Narratology takes a close look at the following aspects of narration in storytelling:
Who speaks (narrative voice)
Who sees (focalisation)
Who is seen
Even if you’re a writer, and not an academic, it may be worth taking a glance at narratology. If you’re anything like me, you’ve paused before writing a first draft to wonder what point of view will best fit the story. Most of the decision is intuitive, sometimes it’s based on convention (third person for MG, first person for YA) and sometimes — unfortunately — you’ll write an entire novel in first person then realise you need to rewrite it in third.
Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.
I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually […] I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see […] and one should know as much of it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.
— Paul Bowles, American expatriate composer, author, and translator
Myth can be considered a genre. It is the oldest genre and to this day is the most popular.
Myth is not a part of every story. Even Joseph Campbell himself said that there was no mythic structure to be found in 25% of stories.
Mythic form is enjoyed by audiences across cultures.
Myths are born of the sticky dark. That’s why the truest have survived thousands of years. They present fictional answers to primal questions: Why do tragic things happen? Which is stronger, love or death? What if death is just the beginning?
Originally, the Greeks invented myths which are now the foundation of Western thought. Even back then these were considered allegorical and metaphorical. In Greek myths, there were always at least two levels of beings: Gods and humans. The gods represented the aspect of man which was able to gain enlightenment/excellence. The gods did not necessarily rule the humans.
Consider the Greek gods ‘psychological models’ which represent character traits.
THE SYMBOLISM OF MYTH
Myths use a clearly prescribed set of symbolic objects. Original audiences always knew that these objects stood for something else. These objects also represent something within the hero. Even today, audiences will recognise these:
Journey = life path
Tree = tree of life
Underground = unexplored region of the self
and so on.
Take The Pilgrim’s Progress as a fairly modern story making use of mythic symbols:
Although The Pilgram’s Progress is allegorical, it is impossible even for an adult to read about Christian’s journey to the Celestial City in any other way than as a story. The passages through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation, the fight with the monster Apollyon, the loss of Christian’s comrade Faithful in Vanity Fair, the crossing of the River of Death: these are actual and vivid events, as real in their own way as the mass of detail with which Defoe built up Robinson Crusoe. It may be noted that the themes of all these three books — the dangerous journey, as in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the desert island, as in Robinson Crusoe: and the miniature or other imaginary world, as in Gulliver — have served for innumerable later books, both children’s and adult, and are by no means worn out.
Superman/Spiderman/Batman etc – comic book stories are modern myth forms.
Dances With Wolves
The Lion King
Avatar – science fiction stories often use the myth form, not only because myth is about the journey but also because myth is the story form that explores the most fundamental human distinctions (human/robot etc.)
Thelma and Louise – a female buddy movie. Buddy movies tend to make use of mythic structure.
The African Queen – classic example of river as setting in a mythic story, along with Heart of Darkness
Beauty and the Beast
The Piano – myth blended with romance
Bringing Up Baby
Singin’ in the Rain
Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands
Sleepless in Seattle
True Grit – basically a crime story, blended with mythic structure
Harry Potter – mixture of myth, fairytale and coming-of-age in a school story. Typically for heroes of myth stories, Harry is a foundling, abandoned by his parents and brought up by horrible people.
Le Week-end – a film written by Hanif Kureishi in which the journey takes the form of a romantic weekend away with the purpose of rekindling a failing marriage
Locke – a road trip with one on-screen character played by Tom Hardy. Extraordinarily well scripted, we really only see Tom Hardy sitting in his car. The opponents he meets on his journey come only in form of voices through his car phone. By the end of the journey he is in a different place both physically and spiritually.
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore – an indie-film which provides an excellent example of modern use of mythic symbolism such as the labyrinth and the river. The backdrop is American suburbia. The main hero is a woman, though she is joined by a man. Interesting for its gender inversions.
Wildlike – a 14 year old girl is sent to stay with her uncle in Alaska one summer as her mother is receiving treatment for an illness. She is soon faced with the task of running away from the uncle and making her way back to Seattle. She meets various helpers and opponents along the way, and contributes to a grieving man’s character arc as he grieves for his own wife’s recent death.
