Here's Hamlet:

StoryUnit Detail
prehistory1Claudius kills Hamlet's father
2Claudius marries Hamlet's mother
primary story line3Hamlet meets ghost
4Hamlet stabs Polonius
5Hamlet duels with Laertes
6Laertes stabs Hamlet
7Hamlet stabs Laertes
8Hamlet's mother drinks poison
9Hamlet stabs Claudius
secondary story lineOphelia

Sequence, as we know, is the order of the events in the story. The second concept that is important in plotting a story is planning for extensions of the plot to reveal themes and other elements of the story. Once again, Dick and Jane show us how this is done.

"What is your name?" asks Hamlet.
"My name is Ophelia?" says the girl.
"Why are you laughing?" says Hamlet. "You are a silly goose."
"I am laughing because you are so funny," says Ophelia. "I laugh because you are a schizophrenic."

In four lines, our saddle-shoed pair again shows how to construct a story. The meeting they present is an opportunity for extension. Does the conversation with the ghost mean Hamlet is schizophrenic? Is Hamlet pretending to be schizophrenic to fool his uncle? Is Ophelia really the one who's schizophrenic? Extension provides the chance to add additional layers of meaning.

By answering the important two questions, you can create narrative pull. When you're writing, ask yourself: What happens next? Why did this happen?

Bucks County Writers Workshop