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Tag: narratology

Types of Plots In Children’s Literature

John Truby’s expertise is in film, but I’m going to use his diagrams and principles to gain a better understanding of children’s stories instead. The following are screen caps from his excellent book The Anatomy of Story. Nodelman, Reimer and Nikolajeva are experts in children’s literature. I’m going to consider Nikolajeva’s book From Linear To Mythic: Time in children’s literature alongside The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer to come up with my own sort-of taxonomy of plot children’s stories.

THE LINEAR STORY

 

Linear Story

 

As in film, the majority of children’s stories are basically linear. However, the plot doesn’t necessarily begin where the story begins. Home-away-home adventures stories are generally linear.

Dennis Butts, among others, has pointed out that in their use of formulaic elements and stereotyped characters, adventure stories owe a good deal to the structure of traditional folk- and fairy tales in which similar patterns tend to repeat themselves. Butts refers to the ideas of both Propp and Campbell as possible instruments to examine the structure of adventure stories, and to those of Bettelheim to show the appeal of these stories. He also discusses Treasure Island in terms of folktale.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear

  • Tom Sawyer (‘master text’ for adventure story as the Narnia Chronicles are for fantasy)
  • The Epic Of Gilgamesh (the oldest known adventure story — 3rd millennium BC)
  • The Odyssey (by Homer, about 3000 years old)
  • The legend of Saint George and the dragon
  • The Greek tale of Perseus
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
  • Jack and the Beanstalk
  • Treasure Island
  • Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)
  • Peter Pan
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings
  • Doctor Who
  • Star Wars
  • James Bond
  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Starwars, 1977 (a parody of the hero adventure story)

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Gilgamesh and The Wizard of Oz

The Epic of Gilgamesh

As modern humans we are all familiar with the Quest story. The nature of the quest story is explained succinctly by Michael Foley in his pop-psychology book The Age of Absurdity:

There is a rich and unbroken tradition of quest literature running from The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1000 BCE to The Wizard of Oz in the twentieth century. The scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, has shown how the quest saga has been important in every period and culture and always has the same basic structure, though local details may vary. Each saga begins with a hero receiving a call to adventure which makes him abandon his familiar, safe environment to venture into the dangerous unknown. There, he undergoes a series of tests and trials, negotiates many difficulties and slays many monsters. As a reward he wins a magical prize — a Golden Fleece, a princess, holy water, a sacred flame or an elixir of eternal life. Finally he brings the prize back from the kingdom of dread to redeem his community.

Likewise, the Quest Story has been very popular in children’s fiction.

Wizard of Oz

This narrative hasn’t always been the dominant one; the Quest Story started with The Epic of Gilgamesh. Before that, stories tended to star female characters, because they were about the birth of the world, and in order for things to come into existence, our ancestors believed that a female being was necessary. If you’ve never read The Epic of Gilgamesh, here’s Foley’s summary:

The hero, Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian king, becomes disenchanted with his kingdom and life and departs on a quest, which involves dealing with ferocious lions, scorpion men and a beautiful goddess who attempts to detain him with surprisingly modern temptations: ‘Day and night be frolicsome and gay; let thy clothes be handsome, thy head shampooed, thy body bathed.’ Nevertheless, the hero persists in his quest and, diving to the bottom of a deep sea, plucks the plant of immortality. But the ending has a nasty twist that would have to be changed in any movie version: when Gilgamesh lies down to rest a serpent steals the plant, eats it and attains eternal youth. In mythology the snake is always the villain.

Storytellers such as John Truby argues a case for a departure from these old stories, as have others before him. (See Marjery Hourihan: The Centrality of The Adventure Story) But can we ever really get away from this narrative? Foley says we’re all living the narrative. By ‘abstract seeker’ he’s talking about people who say they ‘want to travel’, but if you were to ask them to where, and for what purpose? they would be hard-pressed to say why — instead, the modern imperative is to be constantly on the move.

Campbell argues that these narratives symbolize an essentially inward journey–the hero breaks free from the conventional thinking of his time, ventures out into the dark of speculative thought, finds the creative power to change himself and wishes to share this with others. The prize won after much uncertainty and danger is knowledge. “The hero is the one who comes to know.” So the narrative has four stages: departure, trial, prize, return; these are the same as the goals of the abstract seeker: detachment, difficulty, understanding, transformation.

The Narrative of the Modern 'Abstract Seeker'

The Narrative of the Modern ‘Abstract Seeker’

 

 

 

Stories Must Start With Character Desire

levels of desire

When starting a story, your main character has to desire something otherwise the story won’t work. Don’t skip this step.

At the most basic level, the MC only wants to escape. The MC has been reduced to ‘the level of an animal’.

At the other extreme you have a high fantasy plot, in which the MC desires to save the entire story world.

Once your character has her desire line, she’ll generally need some allies to help her with her goal. In film, the allies will also function as sounding boards, though this shouldn’t be their only function. Use this ally to define your MC. Never make the ally a more interesting character than the MC. The story should be about your most interesting character.

– notes from John Truby, The Anatomy Of Storytelling

Making Use Of Juxtaposition In Writing

Juxtaposition Of Scenes John Truby

John Truby points out that TV dramas make excellent case studies for working out how to achieve narrative juxtaposition, and offers a case study of ER. I would suggest also Six Feet Under, in which the narrative juxtaposition running throughout the series is, of course, a metaphor for life and death.

