The Gingerbread Man Story Structure

The Gingerbread Man Little Golden Book

Yesterday I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Now for some mentor texts to help kids learn how it works. Picture books are perfect for this purpose, no matter the age of the student because they are brief. In ten minutes you get an excellent overview of a complete and satisfying story. As my first example this month I’ll use The Gingerbread Man, because almost everyone has access to this folktale in one form or another.

For comparison you might take Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man, which I have already analysed in detail. Donaldson is a master at remixing old stories into rhyming texts for a contemporary audience. Stick Man is a remix of The Gingerbread Man. Continue reading “The Gingerbread Man Story Structure”

Story Structure: Self-Revelation

The concept of self-revelation links to a long human history of religious morality. Not surprisingly, storytelling is influenced  by this way of viewing humanity, even in a non-religious modern story. The term ‘revelation’ is similar to the 2016 word ‘woke‘ — while it has its origin in religion, the concept is far wider than that.

THE RELIGIOUS ORIGIN OF REVELATION

Religious thought from around the world has shaped our storytelling. The story which includes a self-revelation is therefore a universal story.

“Millions of people never analyze themselves. Mentally they are mechanical products of the factory of their environment, preoccupied with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, working and sleeping, and going here and there to be entertained. They don’t know what or why they are seeking, nor why they never realize complete happiness and lasting satisfaction. By evading self-analysis, people go on being robots, conditioned by their environment. True self-analysis is the greatest art of progress.”

Paramahansa Yogananda (Indian guru and yogi)
Americans and Christians in particular will be familiar with The Redemption Story, which has its own specific story structure. This story structure has now spread across the globe and we are all familiar with it.
In movies, self-revelations are often shot on a hill, or in some other high place like the top floor of a building.
Contact features Jodi Foster sitting in an elevated spot in the desert at the end of the movie — she now has a much better view on the world and its place in the universe.
For more on this, see The Symbolism of Altitude.
It all comes from Moses On The Mount, of course. Or maybe the Bible stories are based on much, much older storytelling conventions. Maybe there’s something about being up high which allows humans to see things differently.

SELF-REVELATION EXISTS ON A CONTINUUM

Just as there are strong desires and low-level desires, sometimes a character has a Eureka Moment (that’s what TV Tropes calls it), and at other times they realise something, sort of, in a nebulous kind of way.
Genre stories tend to have a stronger self-revelation (or revelation) than more literary stories, which can get away with revelations far more subtle.
In some stories, the character has no revelation but the reader does, on their behalf.

SELF-REVELATION IN MYTH

In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or born again.

Associated with the Sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. According to some sources, the phoenix dies in a show of flames and combustion, although there are other sources that claim that the legendary bird dies and simply decomposes before being born again.

— Wikipedia

At the beginning of 2018, Uma Thurman opened up to the media about her experiences with Weinstein and Tarantino. Following in from this, Jessica Chastain said the following in a series of tweets:
I keep imagining Tarantino spitting in Uma’s face and strangling her with a chain for KILL BILL. How many images of women in media do we celebrate that showcase abuse? When did this become normalized ‘entertainment’? When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are.
Chastain’s phrase ‘phoenix moment’ is a useful one. I consider this a subcategory of the self-revelation phase in storytelling, and one which is highly problematic when used time and again with certain groups of people. It’s not the phoenix moment itself which is the problem, but the sequence of abuse scenes leading up to that moment.

SELF-REVELATION IN OTHER FORMS OF STORYTELLING

Continue reading “Story Structure: Self-Revelation”

Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey 1941

Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey is an American classic which serves as an excellent example of unreliable narration in picture books.

Make Way For Ducklings

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION IN MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS

LIFELIKE DUCKS

McCloskey’s devotion to mimesis reminds me of the lengths the Hayao Miyazaki studio goes to when animating naturalistic movements. Continue reading “Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey 1941”

Problems With The Redemption Story

redemption
The Redemption Story has a structure of its own. Specifically American in origin, the redemption plot is now seen across the globe. This is a story common to fiction and non-fiction alike.

[R]edemption in particular is a popular, and particularly American, narrative. “Evolving from the Puritans to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Oprah Winfrey… Americans have sought to author their lives as redemptive tales of atonement, emancipation, recovery, self-fulfillment, and upward social mobility,” McAdams writes in an overview of life story research. “The stories speak of heroic individual protagonists—the chosen people—whose manifest destiny is to make a positive difference in a dangerous world, even when the world does not wish to be redeemed.”

