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Writing U.N.C.L.E.: The Three-Corner Structure
By C. W. Walker
As U.N.C.L.E. fanfic writers, we create a lot of different kinds of stories. Some fall within the traditional genres: action-adventure, romance, fantasy, espionage thrillers. Some fall within genres more unique to fandom: Mary Sue, slash, hurt-comfort. We also write stories of various sizes: vignettes, short stories, novellas, novels, and even multi-part series.
The writers of the original MFU series didn't enjoy the same flexibility. Because of the time limitations of U.S. network television in the 1960's, they had to write stories that fit into a slot that was approximately 45 minutes long, a slot that was both bracketed and interrupted by commercials. The invention of MFU's "acts" was a way to make those interruptions seem more natural.
Genre-wise, however, MFU writers actually had a bit more freedom than writers for other series. MFU was never truly and rigidly defined. As the writers' guides from that period admit, MFU had a bit of everything: high adventure, espionage, satire, slapstick, and even a touch of science fiction now and then.
On the surface, MFU's format could be described simply (at least in the 2nd and 3rd years) as a teaser with four acts. Back in 1985, an article in The Inner Circle III newsletter also identified several sub-formats: The Rolfe format (basic); the Caillou format (a bit more complicated with the innocent established very early); and the later Fields format (usually a preliminary incident occurs before the actual affair begins). One might add a Fourth Season format, which thrusts the audience right into the action from the start.
Because, as fanfic writers, we need not worry about time or space limitations, format is no longer a concern. Many MFU writers still split their stories into four acts, but many don't. Some stories are just too short to divide into four acts (I remember writing one of my first stories at age 11 devoting two pages to each act.) Some are far too long.
But what we might consider, what is probably unavoidable, is structure. And the structure I'd like to address in this column is not the general three-act structure of all stories from the beginning of time. That is: set-up, complications, resolution (or, to put it another way: you get the heroes up a tree; you throw stones at them; you get them down.) It is the structure --- the deep structure --- embedded in the very concept of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
I should note that structure is not formula. Format, as described above, is formula. If a story were a house, structure would mean that, as a house, it would require a foundation, a roof, walls (open or closed), with perhaps a door and a window at the very least. Whether it also contained a kitchen, bedrooms, a parlor; whether it had one room or several, one floor or several; whether the bathroom was inside or out, would all be flourishes dictated by culture (or, in the case of stories, genre). When a house has a foundation and a roof, that's structure. When all the houses are built to look exactly alike, a la Levittown, that's formula.
MFU, as a concept, is characterized by the straddling of two worlds: the fantastic and the mundane. The universe of MFU is a place where these two worlds bump up against each other, sometimes even blending into one another. Sam Rolfe's advice to all the writers who came to work for him was simple: walk the line. Walk the precarious line between what is and what might/should/could be. One need not always write the probable but one should try to present the possible. Rolfe was saying, that like those romantic scenes in old movies in which at least one lover had to keep one foot on the floor at all times, MFU at its best always keeps touch with reality --- even if it's just a little toe.
This concept gave rise to what we might call the "three cornered" structure that is so integral to MFU. Here is how one might imagine it graphically:
Picture, if you will, an equilateral triangle. Divide the triangle equally in half. On the left side, is the world of the fantastic. On the right, the mundane.
Now, at each point on the triangle, we distribute our characters. At the very top, at the apex, we locate the U.N.C.L.E. agents. (One might consider Waverly-Solo-Kuryakin yet another triangle, but that's a subject for another column).
The agents always exist in the "in-between," and indeed, this is probably the real genius of U.N.C.L.E. They have one foot in the fantastic world of espionage and one foot in the mundane. They save the world practically every week of their lives ---yet they still worry about expense accounts and insurance rates.
Unlike James Bond, the world they occupy at least half the time is one recognizable to the average audience member. They are both extraordinary people doing ordinary things as well as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They function at the cusp where the planes of reality, morality (Good and Evil), and politics meet. And they are not only balanced by each other (as many fanfic writers are well aware), but also by the characters that exist at the other ends of the triangle.
On the point of the triangle to the left, we locate our Villain. MFU villains, while not always as over-the-top as Bond villains, are nevertheless, in some way, colorful and flamboyant. In the series, they ranged from the quite realistic ambassador of "The Strigas Affair" to the nearly supernatural Count Zark of "The Bat Cave Affair." They function if not at a level of the fantastic, certainly at a heightened reality.
At the point to the right, we locate the Innocent. Some fanfic writers today prefer to downplay the Innocent or eliminate her (or him, or even them --- in the series, the Innocents were often a couple). Still, it's important to keep in mind that structurally, the Innocent has several vital functions in the MFU concept.
One of those functions is to anchor the story in the mundane and provide a reality check for everyone involved (including, by extension, the reader). Rolfe and Felton thought the Innocent would be an identity figure, a way into the story, for the audience. As time went on, however, it was clear that most of the audience identified with the agents, not the Innocent. This is true of fans and fanfic writers as well.
Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that that Innocent no longer has a purpose. She (or he) does. She is the balance against the "craziness." She is Alice commenting on Wonderland, just as "The Mad Mad Mad Tea Party Affair" makes clear.
She is also the true opposition to the Villain. She seldom has a relationship to the Villain. And when she does, as in "The Vulcan Affair," she is appalled to discover what the Villain is doing and always agrees to help. This makes her very different from the so-called "Bond girls." As noted literary theorist, Umberto Eco, points out in his analysis of the Bond novels (appearing in his book, The Role of the Reader), all the Bond Girls are, in some way, victimized and dominated by the Bond Villains. Bond Girls must be "saved" ---either physically or morally --- by Bond.
This is not true of MFU's Innocent. Not only is she not victimized or dominated by the Villain, but she often saves the agents' lives and is instrumental in helping them vanquish the Villain.
It is interesting to note that in the Bond stories, the Villains are physically monstrous and often motivated, in some way, by greed. In MFU, however, the Villains are seldom deformed or ugly and indeed, are often very charming, polite, educated, and cultured.
Their goal is nearly always power and their "sin," if you will, is to ignore or reject their responsibility to their fellow man. Even a good-guy Villain like Captain Shark fails in this regard. Near the end of "The Shark Affair," Solo tries to convince Shark that he has a responsibility not to run away from the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, but to work to prevent it.
MFU's Innocent stands in opposition. She is often a character who takes her duty, her responsibilities, very seriously. She is usually a wife, a mother, a teacher, a social worker, a student. It is to her sense of responsibility --- not only to her family, friends and employer, but also, now, to the world --- that the agents usually appeal when recruiting her. Even the irresponsible innocents ---the male librarian, Harry Barnam in "The Shark Affair," Buzz in "The Project: Deephole Affair," Jojo Tyler in "The Dippy Blonde Affair" and Leslie in "The Minus X Affair" --- eventually come around.
The Evil in the Bond stories is monumental, usually related to one of the seven deadly sins. The Evil in MFU (following Hannah Arendt who wrote about the banality of Evil) is more mundane, but also more relevant. It is simply not to care --- to do what one wants and consequences be damned. To act like the most horrific spoiled brat is, in the last analysis, the ultimate expression of power.
In addition to anchoring the story to reality and to providing a contrast to the Villain, the Innocent serves yet one more vital function. The Innocent provides with a fresh perspective on the agents.
There is nothing that most MFU fans like better than exploring the characters of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (not to mention, Waverly, Dancer and Slate as well). It's fun to imagine what Solo thinks of Kuryakin and vice versa, but without other perspectives, eventually, the result can become claustrophobic and repetitious. Opening up the agents' world grounds them in a more solid reality and provides other story possibilities.
Outside characters, male or female, connected with U.N.C.L.E. (like Mandy and George) or not, offer us new perspectives and points of view. They also force the agents, themselves, to look inward, and examine and reflect upon who they are and what they are doing.
If the agents are not artificially cocooned and allowed to function within a normal world, other characters are bound to turn up. It's inevitable. And because MFU stories are about the world of espionage, some characters will know more than others (it's not called "Intelligence" for nothing). The agents usually occupy the space in-between those who know exactly what's going on and those who don't. In many stories, we follow along as the agents solve the mystery or uncover the diabolical plot.
Because MFU is such a balancing act, here's the most interesting thing: the three points of the triangle are always occupied. Always. If there is no Innocent, one of the agents will become the Innocent. Often, it's Illya (giving rise to the "wimpy Illya" syndrome that many complain about). If there is no Villain, one of the agents will become the Villain (the "mean Solo" syndrome.)
Now, there's nothing wrong with the agents falling into these roles IF that's what the writer intended. But sometimes, the move is inadvertent. One of the reasons The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. failed was because the writers didn't know what to do about the Innocent slot. A female Innocent would automatically relate to Mark Slate (in those days, they couldn't really conceive of a female Innocent forming a strong bond with a female agent ---sigh.) A male Innocent was a problem, too, because he had to remain macho and yet still follow a female agent's lead. What happened, in the end, was a string of weak Innocents with April Dancer actually functioning more in an Innocent's role. No wonder fans find her too helpless.
Although I haven't spent as much time with the Villain as the Innocent, this, too, is an obviously important role. If the Innocent is too weak or non-existent, the MFU story will turn dark and paranoid. But if the Villain is too weak, the story will turn silly. There are plenty of examples from the series to illustrate this situation. Our heroes are made more formidable only by a formidable opposition.
Does the three-cornered structure hold for all stories? No. There are many short pieces that are merely vignettes. Also, there are many stories that emphasize the psychological or the personal, where the fact that Solo and Kuryakin work for U.N.C.L.E. is almost beside the point.
But stories that present the agents functioning -as- agents will naturally occur in the MFU world where the mundane meets a heightened reality. There will be those characters who know little or nothing and those who know a lot; those who act from duty and responsibility, and those who do not. In other words, there are bound to be Innocents and Villains, no matter how they are labeled. And there will also be the agents, our guys, as usual, inevitably caught in the great in-between.