Friday, December 2, 2011

Why is Classic Story Structure So Universal?

During a recent SVA senior portfolio class that I teach with Klaus Janson, I reviewed the basics of classic story structure.
The students were interested in why classic story structure seems to be so universally appealing.

Here's what I mean by classic story structure -
- A protagonist (or a group of protagonists) encounters a catalytic problem that disturbs their status quo.
- That catalyst propels him/her actively into an escalating series of events/conflicts.
- The events reach a climax and then a resolution
- The protagonist is changed by his/her experience and a new status quo is established.

In most cases, the protagonist is a character the reader can identify with on some level, helping the reader vicariously share the aspirations, dangers and adventures that the character experiences.

There are many works of fiction that don't follow this basic arc - there are character sketches, mood pieces, minimalist and anti-structure tales. However, the vast majority of classic tales that have stood the test of time, as well as the most popular counterparty works of fiction, generally follow this basic arc.

So, why is this classic story arc so consistent throughout history, across cultures, genres and media?

What is it about this arc that is so attractive to us?
Here's a possible answer from John G. Cawelti's book, "Adventure, Mystery, and Romance":
"...formulas are ways in which specific cultural themes and stereotypes become embodied in more universal archetypes.

Certain story archetypes particularly fulfill a man's needs for enjoyment and escape.

But in order for these patterns to work, they must be embodied in figures, settings, and situations that have appropriate meanings for the culture which produces them."

Cawelti quoting Harry Berger:
"Man has two primal needs. First is the need for order, peace, and security, for protection against terror or confusion in life, for a familiar and predictable world, and for a life which is happily more of the same...But the second primal impulse is the contrary to the first: man positively needs anxiety and uncertainty, thrives on...risk, wants trouble, tension, jeopardy, novelty, mystery, would be lost without enemies, is sometimes happiest when the most miserable. Human spontaneity is eaten away by sameness: man is the animal most expert at being bored.

The audience's need for both familiarity and novelty are met by giving them classic genre model stories that include unique twists on characters, plot elements, themes and so on."

In other words, as a writer, "Give them what they expect, but not in the way they expect it."
(I've been using this phrase for many years but I'm not sure of the original source of the quote (or paraphrased wisdom). If you have that info, please let me know.

The aesthetics of the times also play a big hand in how a work of fiction is structured. Much of beginning of Victor Hugo's extremely long novel Les Misérables is spent describing the life and character of the kindly Bishop Myriel. The Bishop's part in the story is to be nice to the protagonist Jean Valjean - when Valjean is finally introduced - and inspire Valjean to lead a righteous life.

The aesthetics of contemporary writers, editors and audiences would probably dictate that the huge number of pages establishing Bishop Myriel's history and character are not needed and should be cut. I'm trying to remember if the Bishop even seen in any of the more contemporary screen or stage versions of the novel. I don't think he is.

Even with such differences in aesthetic tastes and judgments over the years, if you boil down most classic tales to their most basic arc, they will look much like the arc outlined in the 3rd paragraph of this blog entry.

Within the familiar classic story arc are an almost infinite number of ways to generate tension, jeopardy, novelty, mystery, etc. thus pleasing our contradictory needs for structure and novelty. Classic structure is the most gratifying to the largest audience - and therefore the most popular type of fiction structure.

Your thoughts?


G. Kendall said...

A similar conversation is going on at Chuck Dixon's message board. He seems to dismiss traditional storytelling "rules" as arbitrary guidelines laid down by the lazy and uncreative. I thought this was interesting:

"The Heroe's Journey. Phah.

I've yet to meet anyone who preached that Joseph Campbell stuff that wasn't a deadline blowing, imagination-challenged fraud.

I was in a true clutch situation once, a poop-or-go-blind, career make of break moment with a writer who lived, breathed, ate and drank the whole Campbell crapolla. They never missed a moment to lecture on it or to point out that I strayed from this classic storytelling technique of the ages that was hardwired into all of our brains and to tap into it was to delight and amaze your audience.

