With Love and Friendship currently filming, I’ve been thinking a lot about the plot of Lady Susan, upon which, of course, the film is based, and how it would work in the film medium. I stress I have no idea how Whit Stillman, who I believe has written the adaptation, has decided to adapt the original; I am working completely with the original as Austen wrote it.
In case you haven’t read this novella yet (and why not? It’s quite short and enjoyable, and free to read if you have an e-reader, tablet, or smartphone), be aware I will be discussing the entire plot, so if a spoiler alert is needed, then: spoiler alert! Someone more or less familiar with the story will have an easier time following along.
In high school English class, we learned that plots generally follow a model of dramatic structure. The model is sometimes known as Freytag’s Pyramid, which was first used to plot ancient Greek dramas and Shakespeare’s plays.
It’s a relatively simple model, and really doesn’t even need the diagram once you get the hang of it. Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement (resolution). There are more complicated diagrams of the dramatic/narrative structure of fiction that include other plot points along the way, but for the purposes of this post we’ll plot Lady Susan with the simpler version of Freytag’s Pyramid, and then get into a different, more complicated model.
Exposition: Letters I-VII set up the novel. All of the characters are introduced and the situation is explained for the reader.
Rising Action: Letters VIII-XXXI. That’s a lot of letters; in fact, it’s most of the book. I felt like the best way to approach this was to determine the climax of the story first and work from there. After some consideration, I decided that the climax of the story is when Reginald finally gets incontrovertible proof that all those nasty things he heard about Lady Susan are true.
I also considered Frederica writing a note to Reginald begging for his help as the climax, as Reginald is temporarily swayed in the girl’s favor and against Lady Susan, but she brings him around again. Writers are told to ask themselves what their character wants, and then focus on that. Lady Susan wants to get married to someone with money. For most of the story, that someone is Reginald De Courcy. I think the moment when she loses him forever is the proper moment to choose for the climax of the story.
Climax: Letter XXXII, in which Reginald De Courcy arrives at Mr. Johnson’s house to meet Lady Susan. She has been delayed with Mr. Mainwaring, and Reginald overhears Mrs. Mainwaring complaining to her guardian, who is conveniently to the story Mr. Johnson, about how her husband is dallying with Lady Susan. The scales fall from Reginald’s eyes, and he is lost to Lady Susan forever.
Falling Action: Letters XXXIII-XLI, which are basically a series of letters between Lady Susan and Reginald saying, “You stink!” “You stink more!” etc. etc., and the last two are an exchange of letters between Lady De Courcy and Mrs. Vernon, informing the reader that yes, it really is all over.
Denouement: Conclusion. For a long time I felt like Austen had gotten bored at this point–epistolary writing is really, really hard, y’all–and just finished off the piece with a quick prose chapter, but as Austen actually points out, “This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties, and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued any longer.” (Heeeeee! Jane, you are awesomeness itself.) So the conclusion, which wraps up all the loose ends, is written in prose, consisting of all of two long paragraphs.
So we have the basic plot of Lady Susan as Austen wrote it laid out. But how might that work for a film? As I have already said, I have absolutely no idea what Whit Stillman has in mind, but it’s a fun intellectual exercise to try to lay out the plot–again, using Lady Susan as Austen wrote it–along a slightly different narrative structure diagram. This one is called Field’s Paradigm, created by the legendary scriptwriting instructor Syd Field in his seminal book on scriptwriting, Screenplay.
This paradigm uses the same basic structure as Freytag’s–exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution–but places them in a three-act structure and adds some other plot points along the way. (It is fun to try to take movie plots and figure out the various places where they intersect with Field’s Paradigm, and in fact is a common exercise in film classes. You can read a breakdown of the film The Shawshank Redemption on Syd Field’s website.)
The first act contains the Set-Up, which is pretty much the same as the Exposition in Freytag’s Pyramid. However, at about the 20-30 minute mark of the film, there should be an incident (Plot Point I) that throws a spanner in the main character’s works and sends the plot on its way. (In screenplay writing, a page of script roughly translates to a minute of film. The paradigm represents a 120 minute film. Many films these days, except those made by Peter Jackson [may Our Lady of the Fangirls bless his hairy toes] and other special effects spectaculars, are closer to 90-100 minutes. Again, no idea, but I would say Lady Susan, as a story, is about right for that shorter length.)
Act I, The Set-Up: Letters I-VII
Plot Point I: Letter VIII, in which Mrs. Vernon writes to her mother in despair that Reginald has fallen under Lady Susan’s spell. Remember: what does Lady Susan want? To marry a rich man. Reginald will do nicely. Bringing him to heel starts off her story.
Field divides Act II, Confrontation, into two halves: from approximately minute 30 through 90. He places the midpoint at page 60, which again indicates a two-hour film. But for our purposes we’ll call it halfway. I’m going to place Letter XXI, Frederica’s letter to Reginald, at this point. And it is just about halfway through the story.
At the end of Act II occurs Plot Point II, which is more or less the same as the Climax in Freytag’s Pyramid. I’m going to place Letter XXXII as Plot Point II.
Act III, Resolution, includes Letters XXXIII through XLI and the Conclusion, so encompassing Falling Action and the last 10-30 minutes of the film. That sounds about right for what remains–the arguments between Lady Susan and Reginald, Reginald goes home and tells his parents all is over, the Vernon family goes to the De Courcys for a nice long visit, Lady Susan ends up married to Sir James, whom she had originally designed for Frederica. Frederica remains with the Vernons, and eventually Reginald De Courcy is “talked, flattered and finessed” into marrying her. One rather hopes the latter part will take up most of the time in Act III. We don’t need another Purple Moment. (Hope you’re reading this, Whit. Happy to consult scriptwise. Have your people call my people.)