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Intention and Obstacle: the Failure of Fanny Burney’s Cecilia

For the past few weeks I’ve been taking Aaron Sorkin’s online Masterclass in Screenwriting. It’s about eight hours of one-on-one sit-downs with Sorkin–over the course of 35 lessons–as he talks about some of the finer points of taking an idea and turning it into a script that other people will (hopefully) care about. Ultimately, it’s about the rules of storytelling, dialogue, and character development, and these extend far beyond the movies, TV shows, and plays that Sorkin is referencing. The fundamentals of storytelling don’t really change, no matter the medium. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when Sorkin hit on a fundamental flaw that’s been bugging me about Fanny Burney’s Cecilia (the 1000-page, 18th century book that I’ve been reading along with a group at an almost complete lack of intention and obstacle on the part of its main character.

Quite often, writers want to write about ideas, the stuff that fascinates them and sparks debate and conversation. With novels, these ideas are typically described as themes, the central topics that the story weaves in and out of. It’s probably what the story is “about,” if you ask the author. What gets lost, though–all the time, even with the most accomplished writers–is the piece of the story that’s required to make the whole thing work: intention and obstacle, the mother and father of drama.

Intention is the thing the character wants. The obstacle is the (formidable) thing that’s getting in the way of the character’s intention. Every good story hangs on a really taut line of intention and obstacle. It’s the driving force of the story. It’s what keeps you flipping pages. It’s how YA books can be downright awful but you still can’t put them down–their intention and obstacle are clearly defined and that usually makes for a gripping story.

As Sorkin says, the intention and the obstacle are what (usually) separate fiction from journalism. Without drama then you might as well just write an essay that talks about your fascinating, debate-sparking idea.

“When you’re talking about things like theme you have to be really careful because that’s not what’s going to make the car go. Okay? It’s what’s going to be what makes the car be good and give you a good ride. But that’s not what’s going to make the car go—at least not for me. You know, everybody writes different. But for me I have to stick—really closely, like it’s a life raft— to intention and obstacles. Just the basics of somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it. Make sure you have that cemented in place. Themes will then become apparent to you and you can hang a lantern on the ones you like. Bring them into relief, you can get rid of the ones that aren’t doing you any good and you can paint the car and make it look really nice. But the car isn’t going to turn over unless you see to the basics of drama, and drama is intention and obstacles, somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it.”

Aaron Sorkin, Creative Screenwriting podcast interview by Jeff Goldsmith
December 24, 2010

I’m almost 500 pages into Cecilia and I still can’t tell you what the intention and the obstacle are. Sure, there are ancillary intentions (Cecilia wants to be rid of her awful benefactors, Cecilia wants to help the underprivileged, Cecilia wants to know who the white domino is from the masquerade), but these aren’t the line that the story is supposed to hang upon. The thrust of Cecilia is supposed to be that she cannot marry and access her family fortune unless the man she marries agrees to take her family name.

Thus, Cecilia’s intention is to fall in love and marry the right man. The obstacle is that man’s hesitance to shirk the established custom and marry her in spite of the embarrassment of giving up his name.

500 pages into the story this issue has not been discussed by any two characters for more than a sentence.

Ultimately, this is the reason Cecilia passed out of all knowledge for 150 years. It makes complete sense that a writer this proficient could have been forgotten, given her complete ambivalence towards writing a “hook.” I understand that Burney wrote in a different era when her readers were positively made of time and could stand to read hundreds of pages just to get to the meat of the story, but this intention/obstacle format is by no means a modern concept. Austen understood it. Milton understood it. Shakespeare understood it. Fuck, Aristotle may have understood it better than anyone (read his Poetics, for proof).

On the bright side, the second half of Cecilia seems like it’s finally going to address the Cecilia-Delville will they/won’t they conundrum. She’s fallen for him. That’s clear. Now all Burney needs to do is throw a boulder in the middle of the road with the words “take her last name, you craven milksop” written across it.

However, I’m not holding my breath.


Rick @ Read the North View All

Originally from Nova Scotia, Rick lives in Edmonton, Alberta, because, well, most of Nova Scotia lives there anyway. He is neutral good.

13 thoughts on “Intention and Obstacle: the Failure of Fanny Burney’s Cecilia Leave a comment

  1. I’m on page 550 and I’ve lost steam too. For me there are two problems, the one you identify, and the fact that Cecilia doesn’t feel real to me yet, the way a Bronte heroine does, for example.

    Does she *really* love Mortimer, or is this an Emma “in love with” Mr. Churchill situation? I have not swooned yet, damn it.

    I will push on tho. And maybe get a post up this week!

    • I was *this* close to making this week’s post about how Cecilia doesn’t have any flaws (seemingly) and the whole book is just a series of reactions from people about how obsessed with her they are. It’s kind of nuts. I can’t recall any other main character who is so overtly adored.

      And yeah the Mortimer love thing … the reader definitely doesn’t “feel” it yet. Without the masquerade scenario there wouldn’t be any romantic tension at all. The first half of this book kind of feel like an extremely lengthy prologue. One that could have been summed up in like 50 pages, in my opinion.

    • I’m curious how I would have felt about the first half of the book had I not known the hook around the marriage/fortune/last name. The Harrells’ situation, as a result, just felt like filler, or an impediment in the way of the actual story. Had I not been anticipating the Mortimer story, maybe the Harrell stuff would have been more interesting to me. I’m not sure. My gut says no, since I’ve been pretty bored (minus the first book and the masquerade).

      Striving on, though! It should only get more interesting from here on out. *crosses fingers*

      • I forgot about that hook a few times. Maybe that’s not it? Maybe there’s something else coming, or something else that’s been under the surface?

        Okay, what if Cecilia’s intention is just to live her damn life and the obstacle is the patriarchy? (I’m half joking half not lol) Like the constant harassment and speculation and manipulations and jockeying for position, all in the name of marriage, which, I don’t think she even wants… she wants to sit in her room and read a damn book. As Kim K would say, CAN I LIVE?

        Also, what’s the deal with the screen writing course?

      • I’m not planning on writing a movie at all. I just think Sorkin is a genius and am doing it just to learn more about writing stories, basically. I love the guy so much I’m willing to pay to listen to him talk at me for 8 hours haha.

  2. I am reading along and I appreciate the aspect of literary criticism Rick has brought to the blog… with that little reference to Aristotle himself! 🙂 Despite the beautifully written prose -that lovely balanced writing finding maturity in Austen, I do find myself a bit weary of the plot flow to this point mainly because of two things: an annoying coyness of all the characters to speak their minds (I realize this is the main source of dramatic tension in the book), and the slow pace of the plot and character development. It’s definitely an early English novel! Does anyone know if Cecilia realizes the marriage name restriction on her fortune?

  3. Well my friend, in the words of a famous chef, Ms Burney’s taking it up a notch. Things are really starting to pick up in book 6. Love is declared and responded to. I also have to say having read Pride and Prejudice that Miss (Ms) Austen is treading a little close to plagiarism for my taste. .. that outta create a little controversy in our read along. But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I’ll give Austen the upper hand.

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