The Bible might be sold as a short story collection subtitled ‘Stories of Redemption’. Inside we have standout examples such as:

  • The Story of Noah
  • Abraham and Isaac
  • Ruth
  • Potter
  • Lost Sheep
  • The Prodigal Son
  • Saul of Tarsus

Jonah Lehrer (or was it?) writes that the Redemption Story is very powerful in American politics, also:

  • Ben Franklin went from being a fugitive teen in Philadelphia to the founder of a nation
  • President George W. Bush was “born again” after years of drinking and troublemaking
  • John McCain was a prisoner of war

It applies to some of the best-loved American celebrities:

  • Lehrer also mentions Oprah Winfrey, who had a troubled childhood
  • Drew Barrymore was a child star who came through addiction
  • Nicki Minaj grew up in a violent home in Queens

The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

The opposite of a ‘redemption story’ is known as a ‘contamination story’. Contamination stories end on a tragic note.

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.

PROBLEMS WITH THE REDEMPTION STORY

Barbara Ehrenreich criticises this mindset throughout her book Smile Or Die.

It can be hard to share a story when it amounts to: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” In research McLean did, in which she asked people who’d had near-death experiences to tell their stories to others. “The people who told these unresolved stories had really negative responses,” she says. If there wasn’t some kind of uplifting, redemptive end to the story (beyond just the fact that they survived), “The listeners did not like that.”

Captain Awkward reserves special hatred for the redemption story, because the narrative has a far-reaching impact on real people. In this post, she explains Why We Don’t Diagnose People Through The Internet. At first glance this doesn’t seem to be related to The Redemption Story, but filling in the gaps, armchair diagnoses are terrible for a number of reasons. One of those reasons: It shifts focus from the victim back onto the abuser. If we assign a reason for an abuser’s abuse, that allows us to make another tiny little leap onto a redemption arc for that person.

We are addicted to redemption narratives.

We are especially addicted to stories where mean bad boys are reformed by the love and loyalty of a good lady who sees through their abuse to their true naked vulnerable heart and works really hard singlehandedly to keep the relationship going. Industries upon industries rise and fall on that one. But we like all kinds of redemption narratives and we like them a lot more than we like inconvenient ones where we have to think about victims, harm, or reparations.

— Captain Awkward

THE TYPICAL STRUCTURE OF A REDEMPTION STORY

Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University, wrote a book called George W. Bush and the redemptive dream: A psychological portrait. New York: Oxford University Press. McAdams specialises in the psychology of redemption. He also wrote The Art and Science of Personality Development, which includes a chapter called “Generative Lives, Redemptive Life Stories”.  

Whether fiction or non-fiction, McAdams explains what a redemption story looks like:

  1. EARLY ADVANTAGE  —  the protagonist becomes aware of their special blessings; they feel marked from the start
  2. SENSITIVITY TO SUFFERING — the protagonist describes how they noticed the unfairness of the world
  3. MORAL STEADFASTNESS — the protagonist lives their life guided by a strong sense of right and wrong
  4. REDEMPTION SEQUENCES — moments in which a significant mistake or hardship – addiction, divorce, unemployment, etc. – becomes a means to absolution and grace, or what McAdams describes as the “deliverance from suffering to an enhanced status or state”
  5. EDUCATION PROVIDED BY THE HARD TIMES — the protagonist commits to “prosocial goals” and tries to “improve the lives of other people”

Here’s a Christian way of putting it. I’ve annotated with common writing terminology:

The Bible portrays the behavior of mankind cyclically. [CIRCULAR PLOT SHAPE] From a high point of alignment with God’s character and will, man’s conduct deteriorates and sin increases. [PSYCHOLOGICAL AND MORAL WEAKNESS] Sin’s natural fruit is confusion, pain and suffering,[MAKE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER SUFFER HARD] and these grow as individuals and societies move farther from their Creator. As sin increases, harm increases. Eventually the pain reaches a point where people yearn for salvation. [BATTLE] God raises up a man or woman, a deliverer, to lead the people back to Him; to help them realign with His will. [SELF REVELATION] Through this deliverer, the Lord brings people back to Him. [NEW EQUILIBRIUM] This is the Cycle of Redemption.

M.D. Harris

Let’s see how the structure of a redemption story lines up with the basic narrative structure suggested by storytelling experts.