Each scene in a juxtaposed TV drama will be variations on a single problem. Each strand/plotline will have an underlying unity.

The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction

The-Storyteller-Mike-Shaheen-1024x604

Advantages of a storyteller:

  • A storyteller can radically change the way you sequence a plot. The storyteller has just as much effect on your depiction of character as the plot itself.
  • The vast majority of popular stories (movies/novels/plays) don’t use a recognizable storyteller but an omniscient narrator. The audience doesn’t see who is telling the story, and we don’t care.
  • A storyteller is someone who recounts a character’s actions, either in the first person or third. If your storyteller is recognizable you are afforded greater complexity and subtlety: You can present both the actions of the MC and commentary on those actions.
  • If you identify the storyteller the audience will ask why they are telling it. And why does this story need a teller. A storyteller calls attention to herself and can distance the audience from the story. That gives the writer the benefit of detachment.
  • This storyteller may not be telling the entire truth. The storyteller blurs/destroys the line between reality and illusion.
  • If the storyteller is identified the audience knows that this is someone’s memory — cue feelings of loss, sadness and ‘might-have’been-ness’. We know that the storyteller will be retelling the story with a touch more wisdom, since a measure of time has elapsed since the ending of the story and the retelling of it.
  • A storyteller can heighten the issue of truth. When a storyteller speaks personally to an audience the storyteller in effect is saying ‘I was there so you can trust me on this’. This is a tacit invitation to the audience not to trust this storyteller, and to explore the issue of truth as the story unfolds.
  • Who’s The Greatest Unreliable Narrator? (From Publishers Weekly)
  • Helps the writer establish an intimate connection between character and audience.
  • Makes characterization more subtle and helps writers distinguish one character from another.
  • Signals a shift from a hero who acts — usually a fighter — to a hero who creates — an artist. The act of storytelling now becomes the main focus, so the path to ‘immortality’ shifts from a hero taking glorious action to a storyteller who tells it.
  • You can leave chronology behind because the actions of the plot are framed by someone’s memories. You can now sequence the action in whatever way makes the most structural sense.
  • This helps string together events and actions that occur over great stretches of time. A storyteller affords greater unity and huge gaps between story events seem to disappear.

DONT’S FOR USING A STORYTELLER

  • Don’t use a storyteller as a simple frame. “I’d like to begin by telling you a story… That’s what happened. It was an amazing story.” This calls attention to the storyteller for no reason and fails to take advantage of the strengths of including a storyteller.
  • The storyteller should not be all-knowing at the beginning. An all-knowing storyteller has no dramatic interest in the present.
  • Don’t end the storytelling frame at the end of the story, but rather about three-quarters of the way in. If you put it right at the end the act of remembering and telling the story can have no dramatic or structural impact on the present. You need to leave some room in the story for the act of recounting the change to the storyteller herself.
  • Don’t promote the fallacy that a character’s death allows the full and true story to be told. It’s overdone for a storyteller to state that the character’s death finally made it possible to tell the truth about her. The deathbed scene and final words often provide ‘the truth’. This is never true in real life and not true in stories either — rather, it’s acting as if you’ll die that creates meaning by motivating you to make choices now. Finding meaning is an ongoing process of living. (A character’s death may give the appearance that the full story can now be told, but the true meaning comes in looking back on events.) A storyteller knows ‘a meaning’ but never ‘the meaning’ of a story.
  • Be wary of too many storytellers. One cost of a storyteller is that she can drain some emotion from a story. The more storytellers you have, the more this will happen. The audience will end up looking at the story from a cold and clinical position.

DO’S FOR USING A STORYTELLER

  • Realize your storyteller is probably your true main character.
  • Introduce the storyteller in a dramatic situation.
  • Find a good trigger to cause her to tell the story.
  • The storyteller should have a great weakness that will be solved by telling the story.
  • Try to find a unique structure for telling the tale instead of simple chronology. (Otherwise the storyteller is just a frame and you don’t need it.)
  • The act of telling the story should lead the storyteller to a self-revelation.
  • Consider having the storyteller explore how the act of telling the story can be immoral or destructive, to herself or others.
  • The act of telling the story should cause a final dramatic event.
  • The deeper theme should be concerned with the truth and beauty of creativity, not heroic action. The storytelling itself is the greatest accomplishment, not the action which has been recounted.

Notes from John Truby, the Anatomy of Story

 

ADDITIONAL TERMINOLOGY

Autodiegetic — An autodiegetic character is also the character in his/her own story, telling the story from ‘within the story universe’.

Heterodiegetic — A heterodiegetic narrator does not take part in the story.

Homodiegetic — A homodiegetic narrator takes part in the story.

Extradiegetic –An extradiegetic narrator is one who narrates a story from outside the fictional universe of a particular text.  This narrator communicates the primary narrative to an audience equally removed from the storyworld; this audience, then, is the extradiegetic narratee.  Extradiegetic narrators may be characters in their narratives, but at the moment of narration they are operating from without its storyworld.   This may happen when a character-narrator tells the story some years after the event, from another fictional level. (After some insight has been gained.) Think of this term as: ‘Out-of-universe’.

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