Nonsense, taddle and double twaddle.

When the rubber met the road and this person's story needed a complete overhaul and I was assigned to help them through it, this sage of all formulas broke down crying. I'm talking real tears. They confessed that they had no idea how to plot. I told them to go away and did the re-write myself in twenty minutes.

This Heroes Journey stuff is an intellectual dead end. So is the three act formula. So is any other method or crutch or magic bean that hacks write about to other hacks in magazines about writing.

You just make stuff up. If it makes logical sense at the end of what you've written and you made your reader think or laugh or or guess what's coming next or check to make sure the doors and windows are locked then it's a plot and you did your job.

I am at the bottom of the fiction writing food chain. I write comics. If I want job security I have to create it. They don't pay me a lot to write. They pay me to write A LOT. I'm like Manny at the Carpet Mart. It's VOLUME!

But I don't hack. I don't say, "that's good enough" I seat over this stuff. And if I make it look easy and I make myself an invisible hand then I can walk into my house justified. But I wrestle with it EVERY day. You lay awake all night trying to think of a new way to get Snake Eyes emotions across without words or facial expressions or think of a new way for Homer Simpson to get fired ALONG with the trick that get's him re-hired. You think Schulz spent a week writing the annual "Lucy pulls the football away" Sunday? Trust me, he spent a YEAR on each one.

So every time some jacked-up newbie editor or coked-up producer who has his job 'cause Daddy used to head a studio tells me my story needs a beginning, middle and end because George Lucas cribbed the plot of Star Wars from Joseph Campbell (along with three dozen other sources including his neighbor's grocery list and the last half of an episode of Gilligan's Island) and he thinks he understands the concept because he's SEEN Star Wars, I want to throw it all in and open a laundromat. And not in a college town where I might hear about Joseph Campbell ever again.

That's why so many movies ARE Star Wars. The only thing they change is when the Obi Wan character dies. They just re-name the characters and change the setting.

And writers of fantasy love this crap. I once related to someone on this board the actual plot ot almost every fantasy epic:

Some people talked about some other people.

They walked a lot.

There was a fight that didn't really change anything.

They walked some more.

They talked about all the walking they did.

Someone made a prediction that something exciting was going to happen.

But not in this book.

Maybe the next one.

Or the one after that.

Or maybe not. "

Carl Potts said...

I've had the pleasure of working with Chuck on and off for a long time. He has a strong sense of classic plot structure.

In his stories he consistently introduces his characters, the status quo and the conflict(s). He escalates the action/stakes, has a climax and strong resolution while maintaining internal story logic.

The structural elements some writers employ primarily through instinct, others intellectualize.

I don't want to speak for Chuck but my impression is that he is reacting primarily to some of the very detailed plot point structures that some books on film writing insist must be strictly adhered to in order to produce a successful script.

As with just about any concept, you can take things too far with story structure. A basic classic story arc is at the heart of most stories - whether the writer got there through instinct or though intellectualization.

Some of the books claim you MUST have X, Y and Z happen on or by a certain page. Being a slave to that sort of structure can make for mechanical and uninspired writing.

For me, the best of both worlds is to write a brief story outline* and then write the first draft of the script from the gut. I then match that draft up against a brief classic story structure paradigm. Wherever my draft departs from the classic arc, I ask myself if my story will be better if I alter the story to adherer more closely to the classic paradigm, or if I've generated something different that serves the story better.

* Why starting with an outline that includes a conclusion will be the subject of a future blog post.

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Jean Prouvaire said...

Given the importance of the Bishop to Valjean's character development in Les Miserables, it's not surprising that most adaptations, including the musical, have included the character. See:

On the other hand, we certainly don't get the stage or screen equivalent of the novel's 70 pages of Bishop backstory, so the observation about contemporary aesthetics certainly applies.