  1. WEAKNESS/NEED — in fiction, protagonists need something wrong with them at the beginning. The hero of a redemption story is more like a superhero in that they have special powers which cannot be realised due to external factors. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with them, personally.
  2. DESIRE — the hero in a redemption story starts to desire a different world because they have noticed injustice all around them.
  3. OPPONENT — the opponent is the society
  4. PROBLEM — mistakes and hardships — addiction, divorce, unemployment, etc.
  5. BATTLE — I’m guessing that’s described, too. How hard it was to overcome such hardships.
  6. SELF-REVELATION — corresponds directly to the redemption sequences
  7. NEW EQUILIBRIUM — ‘the protagonist commits to prosocial goals’

BELIEVE IN YOURSELF

One of the main messages to come out of America is: ‘Believe in yourself and you can do anything you set your mind to’. Many American children’s books express that message in the subtext.

Why are such stories so popular? Lehrer speculates that these redemption narratives ‘better prepare us for the “hard work and daunting challenges” of the well-lived life’.

To care for someone, or to agitate for social change, or to try to make a positive difference in the world, is to commit to a long struggle, a marathon in which success is mingled with failure and triumph is mixed up with disappointment. In order to not give up, it helps to have a life story in which pain is merely a precursor to wisdom, and every struggle an opportunity for growth.

EXPORTING THE DREAM

The Redemption Story can no longer be described specifically American. Dan Hade goes into the extent to which American stories have spread across the globe. The USA has been exporting its stories for several generations now, and it seems the most popular story worldwide resembles some version of the redemption story.

Harry Potter is a British example. In  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Harry feels unworthy of the House of Gryffindor. By the end of the story, Harry has all the proof he needs that he truly belongs in Gryffindor. Ron and Neville also learn to believe in themselves.

2017 update: Is it any wonder so many Hollywood movies are about terrible men seeking redemption? We’re continuing to see them, by the way. Maybe the post 2017 era will see fewer of them. One of the most egregious examples of 2017 is Godless. See this review for more on that, and save yourself the trouble of suffering through it.

THE OPPOSITE OF A REDEMPTION STORY

It’s worth pointing out that America has also produced some tentpole anti-redemption stories, probably in reaction to the popularity of its inverse.

  • Deliverance is one example, a film based on a novel by James Dickey.
  • Hud is another, written by Larry McMurtry. McMurtry’s general outlook on life is a pessimistic one — Lonesome Dove (which he wrote later) is often described as a great Western when it is in fact a typical anti-Western.
  • Perhaps the inverse of a redemption story is a revenge story, in which case True Grit is a good example.

Notice that in all four examples above, a main character ends with a missing limb.

What Is Meant By ‘Mythic Structure’?

Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.
— Unknown

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.

Raison D’être

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?

Marcus Sakey, Publishers Weekly

THE INFLUENCE OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY

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.

– – Written for Children by John Rowe Townsend

For more on this see The Three Main Types Of Modern Mythic Structure, in which I have added an extra.

Pilgram's Progress

EXAMPLES OF STRONGLY MYTHIC  MODERN FILMS

  • Lord of the Rings
  • Superman/Spiderman/Batman etc – comic book stories are modern myth forms.
  • Close Encounters
  • Crocodile Dundee
  • Dances With Wolves
  • The Lion King
  • Groundhog Day
  • 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.
  • Casablanca
  • The African Queen – classic example of river as setting in a mythic story, along with Heart of Darkness
  • La Strada
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Piano – myth blended with romance
  • Bringing Up Baby
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands
  • Annie Hall
  • 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.

 

Continue reading “What Is Meant By ‘Mythic Structure’?”

Home Away Home Story Structure

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:

  1. Anticipation Stage and “Fall” into the Other World
  2. Initial Fascination or Dream Stage
  3. Frustration Stage
  4. Nightmare Stage
  5. 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

home away home the hobbit
‘There and back again’ is the subtitle of The Hobbit, and also the central pattern of movement in many children’s stories.

 

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:

  1. A young creature/animal/object with human characteristics enjoys the security of a comfortable home until something happens to make it unhappy. 
  2. The small creature leaves home and has exciting adventures. 
  3. But the adventures turn out to be dangerous or as discomforting as they are thrilling.
  4. 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)

Continue reading “Home Away Home Story Structure”