There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

The Princess Bride and Narrative Techniques July 3, 2013

In the summer of 1992 I was injured on a working holiday and spent much of my summer watching my friend’s copy of The Princess Bride movie. (Forget flat-screens and high definition – this was state of the art VHS). By the time the neck brace came off I could quote most of that movie verbatim – it’s full of quotable gems such as:

“As you wish.” “My name is Inigo Montoya you killed my father prepare to die…” “To the pain.” “Inconceivable!”

As part of my love affair with the movie, I also tracked down William Goldman’s book and was pulled further into the rabbit hole. Because although the movie is told as a story within a story (a grandfather reading a story to his grandson), the book is even more complex – including Goldman himself as both character and storyteller.

In the book of The Princess Bride, Goldman claims to be presenting an abridgement of a story written by S. Morgenstern. According to Goldman he was read the story by his father. Some time later his fascination with the story leads him to track down a copy of the book for his own son, only to find that Morgenstern’s original version was actually a satire of the excesses of European royalty, complete with long and complex descriptions of etiquette and pedigree. Nothing at all like the tale his father told.

In the book Goldman tells it this way:

But my father only read me the action stuff, the good parts. He never bothered with the serious side at all.

And so, Goldman sets about publishing his abridged version of the book.

However, the truth is there is no Morgenstern, no son even (Goldman had daughters) and of course Florin is a fictitious fantasy realm. But the narrative technique seems to have been the key to opening up the writing process for The Princess Bride.

Goldman is quoted as saying:

And when that idea hit, everything changed. Tennessee Williams says there are three or four days when you are writing a play that the piece opens itself to you, and the good parts of the play are all from those days. Well, The Princess Bride opened itself to me. I never had a writing experience like it. I went back and wrote the chapter about Bill Goldman being at the Beverly Hills Hotel and it all just came out. I never felt as strongly connected emotionally to any writing of mine in my life. It was totally new and satisfying and it came as such a contrast to the world I had been doing in the films that I wanted to be a novelist again.

And although it’s hard to trust anything Goldman says (especially in the forewords and anniversary additions where he continues to spout great whoppers about his life and ongoing dealings with the Morgenstern estate) – there’s something that resonates as a writer about finding the key to opening up the story-telling process.

In the case of the book, Goldman was able to put on his larger-than-life storyteller persona and control the pace and the timing of the story. In the movie, this technique (to a lesser degree) is used to pull the viewer out of the story and create tension. It allows backstory to be covered quickly – shameless telling, but in a form that works; and keeps the tone of the movie light and comedic.

Some of the most memorable books I’ve read have had interesting narrative structures. Wuthering Heights used a narrator who heard part of the tale on his sickbed and set forth and uncovered the rest for himself. To Kill a Mockingbird chose a child narrator to get to the heart of justice and racial inequalities.

In the fantasy genre, Patrick Rothfuss, in his bestsellers The Name of the Wind, and Wise Man’s Fear uses another story within a story narrative technique. Having the main character dictate his life story to a scribe during a period of time in his life which seems far from a happy-ending scenario, not only provides a framework for the story, but colours the readers expectations. At first we wonder how this character will ever attain the degree of infamy he is apparently known for, but we’re also wondering how and when it’s all going to go so spectacularly wrong. The stakes are upped at the outset.

Finding the right narrative structure can mean the difference between your story coming to life or ending up ‘mostly dead’.

For Goldman, it not only unlocked his own creativity, but resulted in an on-going dialogue with his readers as he encourages them to write to his publishers for extra scenes and continues to spin tall tales around his visits to Florin and on-going legal wrangle with the family Morgenstern. You have to applaud him for using such an unusual vehicle for drawing his readership in; because there’s no denying there is something special about The Princess Bride.

Do you have a favourite quote or scene in The Princess Bride? Or did the book or movie make an impact on you back when it was released – or (for those younger souls) when you stumbled across it?

– by Raewyn Hewitt