Jolene – a 2008 film based on a story by E.L. Doctorow. A young orphan marries but in a Cinderella-like tragedy things don’t go well and she ends up on the road, meeting all sorts of people along the way, mostly horrible.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople — a New Zealand comedy drama about the relationship between a cranky man and a boy, who go bush, pursued by the police for suspected child abuse.
Then there are computer games, such as Halo and Red Dead Redemption.
The success of a novel is only five percent about the structure and ninety-five percent about the quality of the writing.
— Elizabeth Lyons, Manuscript Makeover
(While this post started off with a focus on children’s literature, it is absolutely a post about all kinds of narrative, for any human audience.)
THE LINEAR STORY
The linear story tracks a single main character from beginning to end.
It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
The linear story is a traditionally Western story.
Linear Plots In Adult Film
Most Hollywood films are linear. They focus on a single hero who pursues a particular desire with great intensity. The audience witnesses the history of how the hero goes after his desire and is changed as a result.
Linear Plots In Children’s Stories
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 adventure 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. [Also to myth.] 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
*Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
The Epic Of Gilgamesh (the oldest known adventure story — 3rd millennium BC)
Tom Sawyer (‘master text’ for adventure story as the Narnia Chronicles are for fantasy), but is itself an off-shoot of The Odyssey
The legend of Saint George and the dragon
The Greek tale of Perseus
Robinson Crusoe (compared to Odyssean stories, the Robinsonnade keeps the characters in one place in order to focus on character development.)
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.
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 home away home story structure is common in all stories worldwide, and is especially popular in stories for children. Developmentally, children are leaving to leave the house in preparation for leaving for good.
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
— Terry Pratchett
If you’re familiar with Christopher Booker’s 7 Basic Plots theory, the Home-Away-Home story corresponds neatly with his Voyage and Return category. According to Booker, this story structure comprises 5 main sequences:
Anticipation Stage and “Fall” into the Other World
Initial Fascination or Dream Stage
Thrilling Escape and Return
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a fan of John Truby’s seven step plot structure — mainly because it’s easy to remember and actually universal. The frustration stage maps onto the Opponent, the Nightmare Stage maps onto the battle, the Thrilling Escape maps onto the very end of the Battle sequence. Escape and Return maps onto New Equilibrium.
[T]he form of innocence described in many texts is one that suits adult needs. For instance, the small creatures in many generic stories leave home to achieve freedom, and then learn the wisdom of not doing so. Although they claim to be happy about their discovery that they are not capable of fending for themselves, their joyful acceptance of constraint seems to be wish-fulfillment on the part of adult writers who would prefer that children didn’t in fact wish for more independence.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman
THREE PATTERNS FOR THE DESCRIPTION OF HOME IN CHILDREN’S FICTION
As categorised by Lucy Waddey:
1. The Odyssean pattern: home is an anchor and a refuge, a place to return to after trials and adventures in the wild world. Home corresponds to Arcadia. This is the ‘here and back again’ pattern discussed below.
2. The Oedipal pattern: found in domestic stories (Little Women, Little House etc)
3. The Promethean pattern: there is no home at the beginning of the story but the protagonist creates one as part of his/her maturation (The Secret Garden)
But these categories are not mutually exclusive. The Wind In The Willows would be a mixture between all three patterns.
Nodelman and Reimer call such picture books ‘no-name stories’, because they are so generic. Here’s what the following books have in common:
A young creature/animal/object with human characteristics enjoys the security of a comfortable home until something happens to make it unhappy.
The small creature leaves home and has exciting adventures.
But the adventures turn out to be dangerous or as discomforting as they are thrilling.
Having learned the truth about the big world, the creature finally returns to the security it at first found burdensome, concluding that, despite is constraints, home is best.
(The following are notes from the same book, with a few of my own examples.)
The Little Bus Who Liked Home Best by Lucy Prince Scheidlinger (1955)
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.